April 11, 2012

Finally, a Growth Industry

It took a couple of economics classes in college, wherein I learned about how economic impacts of certain activities are measured. Ideally, simply creating a job isn’t enough. You want to create a job with some kind of multiplier, implying that it will lead to the creation of other jobs in related sectors. I’m pleased to see that, as long as we’re going to make an industry out of locking up more people than any other nation on the planet, there is at least some ancillary job creation going on as a result.

Saturday’s New York Times had an article about the booming industry of prison consultants:
The business — which entails advising people who are facing jail time on how to prepare for life on the inside, deal with medical issues, transfer to other prisons and even reduce their sentences — has been around for decades. It enjoys a burst of publicity when a boldface name like Bernie Madoff or Michael Vick hires a consultant.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a job you can get with a fancy degree. The only experience that matters is hard earned (although others, such as former prison guards and lawyers are in the field as well), but nobody knows just how much is enough to make someone an expert. The article talks about Larry Levine, a prison consultant who spent 10 years in (federal, apparently) prison and who laments the qualifications of new folks entering the market:
‘This industry’s exploding,’ mourned Mr. Levine, who operates two Web sites, American Prison Consultants and Wall Street Prison Consultants. He reached to a nearby coffee table and picked up a piece of paper listing the names of several dozen competitors and the length of their prison sentences. This is not a rap sheet, it’s market research.

The business, he said, is ‘becoming saturated with people who don’t know what they’re doing.’

He and his competitors (some of whom find his prison time equally unimpressive) walk a fine marketing line, bragging about an extensive criminal record to attract customers.
Another consulted explains how Levine is “like a used-car salesman” and that he “wouldn’t share a chow table” with Levine. Needless to say, there aren’t any regulations for this sort of thing, nor does there appear to be any professional organizations setting up standards that people can use to judge which consultant to hire, if any.

After all, do these guys really provide a valuable service? Maybe. The article asserts that people can find the relevant information themselves, but doesn’t offer any examples (or any expert to back that up). It does raise a good point, however:
‘You think a warden is going to change a decision based on advice from a former resident? That is just not going to happen,’ said Joel Sickler, who runs Justice Advocacy Group and has been a prison consultant for 30 years and, before that, a prison guard. He said his unblemished past would go over better with prison officials when he’s trying to petition for, say, a client transfer.

The ex-convicts in the business see things differently, arguing that relevant experience matters.
I can see both sides of that. Sickler is almost certainly right, but sort of dodges the question. Surely the role of folks like Levine isn’t to deal directly with the warden or other prison staff, but to provide his clients with the information needed to do it themselves. It also seems that what might be most worth knowing when going to prison is how things really work and how inmate life really operates, rather than the official rules and regulations that are honored more often in the breach than every day. Given that, a former inmate is could be a valuable source of expertise.

What’s really striking is that we’ve come to this as a nation. Incarceration shouldn’t be a business, but that’s what it is becoming more and more, from prison consultants to private companies running prisons (and seeking guarantees of occupancy). We, as a citizenry, should be righteously pissed off of this kind of stuff. That we’re not doesn’t speak well of us.

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