“Business is very good. Because crime is crazy and
there are lots of inmates. We are happy, the number [of customers] is increasing every day.”
Ahmad Afzal, director of Fine Cotton Textiles, a uniform manufacturer
As the prison population soared in the 1970s and 1980s due largely to racist fear-mongering, equipment and supplies corporations that had previously served other institutional settings, such as hospitals and schools, saw an opportunity. Appealing to the burgeoning correctional market, these corporations began manufacturing products specifically designed for punitive settings, like triple-stacked bunks that allow correctional administrators to pack people in small cells and shackle restraints for people experiencing mental health crises. When population growth began to strain correctional budgets, manufacturers and suppliers of even basic consumer goods entered the market, producing cheap knockoff supplies that barely served their intended use.
At the same time, defense contractors and arms manufacturers were expanding into the correctional market through the sale of so-called “less lethal weapons.” The demand for these weapons surged after the 1972 Attica Prison Uprising, when incarcerated men took control of Attica Correctional Facility in New York to demand better living conditions and an end to racial assaults, common at the prison. State officials responded with militarized violence, killing 39 people. Ultimately, rather than addressing or even acknowledging the injustices raised by organizers, correctional administrators concluded that the uprising was a result of a lack of security equipment. State officials immediately allocated $4 million in emergency funds — then equal to 5 percent of the state’s correctional budget — to the purchase of “the latest things in mob control.” Other states quickly followed suit, and military-style weapons became commonplace behind bars.
As technology evolved over the years, corporations also started to sell security technology like electronic locks and surveillance systems. Although these products were traditionally sold by specialized correctional manufacturers, mega consumer brands have also expanded into the correctional market through technology like facial recognition software.
How Much Money is at Stake?
The ubiquity of fear and prioritization of security above all else in prisons and jails has led correctional administrators to spend excessively on equipment. Together, law enforcement and correctional agencies spend $1.2 billion annually on security equipment and technology alone. That figure is expected to grow with the cost of new technology. Correctional agencies spend as much as 10 percent of their annual budget on equipment with the largest expenditures coming from one-time purchases of costly items like surveillance systems. When short, they find other funding sources.
In many jurisdictions, they supplement their equipment and supplies budgets with money extracted from incarcerated people and their families through commissary sales and phone calls. These funds are, in some cases, placed in so-called “inmate welfare funds,” intended to support educational programs, reentry services, and improvements to quality of life for people behind bars. But instead, correctional administrators often use them to purchase routine equipment for corrections officers, including weapons.
For instance, California penal code requires that “inmate welfare funds” be used “primarily for the benefit, education, and welfare” of jailed people. However, between 2011 and 2013, the Los Angeles Police Department used 87 percent of the money in its “inmate welfare fund,” or $1.3 million, for capital improvements, equipment for the medical dispensary, security camera monitoring, the repainting and upkeep of jail facilities, and finally, televisions for entertainment.
While officials quickly allocate money for their own equipment, supplies for incarcerated people remain under-resourced. Still, the sheer size of the incarcerated population drives even those sales. But in the end, the true size of the correctional equipment and supplies market is unknown.
What Corporations Are Involved?
The steady demand for correctional equipment and supplies has created a highly fragmented ecosystem of manufacturers and suppliers from “mom and pop” operations to multinational conglomerates. Over 1,300 corporations sell correctional equipment and supplies, making it the largest sector in the prison industry. Though there are a handful of corporations that sell a variety of products, most corporations in the space specialize in a single type of equipment or supplies, whether it be furnishing, hardware, technology, weaponry, or a consumer good.
In recent years, some of these niche areas have gone through a process of consolidation as more established players acquire smaller competitors. For instance, Cornerstone Detention, a large correctional equipment corporation that manufacturers and installs correctional furnishing and hardware, has acquired ten equipment manufacturers in the past decade. Other major players in furnishing and hardware include Stanley Black & Decker, Assa Abloy, Kane Innovations, Southern Folger, Accurate Controls, and Norix.
The largest supplier of correctional equipment and supplies is The Bob Barker Company, a family-run business that sells over 5,000 different products for correctional facilities and collects an estimated $87 million in revenue annually. Founded in 1972 as a restaurant supply company, Bob Barker entered the correctional market by selling kitchen equipment before expanding to sell uniforms and mattresses. The corporation cemented its dominance in the industry by merging in 2006 with Leslee Scott, another manufacturer in the space. Today, Bob Barker sells nearly every type of equipment and supplies that could be used behind bars, from weaponry to individual shampoo packets.
Investors have also emerged to provide financing to equipment manufacturers and suppliers seeking to expand into the correctional market. These financiers require new entrants to maintain a gross profit margin of 15 encouraging aggressive pricing and cost cutting.
Top Market Players Annual Prison Revenue Employees Products
Stanley Black & Decker Corrections Security $87M 180 Hardware, electronic systems, locks
The Bob Barker Company $60M 180 Furniture, uniforms, security equipment, hygiene products
Cornerstone Detention Products $41M 163 Reinforced windows, doors cells, Hardware, electronics,
Southern Folger $33M 125 Security barriers, furniture
Furnishing and Hardware
Equipment corporations that manufacture and supply furnishing and hardware have created a niche market in the correctional space by playing on trumped-up safety and security concerns to sell specially-designed, costly-augmented products that facilitate the dehumanization and abuse of people behind bars. By degrading incarcerated people, furnishing and hardware manufacturers and suppliers encourage facilities to use more extreme methods of confinement.
Examples of their products include: “Therapeutic modules,” or human pens, used to cage people during programs. Benches with loops designed for handcuffs typical in booking areas. Stackable, plastic, sleeping platforms intended for temporary use in overcrowded facilities. Basic plastic storage containers assigned individually to store and move property. Hinged slots used to pass through food for individuals in solitary confinement.
While equipment corporations invest in reinforced furnishing and hardware for facilities to justify higher pricing, those that manufacture supplies distributed to incarcerated people cut corners. These cheap, knockoff consumer products claim to protect facility security but create serious health risks, putting incarcerated people in danger.
For instance, Bob Barker emphasizes both contraband-prevention and cost-efficiency in selling its Maximum Security® & Clear All-in-One Shaving Cream, Soap, and Shampoo, which is merely unscented soap repackaged in a clear bottle.
However, the company takes cost cutting a step further by replacing typical soap ingredients with dangerous preservatives not found in free world consumer brands that irritate skin and may even cause birth defects. Unbelievably, the corporation’s own safety warning advises people to avoid skin contact with the soap. Yet, at just $0.14 per ounce — compared to $0.32 per ounce for name-brand products like Suave— it remains attractive for correctional agencies. As a result, to protect their health, incarcerated people are forced to purchase their own soap at commissary.
“Areas of the body that have or are only even suspected of having come in contact with the product should be rinsed immediately with plenty of running water and possibly soap.“
Correctional equipment corporations enable and encourage some of the most brutal practices behind bars. They provide correctional administrators with tools used to force people into obedience, using advertising that either obscures or downplays the harm they inflict. Some corporations go as far as to sell security equipment that resembles medieval torture devices. For example, Humane Restraint—whose name alone makes light of its cruel products—sells leg weights, restraint beds, and wrist shackles with inappropriately kitschy marketing. These restraints can cause severe physical and mental harm. Though federal, state, and local regulations often restrict the use of restraints, corrections officers frequently turn to them to punish minor infractions. In fact, in some facilities, these restraints have become the default response to someone in need of mental health care.
With little regard for those on the receiving end of their equipment, these corporations, including arms manufacturers and suppliers, also deceptively market dangerous weapons as “less lethal,” spreading military-grade weaponry across prisons and jails while avoiding liability for the consequences of their use. These weapons include batons, stun guns, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray.
For instance, stun guns are extremely dangerous, but equipment corporations continue to sell them without consequence. Axon, which sells Taser, previously advertised its products as “non-lethal” and “safe” before adopting the term “less lethal” to avoid lawsuits by people who suffered cardiac arrest after being struck with their products. Axon even warns that a stun gun is more likely to kill someone if they have a mental illness, history of drug use, or heart disease, conditions that are disproportionately common among incarcerated people due to failures in social support. Still, correctional agencies purchase and use Tasers in large quantities, knowingly endangering people behind bars.
I can count one hand when [a Taser] was used appropriately.”
Steve Martin, former general counsel for Texas Department of Criminal Justice
For years, facilities have purchased cameras and powered locks from security technology corporations. However, these corporations are increasingly developing and marketing new Orwellian technology to surveil people using biometric data, including their fingerprints, retinas, and, in some cases, even the way they walk. And familiar consumer technology corporations like Microsoft and Amazon are also entering the space. Both have developed facial recognition technology being implemented in correctional facilities. However, these new security technologies raise serious concerns.
For instance, existing facial recognition technology struggles to identify people of color accurately, which creates a significant risk of false identifications, especially among the disproportionately Black, Brown, and Indigenous prison population. These identifications are often used in prison disciplinary hearings, where a false positive can lead to severe consequences: the denial of visits and calls, solitary confinement, or even the denial of parole — often without any legal recourse. While local municipalities have begun to pass legislation prohibiting this technology in the free world, correctional administrators continue to implement it across prisons and jails without transparency or accountability.
But these types false identifications are not limited to the analysis of biometric data. Security technology also includes forensic equipment like drug tests used to detect contraband narcotics and also often produce false positives with many of the same dire consequences for incarcerated people. In New York, for example, leaked documents confirmed not only an abundance of false positives in urinalysis tests conducted using Thermo Fisher Scientific testing equipment, but also false positives in field tests conducted directly on suspected substances using tests manufactured by Sirchie. This faulty equipment caused many people to suffer for months in solitary confinement, some were even refused early release. Notably, these tests are not just use in New York, but across the country in law enforcement, correctional, and even employment environments.
On a hot July day in 2019, corrections officers dragged me out of my cell and put me in handcuffs with their batons at their waists silently threatening violence. They threw me in solitary confinement without explanation and left me there for hours without anything as much as toilet paper. The next morning, I received a misbehavior report that stated I had tested positive for drug use. It was impossible, I knew I had not used anything.
As it turns out, I was among more than 2,000 incarcerated people who falsely tested positive for drugs in 2019 as a result of faulty testing equipment manufactured by Microgenics, a subsidiary of Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Despite my pleas of innocence, I was sanctioned with 90 days in solitary confinement, loss of all privileges, including regular and family reunification visits, and removal from all activities. Through the summer heat, I was confined to a closet-sized cell with no ventilation, stripped of any personal belongings, and limited to two showers a week. I was devastated, traumatized. My character, reputation, and credibility were defamed. I went into a hopeless state of depression, feeling like there was no chance that I would be vindicated. I questioned my faith.
Then, on my 67th day in solitary confinement, in late September, the reversal came down from prison administrators. Just like that, my false positive had been reversed, my sanctions ended, and I was returned to my cell in general population. It was as if nothing happened — but it had. A lot happened.
In November, hundreds of formerly and currently incarcerated people, who suffered loss of calls and visits, solitary confinement, and even extended prison stays, filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific and the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. While there has been momentum in the case and increased media coverage over the year since, my life and the lives of hundreds of others just in New York have been irreparably damaged. And how many other states and other agencies have used Thermo Fisher Scientific’s faulty drug tests to destroy lives?
American Correctional Association
Trade shows are the most important marketing tool for correctional equipment and supplies corporations. The American Correctional Association (ACA), an influential industry trade group with over 20,000 members, holds the country’s largest annual trade show, known as the “Congress of Corrections.” An astounding 81 percent of sales made by the corrections equipment and supplies industry occur at these trade shows. The American Jail Association and Nation Sheriff’s Association also host large trade shows each year.
“Manufacturing and supplying inherently violent equipment and supplies, corporations facilitate the traumatization and abuse of people behind bars, who are disproportionately Black, Brown and Indigenous people. Worse yet, their products are often purchased using public funds and money siphoned from the families of incarcerated people. By selling the tools that allow correctional administrators to run facilities by brutal force, these corporations are responsible for some of the worst abuses in the prison industry.“