Elmore Leonard and Private Prisons

Prison strike solidarity march. Oakland, September 2016.

Prison strike solidarity march. Oakland, September 2016.

Elmore Leonard’s critically neglected novel Escape from Five Shadows speaks to social attitudes about incarceration that too many in the US public have forgotten.  Leonard published the novel in 1956 during his early career as a Westerns writer.  Some would argue, of course, that Leonard never stopped being a Westerns writer, only he changed locations.

What marks this novel as different is its social portraiture of late nineteenth-century Arizona prison life.  This is not the Yuma territorial prison that features in his 1972 novel Forty Lashes Less One, but rather a road-building camp in the Pinaleño mountains.  The novel’s hero, Corey Bowen, has been sentenced to seven years imprisonment on false charges of cattle-rustling.  He spends time at the Yuma prison before being shipped to a road camp run by Frank Renda, a corrupt and brutal contractor. 

Renda runs a road construction operation that uses prison labor.  His profit comes not only from the road-building contract, but also from diverting monies provided to feed and clothe prisoners.  Foretelling Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious jail feeding practices, Renda receives 70 cents a day per prisoner and uses only 20 cents daily for their feeding and care.  With the aid of a whiskey-addled camp clerk, Willis Falvey, Renda is able pocket the difference of over $400 per month.  Much of the novel’s plot turns on Renda’s efforts to prevent official discovery of this fraud, efforts that include murder of a prisoner.    

Contemporary private prisons use that same price differential as their profit model.  Unlike the fraud described in Leonard’s novel, private prison corporations have no contractual or other legal barriers to cost-cutting on food, living conditions, health services, guards, and more.  Lowering costs beneath reimbursement rates is the entire rationale governing their commercial existence.  The average cost per day/prisoner in Arizona is about $65. Last available data indicate that private prisons are more expensive than state institutions, but since those figures were published in 2010 the Arizona state legislature enacted legislation forbidding publication of private-public cost comparisons.  Even better for the punishment industry, Arizona uses more private prisons than any other state, builds prison facilities for private management, guarantees 90-100 percent occupancy, and provides 20-year contracts.  What Escape from Five Shadows calls fraud, the Arizona private prison industry calls a government-guaranteed profit margin.     

Over sixty years have passed since Leonard wrote his description of an Arizona prison camp, one flecked with contempt and containing a social indictment.  What has changed?  Why are private prisons acceptable today when they were not in the mid-twentieth century?  Part of the answer lies in diminished memories of widespread public revulsion towards private prisons and chain gangs.  Robert Elliott Burns’ prison autobiography I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang (1932) was a sensation and nearly overnight became a film starring Paul Muni. 

In Gone with the Wind (1936), readers and film-viewers realized Scarlett O’Hara’s corruption when she used prison labor in her mills.  Memories of the prison labor abuses of Tennessee Coal & Iron had not faded among older people: today that story has disappeared from public memory.  Now the general public tends to view corrupt prison administration as an exception rather than endemic to the system.        

More accurately, the growth of the private prison industry has employed the privatization movement to institutionalize the same profit scheme that Leonard treats as corruption.  In July 2015, the privately-operated Kingman state prison witnessed three days of riots, over $2 million in damages, and some 1200 prisoners transferred to other facilities.  The contractor, Management and Training Corporation, routinely shorted prisoners on food and employed untrained staff paid significantly less than the Department of Corrections already-underpaid officers.  The replacement contractor, GEO Group, has a lengthy history of prisoner mistreatment and taxpayer-funded executive enrichment.

What Leonard’s novel points out is the lax supervision of a remote prison camp.  The absence of transparency, aided by a camp clerk’s weak-willed surrender to fraud, creates a moral vacuum.  Inability or refusal by constituted government authority to exercise due supervision allows Renda’s private dictatorship to continue.  That belief in unchecked and unaccountable power enable Brazil, a hired gunman serving as head guard, to murder a prisoner who threatens to expose the fraud upon his release.

Prison Makes You Christian

In Escape from Five Shadows, this privately-operated prison camp provides an anti-example of democracy.  It was a former cavalry station “founded during the raiding days of Cochise and garrisoned until Geronimo and his renegade Chiricahuas were sent off to Florida.”  The addition of a ten-foot barbed wire fence has transformed this once-abandoned camp into a hybrid of military outpost and prison.  Leonard’s description roughly fits that of the history of Fort Grant, near Safford, Arizona, which underwent a similar transformation to become the present-day Fort Grant Unit of the Safford State Prison Complex.  Military history, colonial expansion, and private profit all occupy the site in this narrative.    

The Renda Construction Company compounds injustice through brutal mistreatment: the camp itself is the crime.  The Mimbreño Apache guards, responsible for guarding prison work details and tracking down escapees, by the novel’s end come to realize the camp’s injustice and refuse to obey Renda’s commands.  In the concluding scene, a fight between Bowen and Renda, they decline to shoot the prisoner and instead place Renda in a punishment cell, holding him for arrest and trial. 

The Mimbreño leader, Salveje, says that they will return to their reservation and no longer work as guards.  “This is not like other times.  I think Victorio would laugh,” he says, referring to the Mimbreño war chief killed in battle with Mexican army forces.  “Do you understand that?” Salaveje asks Bowen.  When Bowen slowly comprehends, he understands that the work demanded of the Mimbreños as prison guards is undignified not only for its offenses against prisoners but against their own honor.             

That same dishonor collapses in the novel when confronted by its honest hero.  Leonard’s story does not end in classic Western style with a man-to-man gunfight but with a more complex conclusion recognizing the failure of due process and need for improvement in the administration of justice.  A private prison becomes a forcing point, one that gives way under leverage.  That same idea, that the forced collapse of greed and injustice embodied in private prisons can lead to betterment, may serve equally well in fighting to abolish the private prison industry.   

Photograph courtesy of Bradley Allen/IndyBay. Published under a Creative Commons license.