The American Correctional Association (ACA)
The American Correctional Association is a private nonprofit professional development group aimed at establishing standards for correctional facilities and professionalizing the jobs of administrators and guards.
The organization was established in the 1870s as the National Prison Association during a period of prison reform. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes headed the organization for more than a decade. It is considered both a regulatory agency and a trade association.
The ACA accreditation process was instituted in the mid-1960s. Accreditation is a process of ensuring that prisons have certified employees and standardized practices and is often required in order for a facility to be eligible to house prisoners (depending on state or federal regulations). The process should point out flaws and areas for improvement in the prison’s access to healthcare, standards of living, facility maintenance, or personnel management.
Certification is available for corrections officers in adult and juvenile facilities, for correctional nurses and healthcare administrators, and executives. Certification for individuals requires displaying proficiency in the following areas:
- Handling, identifying, and escorting prisoners;
- Security of the facility and equipment;
- Ethic and laws relating to corrections;
- Health, safety, sanitation, and communications;
Certified corrections professionals are expected to abide by the ACA’s code of ethics, which includes:
- Upholding and protecting the civil and human rights of those in the facility;
- Not using their positions for personal gain;
- Being respectful of prisoners and fellow correction officers; and
- Report unethical behavior of others in the facility.
Controversy over contradiction
Critics say the ACA straddles an impossible combination of both watchdog and dependent because the organization certifies prisons as meeting certain standards yet derives its income from them. Allegations and evidence of corruption has dogged the organization while in recent years many changes have evolved in the way Americans think about prisons and the way politicians and policymakers view prison reform. Those changes have bred scrutiny of the ACA organization.
In 1982 a member of the organization’s board stepped down and submitted a scathing letter of resignation citing deficiencies in the accreditation process including its failure to get important input from some obvious sources when accrediting an Illinois facility.
In 1990 the new director had many serious infractions on his record, including mistreating the workers under him, sexual misconduct, and abuse of his official powers when he was a sheriff.
Critics point out that there were significant issues found at several prisons that retained their accreditation from the ACA, including abuse of prisoners, poor conditions, and corruption.
In 2014 the president of the ACA, Christopher Epps, was tried and convicted for his part in getting over $1.4 million in kickbacks from private prison companies for steering nearly $1 billion in contracts to the companies that bribed him. One contractor, former Senator Irb Benjamin, whose company provided drug testing to prisons, was convicted of spending more than $500,000 in bribes on Epps.
Corrections history in U.S.
Prisons and jails in the United States have evolved over time from short-term holding cells for those on trial to straightforward penal compounds and later to rehabilitative centers. When they were first established in the colonies, jails and prisons carried a flavor of the era and of the region they inhabited. In more recent decades, prisons have become fodder for national political policies:
- Early prisons were based on the English Common Law model so were mostly holding cells for those on trial, not for long-term confinement (after the trial, the sentence was swiftly dispatched and usually public, including flogging or hanging). “Workhouses” were created to confine the poor until they worked off their debts;
- In the early 1800s, the Pennsylvania System required silent isolated confinement in which prisoners would work at craft-style jobs and was used in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey;
- The Auburn System was a New York-based model adopted by the New England states and several others including Virginia and Tennessee in which prisoners labored in groups during the day, and silence was not enforced;
- In 1866 convict leasing – renting out laborers – was instituted;
- In the 1950s mental institutions were phased out and prisons commonly became homes for those who could not function in society;
- In the 1960s, crime skyrockets and politicians make crime-fighting a central tenet of campaigns, including building more prisons and incarcerating huge numbers for drug possession violations;
- The 1990s saw a move toward private prisons as the total prison population surged to over 2.5 million and lobbyists convinced politicians to spend on contracts rather than invest tax money on improving existing prison infrastructure;
- From 2008 to 2014 states began the process of decriminalizing some drugs, reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders, and other policies to reduce the prison population. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates reported that private prisons do not represent a substantial cost savings over publicly-run prisons and conditions were often below acceptable standards.