Sunday, February 25, 2001

Captive Audience

While America waits for Tony Soprano to once again take to the airwaves and prove that crime does pay (or at least buys you a schmaltzy house and a strip club of your own in New Jersey), his opponents are working on their side of the ledger. I speak not of the different families that the gang is facing off against, but rather the government and its forces. To do their job, they need tools as sure as Tony needs cement overshoes for the likes of Pussy and his ilk.

In real life, after all, the Justice Department has reported that the incarceration rate nearly doubled over the last decade, from one in every 218 Americans in 1990 to one in every 147 in 1999. And that rate is expected to continue, so much so that this year the number of guys and gals behind bars is expected to reach the 2 million mark. That's a lot of handcuffs.

It's no different at the big house than it is at your house. For the proprietor of the inn, the range of structural necessities is exceeded only by the number of cute tchotchkes available. It's all a matter of taste and style, mixed in with the inevitable budget considerations. That presents the enterprising entrepreneur with a truly captive market. And so the merchants are lining up to display their wares during the upcoming Jail Expo, held annually at the American Jail Association's annual confab. A quick glance at the offerings shows why it's the place to go shopping for that perfect cell and accessories.

There's no area that doesn't require special manufacture when the user is serving 10 to 15 for armed robbery. Take clothes, for instance. You can't just toss a pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt through the bars. You need to consider such things as a stylish short sleeve cut, designed so that it's nearly impossible to conceal a weapon. Or for those hard to control guests, there's a suicide watch gown for use on individuals placed in isolation. It includes break away hook and loop shoulder straps that shorten or lengthen the gown up to 48", along with three hook and loop front / side closures (metal snaps could be used for other purposes, and there are no proven cases of anyone being taken hostage by Velcro). The outer shell is made of tough Cordura or combat nylon, with an inner lining of rip-stop parachute material for added warmth. A steal at just $94.95, it comes in stylish blue or orange, and will work for even those hard to fit 10XL prisoners.

But let's face it: prison is not just about fashion. The cell environment itself is key. So there are plenty of companies and contractors ready, willing and able to help make that perfect home, keeping in mind that the occupants will be spending a lot more time in theirs than you do in yours. PX:Direct Jail products recommends that the minimum size for a cell is approximately 5' x 7', slightly larger if a toilet is to be installed.

From an economic standpoint, they point out that the least expensive approach is to build from 1 to 3 walls with cinder block and purchase bars for the remaining walls. Why a cell size of only 5' by 7'? Well, as grill walls cost between $32 per square foot for a woven steel rod wall and $40 per square foot for a barred wall, while a solid steel door runs from $800 to $2000 (not counting observation panels and food pass-throughs), larger cells can easily equal the cost of a suburban kitchen. And mind you, these don't come with granite countertops... more like stainless steel bunks, a bargain at just $279.95 extra.

But what makes a house a home is those little touches that you provide for the residents. And the Expo will feature a full line of favors, designed to placate the most difficult of inhabitants. There're classics from the American Handcuff Company, as well as Hiatt-Thompson Restraints. Both feature wrist and ankle models, as well as belly ropes, hobbling chains and leg irons. For those frisky types, Hiatt's new high security handcuff is equipped with a uniquely keyed tumbler lock in addition to the standard handcuff key-lock. Locking the tumbler lock performs two functions. It double locks the cuff and, more importantly, disables the regular handcuff key. So no more leaving the table until you're good and ready to let them go.

For that special hard to control someone, Humane Restraints presents a full line of strait jackets and padded wrist and ankle restraints for use in securing individuals to beds or chairs. And don't miss their unique patented Transport Leg Brace, which locks the leg in a standing (but not seated) position. This allows a restrained subject to walk but impedes running or kicking. They even have a show special: buy a pair, and get $20 off individual price of $199.

There are definite signs that the economy is cooling. As the dot.coms fade into the sunset and computer makers struggle with their products turning into commodities, we're all looking for the next big wave in which to invest our pensions. And while there's an old saying that crime doesn't pay, though you can't beat the hours, perhaps we've been looking at the wrong side of the equation. After all, if anti-spitting hoods go for $3.50 each in lots of 1000, there's money just waiting to be made. And for those used to dealing with demanding customers, for once you don't have to worry that the consumer is always right.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is thinking of purchasing an anti-biting guard for use with his more difficult clients. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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