TAMPA — Jailers from across the nation are in town this weekend to hear about new and better ways to care for and house the hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated in the United States.
Attending the American Correctional Association conference will be an estimated 2,500 to 3,500 corrections officers, detention deputies, vendors and administrators from public and private jails and prisons. They will learn the latest trends on detention-related issues ranging from health care, security, food and discipline, to housing and how to reduce contraband behind bars.
“We’ll offer over 90 different cutting-edge workshops and seminars that are both timely and relevant to the challenges facing the corrections profession today,” association Executive Director Jim Gondles said.
Prisons are a big business. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of inmates in state and federal prisons and county jails across the nation has jumped 500 percent in the past four decades.
In 1925, about 100,000 people were incarcerated, according to the Sentencing Project. That number doubled by the 1960s.
From the 1960s, when the war on drugs kicked in, the number of inmates skyrocketed to 1.6 million in 2012. Forty-eight percent of federal prisoners are in for drug offenses, the Sentencing Project said.
Jails and prisons in the United States house 716 prisoners for every 100,000 people, the highest ratio in the world. In second place is Rwanda, which has 595 inmates per 100,000 population. Russia is third.
One theme of the conference will be cutting down the rate of recidivism, or inmates who are released only to return to prison. Ten years ago, one of every three inmates released from prison wound up behind bars within three years. In 2008, the rate had dropped to nearly one in every four inmates.
Among the vendors at the conference is Leslie Robinson, a psychotherapist from New York City who has developed a game for recently released inmates and their families. She said the exercise gives former prisoners social insights and teaches them ways to avoid re-incarceration.
Robinson said the premise of “Beyond the Bars” is simple. It involves sitting with family and friends, asking and answering a series of questions designed to get people to know and understand each other.
The game helps inmates reconnect with families and reintegrate with society, which, she says, goes a long way in reducing recidivism. It helps inmates overcome social, emotional and communication struggles, she said.
“It’s a way to start breaking the ice when somebody gets back,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say, what to ask.”
She said Beyond the Bars evolved from a similar game she devised for military service members returning home after extended stays abroad.
“Veterans never talk about what they’ve been through,” she said, “and the same with prisoners.’’
“Connections with other people,” she said, “sometimes is the only thing that keeps us on track.”
The conference runs through Wednesday.