Profit and punishment

With a prison population of 2 million, six times the number incarcerated 30 years ago, America finds itself in a situation of staggering social and political dimensions. Ashley Hunt's 59-minute documentary, Corrections, approaches the topic from the perspective of prison privatization, and the uneasy marriage of punishment and profit. While Corrections doesn't always indict its target, it persistently proves a relevant and powerful film.

Corrections' most effective elements involve the politicization of law enforcement over the past four decades, and how "getting tough on crime has exponentially increased the behind-bars populace. The implications for poverty and race are striking, manifested in the film when a young African-American describes life "from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.

The film opens with memorable footage from an American Correctional Association meeting, with trade show-style booths exhibiting riot helmets and restraining devices. A subsequent scene chillingly evokes the 100-year-old practice of "convict leasing, a kind of legalized slavery that prison privatization can't help but evoke. Interviewees range from human rights activists to flacks from "corrections companies.

Often Corrections is better at voicing qualms over prison privatization than pointing to specific abuses in the system. Hunt identifies striking examples of cronyism in the awarding of penitentiary contracts, but only hits the bull's-eye with the case of a now-defunct juvenile prison-for-profit in Louisiana, where young inmates were beaten and underfed.

Hunt frequently takes a satirical point of view much in the manner of Michael Moore. Peppy, incongruent musical moments are featured throughout the soundtrack, and the black-and-white shots of Richard Nixon lack context. Such ironic treatment of the issues hardly seems necessary, given the many effective points Corrections makes. Still, the lighter tone is a welcome relief from the seriousness of the film's main point: Private prisons answer to stockholders and have vested interests in longer sentences and increased incarcerations. So rather than alleviating overcrowding, they may only be exacerbating the problem.

Image Film & Video Center screen, Corrections screens at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, 450 Auburn Ave. Free. 404-352-4225.??