U.S. Drug Issues Were Perverted for Many Decades by One Man
Please note: “Richard Nixon simply presented his stance in terms that appealed specifically to his conservative base.” Therein lies an eternal problem with right-wing politics. In order to appeal specifically to a conservative collective you have to simplify your message so that it can be understood by simple citizens, simple legislators and simple Presidents. This inevitably leads to simple solutions to complex problems. And it doesn’t always work.
If we follow the historical record back to the 1930s we find a man called Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, given carte blanche by fanatical F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, to criminalize drugs that, until then, had been considered medical and social issues. Anslinger remained in office for 32 years and perverted drug issues in the United States until the very end. It was Anslinger who turned cannabis into a crime–and big business–and helped to export the Americans’ puritan conception of drug problems and retrograde solutions around the world. This was the moment to regulate drugs, to help addicts (though marijuana is not clinically addictive) and to clean up American society, not to criminalize drug users and give rise to the illicit drug trade behemoth and the largest prison population in the world,
Coincidentally, It’s Also about Profit
The most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice cite 133,000 state and federal prisoners in private facilities, 8.4% of the total U.S. prison population. Over the past 20 years the Correction Corporation of America, the largest private-prison company in the country has seen its profits rise by more than 500% with the overall prison industry’s revenue topping five billion dollars in revenue in 2011.
Such handsome sums attracted the attention of big investors like investment banks and vulture funds. The appearence of big money also gave rise to large-scale corruption and morally repugnant practices. The most egregious of these was the Pennsylvania “Kids for Cash” scandal, in which two judges accepted million-dollar cash commissions from a private reformatory for sending juveniles to their facility, often on trivial charges. Many of these children, some as young as 13, were subjected to successively extended sentences under “indefinite probation” laws, winding up spending six or seven years in prison for schoolyard shenanigans. The heinousness of this practice merits more extensive treatment in another post which I will get to as soon as I can.
Market Forces Create Sleazy Prison Industry Interest Groups
Less theatrical but also outrageous is the lobbying carried out by the prison business. The influence of the private prison industry on the government has been described as the “prison–industrial complex.” The term reflects the rapid expansion of the US inmate population due to the political influence of private prison companies and prison supply businesses. The most common agents of the prison-industrial complex are corporations that contract cheap prison labor, such as construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, companies that operate prison food services and medical facilities, private probation companies, lawyers, and the lobby groups that represent them.
Before these programs, prison labor for the private sector had been outlawed for decades in order to avoid competition with conventional businesses. The introduction of prison labor in the private sector contributed to the cultivation of the prison-industrial complex. Between the years 1980 and 1994, prison industry profits jumped from $392 million to $1.31 billion.
Private prison companies have been members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a public policy organization that develops model legislation that advances free-market principles such as privatization. Under their Criminal Justice Task Force, ALEC has developed model (just fill in the blanks) bills which State legislators can then use when proposing “tough on crime” initiatives. By funding and participating in ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Forces, critics argue, private prison companies influence legislation for tougher, longer sentences. Writing in Governing magazine in 2003, Alan Greenblatt states:
“ALEC has been a major force behind both privatizing state prison space and keeping prisons filled. It puts forward bills providing for mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes sentencing requirements. About 40 states passed versions of ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing model bill, which requires prisoners convicted of violent crimes to serve most of their sentences without chance of parole.”
In 2016 the U.S. Department of Justice pronounced privately-operated federal detention facilities less safe, less secure and more punitive than other federal prisons and announced the department’s intention to stop using them. Then Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election and on February 25, 2017 the Justice Department, under the new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, overturned the ban on using private prisons. It was another of the Trump administration’s grotesque steps backwards.
Private Prisons Are Not a Bargain
A 2001 study concluded that a pattern of sending less-expensive-to-keep inmates to privately run facilities artificially inflated their cost savings. A 2005 study found that Arizona’s public facilities were seven times more likely than private prisons to house violent offenders and three times more likely to house those convicted of more serious offenses. A 2011 report by the American Civil Liberties Union point out that private prisons are more costly, more violent and less accountable than public prisons, and are actually a major contributor to increased mass incarceration.
This is most apparent in Louisiana, which is finally number one in something. It has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And it houses the majority of its inmates in for-profit facilities. Marie Gottschalk, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the prison industry “engages in a lot of cherry-picking and cost-shifting to maintain the illusion that the private sector does it better for less.” She notes that studies generally show that private facilities are more dangerous for both correctional officers and inmates than their public counterparts as a result of cost-cutting measures, such as spending less on training for correctional officers (and paying them lower wages) and providing only the most basic medical care for inmates.