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As a companion piece to this Diary about research revealing that private prisons actually cost more, here is a diary expanding on the thoroughly unsavory reality of for-profit prisons. I highlight their particular opposition to marijuana reform and involvement in the wave draconian anti-immigration laws as useful focus points for advocates of these causes. Anything that drives public awareness and opposition to this industry is a win for justice and civil rights.

A key part of any push for social change is to identify enemies and obstacles so as to focus the attention of supporters and attract new allies to the cause. When it comes to the marijuana debate, the stated enemy is usually the federal government and its agents. This however is very familiar ground and does not always conjure the kind of dread that would energize the electorate and focus its rightful ire. That does not mean that such an appetizing target does not exists in the US, on the contrary there is a very powerful and unscrupulous industry that has long been working on oppressing large segments of the populace. This would be the American private prison system, an often maligned but rarely confronted mechanism of discrimination, oppression and borderline slavery. This system targets many demographics, marijuana users certainly being among the most affected and harshly punished. But they are far from alone here; the same system, in conjunction with the state-run penitentiaries, has also persecuted minorities, low-income communities and immigrants. Properly exploited and re-framed this industry could become a focus point of citizen “revolt” against unjust laws and bring together a formidable coalition of civil liberties and human rights advocates.


While the American prison system as a whole has been abusing and oppressing citizens for a long time, the particularly abhorrent practice of for-profit imprisonment makes for a better focus point. Housing some 100,000 inmates across 264 facilities, private prisons make up a full 9 percent of the staggering 2 million people incarcerated in the country. However, considering that the US holds a whopping 25% of all prisoners worldwide, it would be hard for any business to compete where even communist China falls short. Even more sinister, the private prison industry has recently ramped up its lobbying and been party to some very high profile attacks on civil rights. Marijuana reform activists should not waste the opportunity to take a vocal stand against this industry and build up lasting alliances along the way.


For private prisons the revenue streams are twofold. On the one hand they are handsomely paid by the government to house and take care of inmates. With little serious oversight, these companies are free to cut corners to keep more money in their pockets and by mostly focusing on non-violent offenders, they can also reduce the costs of security and enforcement. There really is no way around the fact that the less they provide for their inmates, the better their bottom line. The other revenue stream for such companies is good old prison labor. While many associate prison work with the chain gangs and hard labor camps of the past, the practice is alive and well in the US. Prisoners have been producing goods (for wages measured in cents per hour) for companies like Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret; they have been making gear for the military, accessories for police departments and even Patriot Missiles; some have worked at prison call centers. Here is corporate America’s way of keeping jobs in the country: outsourcing to prisons. And business has been booming too, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the US, reported over $833 million in revenue in the first half of 2010.


So, seeing as how there is very good money in keeping people in a cage, what proactive measures has the industry taken? Let us look at how CCA and others have invested in a diversified portfolio of human misery. In California, the prison industry was one of the major backers of anti-proposition 19 measures. CCA itself donated over $75,000 to local politicians who opposed the measure. Aside from illegal activity, prisons benefit from keeping thousands of California medical marijuana growers and retailers facing possible jail time every year. They also would stand to lose a lot if small possession charges stopped being a reliable way to bring people back inside for parole violations. Legalized and regulated cannabis would be a huge blow to the industry, how could it ever stay afloat with no more harmless smokers to lock up and put to work for sweatshop wages?


Of course any smart investor would not be hampered by decency and take a good look into the earnings potential of racial discrimination. In 2010 CCA received almost $75 million in tax dollars to its immigration detention centers, certainly a nice bit of profit, but why stop there? Indeed, why not use anti-immigrant sentiment in states like Arizona to push through laws that would make any Hispanic a target of investigation and thus a potential prisoner? Why not funnel thousands more illegal immigrants into the detention center mill? No compelling reasons according to CCA, recently revealed as not just a lobbyist for but an engineer of Arizona’s SB1070 and other laws like it in Tennessee, Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida and Pennsylvania. With Latinos already facing a much higher incarceration rate than whites, this is surely the path to that demographic’s good graces.


The American prison system counts on the drug war as a source of profit, this simple reality makes it a key actor in the fight against sensible cannabis regulation. While certainly the entire institution must be held responsible for all the suffering and loss of potential it causes, the private sector is a great target for the focused rhetorical and legal resources of reform advocates. Companies like CCA have already gone on the offensive by fighting proposition 19 and sponsoring draconian anti-immigration laws. Shining a bright light on their activities is a great way to drive the narrative in favor of reform and to enlist the support, or at least the approval, of the ever growing and increasingly vital Latino community.

Originally Published at 420petition

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