Dispatches from the Field: Prisoners - America’s New Cash Crop
By Cynthia Johnston
A disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself. ~ Hannah Arendt
At the 2011 dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, many speakers, including President Obama, quoted from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, in which King eloquently spoke out for freedom and justice. Yet almost fifty years later King’s son, Martin Luther King III, says his father’s dream has not been realized, that America has “lost its soul,” in part by “having more people of color in prison than in college.” He is not wrong. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in the last decade nearly one in three African-American men aged 20-29 was under criminal-justice supervision, while more than two out of five had been incarcerated.
At his 1963 March on Washington Dr. King said, “We have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.” And so we have. Because today, with for-profit prisons a burgeoning growth industry, the incarceration rate of people of color can be extrapolated to the population at large. Indeed, one out of every one hundred adults in America today is incarcerated, and one out of every thirty-two is somewhere in the system – either on probation, on parole, or behind bars. Put another way, the United States has five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population. And more than half of these arrests are for marijuana.
The FBI puts the number of marijuana arrests over the last decade alone at 7.9 million. This was not caused by the laws of supply-and-demand for weed. This was caused by the laws of supply-and-demand for prisoners and, hence, for profits. Since 1984, when privatization of prisons was made legal again, after having been stamped out in 1928 due to gross abuses against prisoners in the name of profit, the for-profit prison industry has moved quickly to expand into as many states as possible before enough resistance could be amassed to stop them. And with each new prison constructed, there is a need for more prisoners to fill it.
In the intervening years, lobbyists for the corporate, for-profit prison industry have spent millions of dollars per year writing laws and implementing strategies to put people in prison for as long as possible. The harsher the policies and the longer the sentences, the more money flows into these corporations from the government. And nothing grows the prison population better than the War on Drugs -- a war funded by taxpayers, some of whom are later fed into the machine, including those you’ve met, and others you will meet, in these pages.
Big Money Machine
Back in my political days there was a running joke in Washington: the “building trade” unions would build their own prison camps for the jobs. Not so funny any more, given that California’s prison guard union -- the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, or CCPOA -- was a driving force behind California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, a law that requires a mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence for a third “similar” felony, even if that felony is shoplifting.
Three Strikes is one of a systematic web of laws designed to incarcerate the maximum number of people for the longest possible time; a web of laws that creates a self-perpetuating money machine for its creators – a cabal of corporations and lawmakers with the shared goal of growing America’s prison population for profit; a web of laws written by special interests and introduced by the legislators they have bought with campaign contributions. Just one small example of the way our democratic system of government has been hijacked by the corporate thugs, greed-heads and fixers of America’s sprawling prison cartel.
Former Navy journalist and “conserva-tarian” co-founder of All American Blogger Duane Lester reports that in only three decades CCPOA has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. In an article published by FreeRepublic.com, he wrote that the union has contributed millions of dollars to support Three Strikes and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions (the sentences imposed when a parolee violates the terms of parole). After then-governor Pete Wilson backed Three Strikes, the prison-guard union donated a cool million to his campaign.
Don’t Look For The Union Label
On a much more insidious scale, a right-wing lobby group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), writes ‘model bills’ (legislation to be enacted in one state and replicated in others, also known as ‘copy-cat laws’) for corporate sponsors like Koch Industries, Exxon Mobile, BP, American Bail Coalition, R.J. Reynolds, Wal-Mart, Phillip Morris, Pfizer, AT&T, and Glaxo Smith Kline, to name a few – including bills specifically designed to exploit cheap prison labor on behalf of profit-making corporations.
Writing for thenation.com, labor journalist Mike Elk and blogger Bob Sloan detail ALEC's “instrumental role in the explosion of the US prison population in the past few decades,” explaining how ALEC pioneered some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today – mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, Three Strikes laws, and so-called truth-in-sentencing laws, which require violent offenders to serve 85% of their sentences before being considered for release. After ensuring that more prisoners would be incarcerated for longer and longer periods, ALEC then “paved the way for states and corporations to replace unionized workers with prison labor.”
The “convict lease program,” instituted in the South after the Civil War, was the precursor to today’s for-profit prison industry. The then-governor of Mississippi imprisoned freed slaves and then leased them out to a private party who could work them to death, and often did, with no pay. It took churches, families, and civil libertarians sixty years to wipe these laws off the books and the Reagan Administration no time at all to bring them back.
Only a lobby funded by profit-driven corporations would replace preexisting laws with legislation like the Prison Industries Act, allowing “the employment of inmate labor in state correctional institutions and in the private manufacturing of certain products.” A federal program called PIE (Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program) conveniently certifies prison work programs for exemption from federal restrictions on prisoner-made goods in interstate commerce.
Prison labor for private profit was illegal before ALEC came along. Now the lobbyists have instituted two federal programs to regulate and certify prison labor. Just goes to show what money can buy.
In Florida, an outfit calling itself PRIDE (Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises) now runs forty work programs where inmates manufacture “tons of processed beef, chicken and pork,” as well as office furniture and other commercial items – for twenty cents an hour.
Aside from the obvious slave labor issue, here’s another concept for you: the intersection of processed meat with prison hygiene. I’ve heard the stories about prison conditions -- a hundred-and-twenty to two-hundred inmates in gym-sized rooms; fifty or more sharing a single filthy toilet, without privacy or sanitation. “Some guys just shit in the shower,” said a friend who spent a few eye-opening nights at L.A.’s Twin Towers. And these guys are processing tons of meat that wind up, among other places, in school lunches.
Granted, prison laborers featured on a recent exposé on CNBC, entitled “Billions Behind Bars,” worked in facilities outside the prison, and wore gloves. But that was a single example in Colorado – a 6,000-acre complex with fifty businesses, including a goat farm and a fish farm, staffed by inmates. Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the state Department of Corrections, which runs the complex, is on “a mission to save taxpayers’ money while helping to rehabilitate Colorado’s inmates.” Perhaps. They also happen to garner $56 million per year in revenue. But elsewhere, and for twenty cents an hour, how motivated could long-term prisoners be to maintain pristine job-site sanitation standards? Especially when they work under threat of punishment if they refuse to work?
In a 2007 letter to prisonersolidarity.org, an inmate wrote that he and other prisoners at Ohio State Penitentiary had been trying for seventeen months to call attention to inhumane conditions such as “broken toilets that leak profusely, the urinals that overflow onto our feet, and the lack of ventilation that results in fumes and condensation that are unbearable at times.” Even if they are transported elsewhere to work, how clean can they be? Yet, these are the living conditions many inmates endure. Conditions bad enough to cause one man to commit suicide at Dickens County Correctional Center in Spur, Texas – a prison run by the for-profit prison company, GEO Group, Inc.
How could GEO, or any corporation, justify making people live in such deplorable conditions? Because it’s cheaper, according to the inmates’ rights group Partnership for Safety and Justice in Portland, Oregon. In an msnbc.com article entitled "Suicide Reveals Squalid Prison Conditions," the organization’s program director, Caylor Rolling stated, “they cut corners because the bottom line is making money.”
Another way for-profit prisons make millions of dollars is by detaining immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security pays local, county and state prisons up to $200 per person per day to house “apprehended aliens,” reports The Huffington Post. Singling out another Los Angeles County horror show, HuffPost’s Gabriel Lerner says California’s prisons in particular “benefit from the largesse of the federal government and vie for a piece” of this profitable pie. He cited a detention center in Lancaster, run by L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, currently under federal investigation for prisoner abuse throughout the system, where immigrants rounded up in raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) were held for more than two years instead of the customary few days. According to a group of Latino filmmakers and “instigators” called Cuéntame (meaning both “count me” and “tell me your story,”) it doesn’t even matter whether these immigrants are documented or undocumented, “as long as they fill the detention facilities for days, months or even years.”
In the old days of publicly run prisons, it paid to let a prisoner go when his time was up or his rights were about to be violated. Not only was it the right thing to do, it saved the public money. And therein lies the rub.
In voters’ minds, the chief attraction of private, for-profit prisons is that they’re thought to save taxpayer dollars. Not so. In fact, just as health-care costs ballooned when corporations got in the game and began charging fifteen dollars per box of tissues -- as if a patient in a hospital bed were raiding the mini-bar in a luxe hotel rather than receiving medical care -- so have prison costs increased by virtue of the profit incentive of private-prison corporations. And where do their profits come from? Some come through the newly-legalized exploitation of the prisoners themselves, but the bulk come from you, the taxpayer. When prisoners, a public commodity, are managed by a private institution, the public pays. We are not creating savings. We are creating more prisoners and, these days, turning incarcerated human beings into corporate assets. Why would a private prison want to see a prisoner released if with him goes a piece of their income?
To find the really heavy hitters in the game of jailing undocumented immigrants for fun and profit, we must go to Arizona, where Republican State Senator Russell Pearce teamed up with ALEC and another for-profit prison company, Correction Corps of America (CCA), to create Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s notorious “Papers, Please” anti-immigrant bill. Courtesy of SB 1070, local detention facilities rake in $200 per inmate per day ($6,000 a month, or $72,000 a year). According to “Immigrants for Sale,” Cuéntame’s shattering exposé, “these private prisons have spent over $20 million lobbying state legislators to make sure they get state anti-immigrant laws approved,” thus securing an endless supply of immigrant inmates. Replicated in Utah, Florida, Ohio, Tennessee and Iowa, ALEC and CCA have built themselves a “perfect money machine.”
Corporate Corrections Companies
Meet some of the players in the new, for-profit prison industry. Correction Corps of America (CCA), headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, touts itself as “America’s Leader in Partnership Corrections.” CCA designs, builds, manages and operates correctional facilities and detention centers for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Marshall Service, a couple dozen states, and nearly a dozen counties across the USA. CCA pocketed $2.9 billion in 2010.
Management Training Corporation (MTC), headquartered in Centerville, Utah, with branches in Texas, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., operates twenty correctional facilities in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas. They have the capacity to “secure and train 25,310 offenders and detainees at federal and state correctional facilities across the United States.”
Formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections, GEO Group, Inc., of Boca Raton, Florida, manages and/or owns 116 correctional, detention and residential treatment facilities, boasting some 80,000 beds. GEO ran the Texas prison where the previously mentioned suicide took place. Among the many services GEO provides are Secure Prisoner Escort and Secure Detainee Transportation. Since its inception in 2008, GEO has transported over 200,000 prisoners and detainees by land and air.
Among the three of them, these for-profit prison companies own over two hundred facilities with 150,000 bed-spaces, cranking out a tidy five billion dollars a year in profit.
A perfect money machine, indeed -- but only if the system keeps them supplied with prisoners. And how does it do that, besides detaining defenseless immigrants? By feeding more and more marijuana and medical-marijuana users into their giant corporate maw.
War on (Wonder) Drugs
It’s worth repeating here that cannabis was only outlawed in the first place as an accommodation to corporate interests. There was no moral imperative to make it illegal, nor is there one today. It doesn’t kill people, the way alcohol and tobacco do. According to Lester Grinspoon, M.D., Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who has studied it extensively, cannabis is safer than aspirin! To quote him directly, “Compared to aspirin, which people are free to purchase and use without the advice or prescription of a physician, cannabis is much safer: there are well over 1000 deaths annually from aspirin in this country alone, whereas there has never been a death anywhere from marijuana.” He went on to say that “it will eventually be hailed as a ‘wonder drug’ just as penicillin was in the 1940s.”
Yet the practice of jailing people for growing, transporting, buying, selling or possessing marijuana, and locking them up for longer and longer periods of time, continues. In Louisiana this year, 35-year-old Cornell Hood II was sentenced to prison for life for having been caught four times for possession and/or distribution of a substance more innocent than aspirin and with fewer side effects than any pharmaceutical painkiller on the market. In Oklahoma, Patricia Spottedcrow, whose case we examine in an upcoming post, was sentenced to prison for ten years for having sold $31 worth of marijuana. Ten years. Second degree felony assault, in which a person bludgeons another person with a deadly weapon, causing severe bodily injury, carries five years. Yet you can sell a few “dime bags” of weed and get locked up for a decade, even when you have no prior arrests and four young children at home depending on you.
Just as the for-profit health-care industry relies on sick people for profits, and thus has an interest in keeping them sick, the for-profit prison industry relies on prisoners for profits, and thus has an interest in keeping them incarcerated. And though a recent Gallup poll shows that fully fifty percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana and another seventy percent favor allowing doctors to prescribe it, the fight will really heat up when all those who profit from the War on Drugs mobilize their efforts against legalization.
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
~ Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”
No Defense for Grumbine and Byron
Meanwhile, back in Long Beach, California, Judge Charles D. Sheldon on September 22, 2011, denied Joe Grumbine and his former partner Joe Byron an affirmative (medical marijuana) defense against the felony charges they face for operating two legally compliant medical marijuana collectives. Consequently, the jury who decides their fate will not hear a single word about their activities in providing medical marijuana to patients with a legitimate prescription. The two Joes will be presented as ordinary street-level drug pushers. In a political climate where state and federal law enforcement agencies are targeting dispensaries and their landlords in an apparent effort to wipe out medical marijuana dispensaries entirely, this is very bad news for the Joes. If convicted, each will face at least seven years in state prison.
At a pre-trial hearing on October 12, Judge Sheldon asked for a list of defense witnesses. Attorney Chris Glew, representing Joe Grumbine, told the judge that, because his client had been deprived of a defense, he had no witnesses. Incredulous, the judge repeated his request. Glew repeated the same answer. Commenting that he’d set aside time for a month-long trial, Judge Sheldon expressed reluctance to forfeit taxpayer dollars on a trial that would be considerably shorter than he’d expected. “We didn’t accomplish very much today,” he groused, and continued the hearing until November 2.
Citizen Outrage Grows
Outraged over “juror abuse,” a growing coalition of medical marijuana patients and advocates gathered outside the courthouse to protest the judge’s ruling. They claim that by denying the Joes an affirmative defense, Judge Sheldon is denying the jury the ability to return a fair verdict based on the facts. “A juror can not take back a guilty verdict,” said one of the protesters, citing the recent execution of Troy Davis in Texas. In similar cases across the country, countless jurors are forced to live with the pain of having returned guilty verdicts based on insufficient or false evidence. Along with the defendant, the juror pays the price for this abuse of judicial authority.
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool's hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game
~ Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”
The next court date is set for Wednesday, November 2, 2011, at the Long Beach Courthouse. There will be a rally outside the courthouse at 8:00 AM. Court Support meets at 8:30 AM in Room 508. The trial begins on November 28.
Those wishing to join the rallies, participate in court support, or donate to Grumbine’s and Byron’s legal defense can do so at The Human Solution or phone 951-436-6312 for additional details.
Edited by Ellen Shahan for United States v Marijuana, via TrineDay Publishing Facebook