War on Drugs: How Private Prisons are Using the Drug War to Generate More Inmates


It is customary for American politicians and the media to publicly scold and criticize other countries for their human rights abuses and authoritarianism. But more often than that, the crimes U.S. officials have committed are just as bad, if not worse, than those they are chastising. Aggressive wars, sanctions, and torture instantly come to mind, but even less discussed has been the establishment of a prison-industrial-complex in the U.S.

Nowhere is this complex more evident than in Casa Grande, Arizona, where on Halloween a local high school was held on "lock down" for a drug sweep conducted by employees of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country.

CCA is just one of many private prison companies operation in the county. All over America states are increasingly relying on private prisons to do their dirty work, turning a flawed and corrupt system of justice into an even worse form of punishment based upon profit and expediency. Companies like CCA are thriving on this, lobbying for proposals in almost every single state to buy and run state prisons. In exchange, the prisons would have to contain at least 1,000 beds and maintain at least a 90% occupancy rate.

Obviously, the incentives of this system lead to more arrests for very minor offenses, crimes with which the private prisons thrive on. Corporations like these are also very involved in pushing for three-strike laws and laws that make it very difficult to reduce the length of sentences for good behavior.

It should not be surprising, however, to learn that private prisons are on the rise in America. After all, the U.S. has the infamous distinction of having the most people behind bars, on parole, or probation. Not just per capita, but more than China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and the rest of the countries U.S. politicians like to lecture. In fact, there are more Americans locked up than the Soviets had in their gulags.

How could this be? Are Americans extraordinarily violent criminals? According to the FBI, violent crime has actually been on the decline for the last few decades.Throughout American history, the amount of prisoners per 100,000 people has remained about 100 to 110. But since 1980, the incarceration rate has nearly tripled, and is now almost 800.

Most of this increase can be traced to the federal government's misnamed "war on drugs" that was put into overdrive beginning in the Reagan administration. As the incarceration rate numbers show, it really is a war on people and has been by far the biggest reason for government encroachment on our civil liberties and the increased prison population. Combine the drug war with a merger of state and corporate power, and you have the rise of private prisons eager to profit off of caging people.

Poor and minority neighborhoods also bear the biggest brunt of this complex, as even though drug use among blacks is about the same as whites, the former are jailed at a disproportionately higher rate than whites. It is an absolute shame that those who claim to defend the interests of blacks and minorities are absolutely silent on the damage that the drug war has done (apologies to Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams).

As Adam Copnik notes in his great exposé on America's shameful prison state, "Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the most fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental face of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery then."

And while the drug war deserves a huge portion of the blame for the growth of corporate jailing monsters like CCA, there is also the fact nearly every single aspect of American life is politicized and criminalized. It's hard to think of any part of the economy or our personal lives that aren't subject to detailed regulation and rules, all of which are supposed to be rigorously memorized (ignorance of the law is no excuse!), and backed up by the state's threat or application of force.

Federal regulations and the tax code are so long, complex, and all encompassing that criminal defense and civil liberties litigator Harvey Silvergate estimates that the average American commits three felonies a day! Laws in the hand of the state, as Pierre-Joseph Proudhoun said, are "spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of the government."

With the drug war and the politicization of nearly every minutiae of American life, it's no wonder there are corporations merging with the state eager to profit off of those caught in these nets.

An easy solution to this would be the abolition of the drug war and the burning of the Federal Register, but this obviously will not be happening anytime soon. More than anything it is a cultural one as well. Like all political questions and problems, it fundamentally boils down to whether we will attempt to solve it by defending and applying individual liberty or by using force, coercion, control, and cages.

A society that accepts the premise that the state has the authority to wage a "war on drugs" and impose thousands upon thousands of coercive dictates (that it itself, of course, it not obligated to obey) should not be surprised to see their country turned into one giant, for-profit prison.