Barrack Obama became the first active U.S. President ever to visit a Federal prison on Thursday. Hopefully the event will succeed in forcing Americans to look in one of our collective blind spots: the fact that our country houses the largest prison population in the history of the world – creating a system where private business benefits from the incarceration and forced labor of America’s poor, underprivileged, and ethnic minorities.

Strict drug laws are a big wheel in this machine. As marijuana prohibition stumbles onto its last legs, the prison-industrial complex is weakened, and it is fighting to protect itself. Marijuana laws, since their introduction to the U.S., have been used consciously and unconsciously to control and imprison African-American and Latino-Americans.

According to Global Research, 97% of federal inmates and two out of three state prisoners are doing time for non-violent offenses. Almost half (48%) of federal prisoners are in for drug crimes. Various U.S. authorities find a number of tactics to target ethnic minorities over white offenders for drug crimes. For instance, the federal mandatory sentence for 2 ounces of crack is 5 years, while a mandatory sentence of the same length for cocaine requires possession of almost ten times as much of the substance.

The ACLU reports that the majority of drug arrests in this country are for petty weed possession. Meanwhile, a report released by the White House this month finds that African-Americans are almost 4 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as a white person, even though they use marijuana at nearly identical rates.

This uneven targeting in marijuana enforcement can be seen in arrests for other drugs as well. The NAACP reports that: “About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug. 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.”

Instead of spending government dollars on education and neighborhood programs that could stem the socio-economic conditions which promote crime, the U.S. chooses instead to put its dollars into the prison system. The report from the White House reads: “The annual cost of incarceration for a single juvenile is over $100,000—almost twice as high as tuition, room and board, and fees at the most expensive college in the country and nearly 100 times as expensive as a year of intensive mentoring.”

But part of the problem is that there is not much short money to be made in educating our population, while there is a lot to be made from incarcerating it. America has had trouble competing with cheap non-union labor in Third World countries over the last several decades, leading to the loss of factory jobs. But, sickeningly, multi-billion dollar corporations such as the Corrections Corporation of America have found a solution to keep manufacturers in the states.

Prison workers are exploited for as low as 17 cents an hour (CCA pays more an hour than any other private prisoner operator, 50 cents, while state-operated prisons generally pay substantially more – sometimes minimum wage), to the benefit of such household consumer product manufacturers as Microsoft, Macy’s, Target, AT&T, IBM and Motorola. Several factories (including at least one maquiladora in Mexico) have laid off their skilled employees in favor of the attractive financial model offered by American prisons.

So, it makes good business sense to keep that work force right where it is. According to the Boston Phoenix, CCA has spent millions of dollars lobbying to keep drug laws strict, meaning longer prison sentences and higher inmate population, which is good for business. In a disturbing report submitted by CCA to the US Security and Exchange Commission, the company made their financial interest in strict drug laws plain:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”

Benefitting from the cheap labor of prisoners is a time-honored tradition in America. Some might argue that it was essentially used to replace the institution of slavery after abolition. Someone with more radical leanings might argue that the economic and racial statistics of our current prison population describe a system that still performs some of the same functions as black slavery.

So, how do you dismantle an inhumane system of enslavement for profit under the guise of a war on drugs? Why not ask Colorado, a state which saw 95% of its drug arrests go poof in just the first two years of its legal marijuana market.

Robbing the prison-industrial complex of its workforce is obviously going to ruffle a few feathers, which is why private groups such as Safe Streets Alliance have hunted for and found loophole litigation maneuvers that allow them to close legal pot shops in Colorado. We reported on the actions of Safe Streets earlier this week, but this article prompted us to dig a little deeper into the group.

According to its website, Safe Street’s motive to shut down legal marijuana businesses is that it is, “committed to the right of every child in America to grow up drug free.” Despite the fact that teen use of cannabis actually dropped after state legalization, Safe Streets believes that the best thing to do for the state is to undo that progress by repealing legalization.

Surely, it’s an innocent and accidental byproduct of the return to marijuana prohibition that drug arrests (and, by extension, prisoners) would increase in the state. And surely it is a coincidence that the Chairman of Safe Streets (in fact, the only individual claimed as working for or with the group) is lawyer and conservative government reformer James Wootton. Among the many accomplishments listed on Wootton’s bio page for NationsCourt (his proposed privatized court system – yikes!) is his substantial contribution to the prison-industrial complex:

“Mr. Woottton was principal drafter and advocate for the truth-in-sentencing provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill, which authorized over $5.7 billion for prison construction in the states.”

This is an odd statement in that it implies that the primary success of the truth-in-sentencing laws (which prevented prisoners from serving less than 85% of their sentences) was that it kept more people incarcerated, causing a fortune to flow into the prison industry, not that it reduced crime rates, as was its supposed motive.

Disgusting side note: The truth-in-sentencing bill was also sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (a conservative group of lawmakers and corporations who pay annual dues to get the ears of these politicians), which counts CCA among its members, providing another possible link between marijuana prohibition and the interests of privatized prisons.

Here’s the truth: I am not an expert in drug law, socio-economics or the prison industry. There may be flaws in some of these arguments that I have not discovered as a result of some gaps in knowledge. But I hope anyone who’s taken the time to read this article will look into the matter for themselves and develop their own critical opinion of the relationship between marijuana law, the prison industry, and dubiously motivated interest groups such as the Safe Streets Alliance.


Photo via Flickr user Matthias Müller

Parker Winship