The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation on earth
The War on Drugs allowed the for-profit prison industry to flourish; now the private-prison companies’ lobbyists want to keep tough-on-crime laws in place — and cannabis offenders behind bars.
In the 1970s John Knock helped import a lot of cannabis into Canada. The money was good and the risk moderate: it was cannabis, not cocaine, and he was moving it into Canada, not the United States, where the War on Drugs was quickly picking up steam. But when President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 into law, mandating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, Knock saw the writing on the wall. By 1987, he was out of the business.
In 1994 the drug game was far behind John; he was living in Hawaii and taking care of his young son while his wife completed her PHd. Then the indictment came down: Knock had been fingered as a weed importer in a conspiracy case unfolding in Florida. He fled to Europe where he was arrested in 1996 and fought extradition until 1999. In 2000 he was found guilty of conspiracy to traffic marijuana in a jury trial. The sentence: two life sentences plus an additional 20 years. Knock had no prior convictions; no history of violence. “They even stated at sentencing that there were no victims,” says Knock’s sister Beth Curtis.
Knock is far from the only person stuck behind bars for committing a cannabis crime. There’s no exact count because, “annual data does not break down drug sentences by type of drug,” says Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML, a marijuana reform lobbying group. A 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 13% of state inmates and 12% of federal inmates are serving time for cannabis violations. “That’s upwards of 50,000 Americans behind bars for violating marijuana laws,” says Armentano. NORML calculates the annual cost to incarcerate those cannabis-captives at more than $1 billion.
As prisons filled with non-violent drug offenders, the number of people locked up in the US grew from 196,429 in 1970 to more than 1.6 million in 2009, according to a 2011 report from the Justice Policy Institute. As the prison population ballooned, governments turned to nascent for-profit prison companies to house the overflow, and house they did. In 1980 private prisons hardly existed; by 1990 the US had 7,000 inmates locked up in for-profit facilities; by 2009 that number had climbed to 129,000.
The War on Drugs, and its resulting incarceration boom, hasn’t effected all equally. Minority communities have borne the brunt of the burden.
Numbers released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2013 indicate that a black man in the US has a one-in-three chance of incarceration within his lifetime. For white men the odds are one-in-seventeen.
In the same year minorities made up a whopping 60% of the prison population, and although a 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that black and white people use cannabis at similar rates, and an ACLU analysis revealed that black people were nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white peers.
The two main private prison corporations — the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America — have benefited immensely from draconian drug policies and the resulting prison population boom, and if drug or sentencing laws change it could hurt their bottom line. “Changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them,” writes the GEO Group in a 2010 Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
“Our company does not lobby for or against, or take any position on, policies or legislation that would determine the basis for, or duration of, an individual’s incarceration or detention,” says CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns. GEO Group’s Executive Director Pablo Paez says his company also doesn’t take a position on criminal justice policies. The numbers tell a different story, though. In April the Washington Post reported that since 1989 GEO and CCA have contributed more than $10 million to political candidates and spent almost $25 million lobbying the government. A 2011 Justice Policy Institute report found that private prison companies have influenced and helped draft tough on crime laws like “three-strikes” and “truth-in-sentencing”. The private prison lobby is also one of the main players in the anti-legalization movement, according to research by opensecrets.org.
“They lobby on sentencing reform, crime and justice issues, and immigration,” says Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center.
Lately the tide has been turning against private prisons. In September, US Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders introduced legislation geared at ending all government contracts with private prisons within two years. “We have got to end the private prison racket in America,” said Sanders during a press call announcing the Justice is Not for Sale Act.
With recreational cannabis shops now nearly as ubiquitous as coffeeshops in Washington and Colorado, it’s easy to forget that tens of thousands of people are still serving time for cannabis violations— many in for-profit prisons. As attitudes towards the plant change in the US, Curtis says she remains hopeful that Knock— and the other cannabis convicts — will be released some day. “We just visited him for his 68th birthday,” says Curtis. “He’s not violent, he’s not dangerous, and he doesn’t need to be in there.”