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December 04, 2008

Lobbyists for the prison industrial complex


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Great article in the Boston Phoenix about how lobbyists for the private prison industry (and law enforcement trade associations) agitate for long prison sentences for drug offenders.

For example, a massive sentencing disparity for equal weights of crack vs. powder cocaine is good for business. If getting caught with a gram of crack carried the same punishment as a gram of powder cocaine, a lot fewer people would do prison time.

The article describes how lobbyists for Corrections Corporation of America and other clients with vested interests in detention have fought various drug policy reforms in Massachusetts.

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Why don't the prisons lobby for harsher sentences for powder cocaine, too - is that too politically unpalatable?

A guess: maybe it would bring less return on the lobbying dollar because powdered cocaine users are whiter, less exposed to arrest and can afford better legal representation, and so would be less likely to be convicted even if the same penalties were prescribed for powdered as for crack cocaine?

Because lobbyists and CCA executives prefer powder to crack by a factor of 100 to 1.

Seriously, there's no political will to lock up stockbrokers and white hipsters for years at a time for simple possession of powder cocaine.

Crack is a demonized drug associated with poor people.

ome interesting facts about federal drug sentencing disparities from the Sentencing Project:

Crack is also the only drug that carries a mandatory prison sentence for first offense possession. A person convicted in federal court of possession of 5 grams of crack automatically receives a 5 year prison term. A person convicted of possessing 5 grams of powder cocaine will probably receive a probation sentence. The maximum sentence for simple possession of any other drug, including powder cocaine, is 1 year in jail.

I think that prison corporations, trade associations, and unions lobbying for harsher prison sentences so they will make more money is about the most evil thing I know of that's legal.

As evil as defense contractors lobbying for war.

Prison corporations?

They should be outlawed.

Everything of this sort (crime & punishment) should be in the public sector, not private.

If we're going to eliminate the prison corporations---which sounds like a good idea to me---we should also eliminate the prison guard unions. It takes a special kind of inhumanity to lobby to put people in a cage just so you can be paid to guard them.

If we eliminate prison guard unions, then who will the prison guards turn to when prison management treats them like dirt?

It's very easy to eliminate private prisons without trammeling on anyone's rights. Our elected officials could just stop issuing contracts--if for no other reason that that we don't want what they're selling--not merely because they distort incentives and create anti-freedom lobbying blocs, nor because they keep abusing and depriving our prisoners to make a buck (thereby ensuring profitable recidivism), but also because they shroud prisons in more obscurity than any decent society should allow. Private contracting is the scourge of an open society generally, and it will be until we pass legislation to make any contractor who accepts government money susceptible to the same FOIA requests that would be applicable if the state had done the job on its own.

I don't want to deny would-be prison entrepreneurs the right to petition the government to redress their grievances regarding the purported excess freedom of others. I just want our elected officials to ignore them because their arguments are bogus and evil.

Prison guards have the right to unionize, whether they are public or private employees. There's no principled reason to deny them that right. Let's tackle the problem from the top down: eliminate the private contractors, shrink the prison population, shrink the number of guards, shrink the union...problem solved without violating anyone's rights.

They can turn to some other line of work. Given the choice of prison guard unions lobbying to keep people in cages beyond all proportion or reason, and prison guards having less job satisfaction...that's no choice. If you can find a better excluded middle, I'd like to hear it.

x-post with WP.

Eliminate private prisons and the guard unions will shrink back down to manageable size.

I don't remember prison guard unions being a major reactionary force in Canada when I was growing up. As far as I know, they're still not out agitating for draconian sentences.

Granted, in Canada, the system gives lobbyists less purchase in general. But as I recall, some organized prison guards were very curious about drug policy reform because they realized that methadone programs would make their jobs a lot easier.

Ah, our posts crossed. I suppose if our elected officials can ignore "would-be prison entreprenerurs" they can also ignore guard unions because their arguments are bogus and evil. I just hate them a lot for pulling this crap.

I know that powder cocaine users are whiter than crack users. But they're still likelier to be black than white; it's just that crack cocaine users are even likelier to be black.

Powder cocaine users are more likely to be black than white? According to whom? Black people account for about 14% of the US population. I would be surprised if African Americans accounted for a plurality of cocaine consumption in the USA. I'd be shocked if the average powder cocaine user was more likely to be black than white.

My main point about eliminating private prisons is that it's easy to do without any legal changes. Prison guards have the same right to unionize as any other worker. Maybe public sector unions and government contractos shouldn't be allowed to lobby.

Or maybe soft money in lobbying should be banned, just like soft money in federal political campaigns--i.e., you and I could contribute our own money to a lobbying campaign, but organizations we payed dues to couldn't do so on our behalf.

Powder cocaine users are more likely to be black than white? According to whom?

I believe my data comes from the justice department's statistics. I don't remember, but I had a link to the data on my blog in one of the posts about the crack/powder disparity. I'll look for it tomorrow if you press me on it.

I am a tech writer who was once forced by lack of work to take a brief contract writing procedures for CCA at their Nashville HQ. Their bottom line depends on a steady supply of "clients" convicted by the sovereign, then turned over to private enterprise for the term of their sentences.

Because lobbyists and CCA executives prefer powder to crack by a factor of 100 to 1.

Seriously, there's no political will to lock up stockbrokers and white hipsters for years at a time for simple possession of powder cocaine.

Crack is a demonized drug associated with poor people.

Doesn't your little joke about stockbrokers, hipsters and lobbyists preferring powder re-inforce that association?

Prison guards have the right to unionize, whether they are public or private employees. There's no principled reason to deny them that right. Let's tackle the problem from the top down: eliminate the private contractors, shrink the prison population, shrink the number of guards, shrink the union...problem solved without violating anyone's rights.

How will you deal with the unions using their political power, which is substantial in some states, to resist your plant to shrink the prison population? In terms of lobbying power, my sense is that in California, for example, it's the union that would be at the "top" rather than the private contractors, so your suggestion to tackle the problem from the top down would mean dealing first with the pernicious power of the corrections officers' union, rather than the private prisons.

Also, you pass from "eliminate the private prisons" to "shrink the prison population" without a pause, as if eliminating the private prisons would automactically result in a smaller prison population. I don't get how that works. It sounds to me like trying to fight homelessness by reducing the stock of available housing.

The drive to privatize and contract out government functions manages to combine the worst features of government and private enterprise. It's turning every sector of government into an image of the military-industrial complex.

Reasserting public control over the prison system is the first step. That would at least get rid of the funding base for the private prison lobby.

Public prison reformers can make common cause with the prison unions because, by and large, private prisons are not unionized. Replacing private prisons with public prisons could create more union jobs that just about any sentencing policy.

Lindsay, you have said both: Eliminate private prisons and the guard unions will shrink back down to manageable size and Public prison reformers can make common cause with the prison unions because, by and large, private prisons are not unionized

If private prisons are not, by and large, unionized, how will eliminating private prisons shrink guard unions? You explicitly said that Replacing private prisons with public prisons could create more union jobs that just about any sentencing policy. How can eliminating private prisons simultaneously create more union jobs and shrink guard unions back down to manageable size?

Step 1: Eliminate private prisons, thereby depriving the private prison lobby of the money and the incentive to agitate for tougher sentences and more prisons.

Getting rid of the profit incentive will tend to shrink the prison population because, unlike the Corrections Corporation of America, the State of Massachusetts sees prisons as a burden not a profit-making opportunity. In this era of dwindling budgets, many states are already reconsidering their sentencing policies because the cost of incarcerating so many people is becoming prohibitive.

Putting the CCA and its lobbyists out of business would also give opposing groups a better chance of passing various drug reforms, like the ones described in the article.

Eliminate private prisons, thereby depriving the private prison lobby of the money and the incentive to agitate for tougher sentences and more prisons.

Who is the more active and effective lobby currently for tougher sentences and more prisons--corrections unions and the law enforcement groups mentioned in the article or the private prison lobby? According the linked story, the Corrections Corporation of America is the largest private prison provider and it houses more than 75,000 detainees. California alone has more than twice that many prisoners in its state system--in fact, the California Department of Corrections has almost as many employees as the CCA has prisoners.

I really think you are trying to get the tail to wag the dog here.

The Corrections Corporation of America spent $2,460,000 on federal lobbying in 2007, compared to $66,000 by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. And CCA is just one of many politically active private prison firms.

The prison guards unions don't necessarily have an overriding interest in locking up more people or building more facilities. The for-profit, publicly-traded corporations like CCA need to grow. Unions are interested in making life better for their members, not just expanding the industry as a whole, especially if it's growing with non-union jobs.

They might be just as happy if we had fewer prisons and higher ratio of guards to inmates.

The prison guards unions don't necessarily have an overriding interest in locking up more people or building more facilities.

If they don't, then they're the only unions in the world that don't mind layoffs.

Unions are interested in making life better for their members leaders

Corrected. If unions didn't try to expand their industries all the time, you'd expect that the UAW wouldn't call the American auto industry the backbone of America, as if the US had no middle class and no social mobility until the Model T.

Alon, you're talking out of your ass. The prison guards union doesn't have an overriding interest in expanding the prison system. All other things being equal, it's better to have a growth industry, but that doesn't mean that every union's overriding concern is growing the industry. There are other priorities. Right now, the CA prison guards union is probably a lot more concerned about safeguarding their pensions than locking up more crack users.

It's just as good for the guards union to have half as many prisons with twice as many guards each--better in fact, if the existing prisons are understaffed. Likewise, it's possible for there to be fewer prisons but more union jobs because the non-union private prisons would be replaced with unionized public prisons. So, it might be in the union's interest to lobby against private prisons.

The UAW wants the American auto industry to continue to exist, but it's not lobbying for a massive expansion.

The question was whether we should bust prison unions in order to end private prisons.

I'm saying that that's unacceptable because prison guards have the right to organize, just like other workers. Besides, even if there were no prison guard unions, there would be nothing to stop prison guards from forming associations of like-minded people and lobbying through trade associations.

If we want to end private prisons, we should just end private prisons by not signing any more contracts. It's that simple. Nobody's rights are violated. We just conclude, based on a long and horrific experiment, that we're not getting value for our money.

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