Private Prison Co. Joins High School Drug Raids

By Tony O'Neill 11/28/12

The War on Drugs takes a disturbing new turn as for-profit jailers help arrest teenagers for pot possession.

In it for the money: Corrections Corporation of
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A private prison company conducting a high school raid in a search for the next generation of for-profit prison inmates may sound like an Orwellian nightmare—but that doesn't mean it's not true. The private prison business is booming in Arizona, where its growing influence and power saw a failed bid last year to privatize almost the entire state prison system. Now a disturbing PR Watch report lifts the lid on the industry’s latest unsavory practice: taking part in high school drug raids alongside local police, despite not having the training or the legal authority to do so. "To invite for-profit prison guards to conduct law enforcement actions in a high school is perhaps the most direct expression of the 'schools-to-prison pipeline' I've ever seen," says Caroline Isaacs, program director at the Tucson office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker social justice organization.

The raid in question took place at 9 am on October 31, at Vista Grande High School in Casa Grande. Without warning, the school was “locked down”; students were confined to their classrooms and sniffer dogs were brought in. According to police, four agencies took part: the Casa Grande Police Department, Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Gila River Indian Community Police Department...and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Sadly, drug sweeps like this aren't unusual these days. But the presence of a private company like CCA—which has a vested interest in locking people up—is a disturbing new development.

The raid resulted in three marijuana arrests: two 15-year-olds and a 17-year-old. While charges have yet to be filed, the 17-year-old was in possession of enough marijuana to see her tried as an adult, if a smart prosecutor were to get a distribution charge to stick. So it's no surprise that the private prison industry ranks among the top special interest groups lobbying to keep pot illegal and drug sentences harsh (alongside police unions, pharmaceutical companies, alcohol companies and prison guard unions). Republic reporter Matt Stoller revealed last year how CCA’s regulatory filings show that keeping the War on Drugs going is actually part of their business model. To this end, they've spent millions bankrolling pro-drug war politicians, and routinely use front groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council to sponsor laws. No longer content with such efforts, they've now resorted to going into high schools and dragging out teenage drug "offenders” themselves. What better way to get these kids started on the path to for-profit recidivism?

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.