Prison Profiteers

Prisoner Transfer



One aspect of drug prohibition that gets far too little attention is the fact that the drug war is immensely profitable for prohibitionists.

Ten former high-ranking officials of the Drug Enforcement Administration recently signed a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee criticizing the Obama administration for its supposed lack of zeal in enforcing marijuana prohibition. According to the letter, the administration chief delinquency is its reluctance to crack down on Washington and Colorado, and this is impermissible in light of supposedly sacred international obligations, such as “the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs… and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances.”

Among the signatories  of that letter were Robert L. Dupont, who headed the National Institute on Drug Abuse under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and Peter Bensinger, who was head of the DEA during most of that decade. Today, these drug warriors emeriti run a company called Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, which specializes in workplace drug testing.

Since they have a financial interest in marijuana prohibition, it’s reasonable to surmise that DuPont and Bensinger aren’t acting on purely idealistic motives, or out of pious ardor for the sanctity of United Nations accords.

No decent person has anything but contempt for Drug Kingpins – but it’s difficult to see how Prohibition Profiteers are any less contemptible. And they’re hardly the only people who have become wealthy by monetizing the misery generated in the prison-industrial complex. Public incarceration is the only consistently growing sector of our increasingly socialized economy.

Last August, with prisons overflowing in Idaho, the state department of correction chartered a private jet to transport 120 inmates to the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colorado. That prison, like the Idaho Correctional Center , is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The inmates, who were clothed in orange jumpsuits and shackles, were greeted at the airport by a SWAT team in full stormtrooper regalia.

Eventually more than 800 prisoners were transferred from Idaho to Colorado. Prison overcrowding wouldn’t be a problem if the government were to stop imprisoning people for non-violent offenses, something the corporate prison lobby well understands.

Over the last decade, CCA spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying on behalf of policies that increase the demand for prison space. In a 2011 corporate report, GEO Group, another prison contractor, described how its profits depended on the state providing a steady supply of inmates. This is why the company opposes “the relaxation of criminal or immigration enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction, sentencing or deportation practices, [and] … the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances[.]”

This is a system designed to expand the profits of politically connected corporations, not to protect the public from violent crime. And the uses to which those profits are put illustrate some fascinating — albeit repellent — truths about our economy and society.

In recent decades, professional sports franchises have increasingly relied on the sale of corporate “naming rights” – in addition to various kinds of government subsidies — to pay for sports stadiums. This trend has caught on in college football, as well. As a result, a growing number of stadiums are named after companies that produce goods or offer services. Florida Atlantic University has sold naming rights to a company that warehouses convicts – and lobbies government to produce more of them.

The GEO Group, the nation’s largest private prison company, has bought the naming rights to the new 30,000-seat football stadium at Florida Atlantic University. On February 19 the company announced that its charitable foundation will pay $6 million to the university over a 12-year-period in exchange for the coliseum bearing the name “GEO Group Stadium.”

Juvenal, H.L. Mencken’s ancient Roman progenitor, observed that the Empire’s torpid subjects would never revolt as long as they were given “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses).  In late imperial America, where a steady diet of television “police procedurals” and pseudo-documentary “reality” programs relentlessly exalt the State’s armed enforcers the formula could be rendered panem et circenses et carceres: This keeps the masses distracted and the prison profiteers well-fed.



10:59 am on March 18, 2013