Prison Slave Labor

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Table of Contents

Justice System Statistics

History of Prison Slave Labor

History of the War on Drugs

Prisons Today: Private Prisons and Profits

Justice System Statistics

Inmate Statistics

  • Ninety-seven percent of 125,000 federal inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes.
  • It is believed that more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent of the crimes they are accused of.
  • Of these, the majority are awaiting trial. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses.
  • Sixteen percent of the country’s 2 million prisoners suffer from mental illness.”

Global Research Article, “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?


  • Young black boys/men, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white boys/men.
  • Blacks are less than 13% of the U.S. population, and yet they are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police even though they weren’t attacking.
  • A 2007 U.S. Department of Justice report on racial profiling found that blacks and Latinos were 3 times as likely to be stopped as whites, and that blacks were twice as likely to be arrested and 4 times as likely “to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police.”

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post


  • Blacks are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Blacks are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites.
  • Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • A black person and a white person each commit a crime, the black person has a better chance of being arrested. Once arrested, black people are convicted more often than white people. And for many years, laws assigned much harsher sentences for using or possessing crack, for example, compared to cocaine. Finally, when black people are convicted, they are more likely to be sent to jail. And their sentences tend to be both harsher and longer than those for whites who were convicted of similar crimes. And as we know, a felony conviction means, in many states, that you lose your right to vote. Right now in America, as many as 13% of black men are not allowed to vote.

Source: 7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real


  • 1 in every 15 black men (and 1 in every 36 Latino men) are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106.
  • Minorities are less than 28% of the U.S. population, but they are nearly 60% of the prison population. Blacks in specific are less than 13% of the U.S. population, but they are 38% of the American prison population.
  • Black boys are five times as likely to go to jail as white boys; Latino boys are 3 times as likely.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • Blacks make up 13% of the population, they represent about 40% of the prison population.

Source: 7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real





  • Blacks are less than 13% of the U.S. population, and they make up only 14% of regular drug users, but they are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.
  • Black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white kids —even though white kids are more likely to abuse drugs
  • What the War on Drugs has done is trap millions of people, especially black men, in poverty, and push them toward a life of crime. With black boys arrested 10 times more frequently than white boys, for a non-violent crime that they commit less frequently than white boys, black men are funneled into the criminal justice system from a young age. With felonies on their records, it is incredibly difficult for black men to get work. As a result, they are trapped in low-paying jobs, or worse, turning to crime. Finally, once they have a felony on their record, most states prohibit them from voting.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • In our federal prisons, 46% are incarcerated because of drug offenses. Yet a 2013 government survey of 67,500 people revealed that White and Black Americans use drugs at similar rates (9.5% and 10.5%, respectively).
    • Isolate heroin use, and the picture shifts dramatically. The New York Times reports that “nearly 90% of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were White.”

Source: Everyday Feminism: Here’s Your Proof That White Americans Don’t Face Systemic Racism


School to Prison Pipeline

Source: 7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real

  • Whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color.
  • The U.S. is one of only 3 of the 34 O.E.C.D. nations to give fewer resources and have lower teacher/student ratios in poorer communities than in more privileged communities.
  • study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that young black boys were viewed differently than their white peers. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” Children of color are more likely to be perceived of as guilty, problem children, young criminals, and funneled into the justice system early. This is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post


  • The US Department of Education recently found that Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than White preschoolers. Preschoolers. Representing 19% of preschoolers, Black children make up half of all preschool suspensions.
  • Given these disparities that begin so early, it’s no surprise that large gaps in achievement and representation in advanced classes for Black and White students persist.
  • And the predominately White teaching force plays a role. The Washington Post reports that “Black students are half as likely as white students to be assigned to gifted programs, even when they have comparably high test scores.” That disparity disappears when the teacher is Black.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of all bachelor degrees are held by White Americans. While Black enrollment in universities has “skyrocketed” in the past twenty years – despite the bleak disparities of public education – Black Americans make up only 6% of enrollment at “top-tier” universities.

    • Census reminder #1: It should be 62% and 13% – not 69% and 6%.

Source: Everyday Feminism: Here’s Your Proof That White Americans Don’t Face Systemic Racism

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History of Prison Slave Labor

The 13th Amendment states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime


Global Research Article, “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?


“Prison labor has its roots in slavery. After the Civil War (1861-1865 ), a system of “hiring out prisoners” was introduced in order to continue the slavery tradition. Freed slaves were charged with not carrying out their sharecropping commitments (cultivating someone else’s land in exchange for part of the harvest) or petty thievery – which were almost never proven – and were then “hired out” for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired-out convicts were Black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were Black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972.

During the post-Civil War period, Jim Crow racial segregation laws were imposed on every state, with legal segregation in schools, housing, marriages and many other aspects of daily life.

“Today, a new set of markedly racist laws is imposing slave labor and sweatshops on the criminal justice system, now known as the prison industry complex,” comments the Left Business Observer.”

Wikipedia: “Penal labor in the United States

“Penal labor in the United States, a form of slavery or involuntary servitude, is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This form of legal slavery is only allowed when used as punishment for committing a crime. The 13th Amendment states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  Unconvicted detainees awaiting trial cannot be forced to participate in forced rehabilitative labor programs in prison as it violates the Thirteenth Amendment. The Reconstruction Era of 1865 began as the government fashioned laws to help stabilize the economy, society, and government of the South.  From the time period of 1866 through 1872, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina begin to lease out convicts for labor.  As these states released larger and larger blocks of prisoners into the convict lease system to work for private companies, prison labor worked to reinforce a racial social order in the South.

The role of penal labor in the United States is mainly designed to benefit the states and their economies through the generation of revenue and power to uphold a market order.

Increases in prison labor participation began in 1979 with the formation of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program. The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) is a federal program that was initiated along with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Prison-Industries Act in 1979. This program legalized the transportation of prison-made goods across state lines and allows prison inmates to earn market wages in private sector jobs that can go towards tax deductions, victim compensation, family support, and room and board.

In more recent years, prison labor continues to be used by corporations, especially in the private prison sector. Corporations, especially those in the technology and food industries, contract prison labor, as it is legal and often completely encouraged by government legislature.  The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) serves as a federal tax credit that grants employers $2,400 for every work-release employed inmate.[8] “Prison in-sourcing” has increasingly grown in popularity as the cheaper alternative to outsourcing with a wide variety of companies such as Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Target, IBM, Texas Instruments, Boeing, Nordstrom, Intel, Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, Aramark, AT&T, BP, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike, Honda, Macy’s and Sprint and many more actively participating in prison in-sourcing throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

The portrayal of prison-building/expansion as a means of creating employment opportunities through the utilization of inmate labor are particularly harmful elements of the prison-industrial complex in the United States as they boast clear economic benefits at the expense of the incarcerated populace. Prison labor also glorifies the prioritization of personal financial gain over ensuring one’s debt to society is adequately paid or actual rehabilitation process for criminals.


The current state of prison labor in the United States has distinct roots in slavery traditions. With the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865, slavery was deemed unconstitutional with the exception as for a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. This caveat allowed those incarcerated to be forced to work without constitutional rights granted to them. The forced prison labor was then used to reinforce a system of racial control for years past. Southern states would criminalize minor crimes through “black codes” which drove up the arrest rate of freedmen and forced them to participate in penal labor when they could not afford the fines. During the Reconstruction era in order to boost the Southern economy, the institutionalization of convict leasing began to take effect.

Convict lease

The “convict lease” system became popular throughout the American South following the American Civil War and into the 20th century. Since the impoverished state governments could not afford penitentiaries, they leased out prisoners to work at private firms. According to Douglas A. Blackmon, because of the revenue received by local governments, they had incentives to arrest blacks; tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested and leased to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. In Florida, convicts were often sent to work in lumber camps and turpentine factories.  The state governments maximized profits by putting the responsibility on the lessee to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for the prisoners, with little oversight. This resulted in extremely poor conditions, numerous deaths, and perhaps the most inhumane system of labor in the United States.  Reformers abolished convict leasing in the 20th-century Progressive Era, stopping the system in Florida in 1919. The last state to abolish the practice was Alabama in 1927.

Convict leasing was one of the major contributors to the disenfranchisement of blacks across the South through the 20th century and worked to exclude African-Americans from the political system alongside a rising wave of lynching of blacks by white mobs. American criminologist Thorsten Sellin asserts that the sole aim of convict leasing “was financial profit to the lessees who exploited the labor of the prisoners to the fullest, and to the government which sold the convicts to the lessees.”  Although the leasing system came to a close, convict labor never ceased and continues today in various forms.

Hired Convict Labor

The earliest known law permitting convicts to be paid for their labor traces back to an act passed by New York governor John Jay in 1796. More explicit legislation suggesting that “it may be useful to allow [prisoners] a reasonable portion of the fruits of their labor” was later enacted in 1817 under Daniel D. Tompkins, only to be repealed the following year.

In 1924, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, held a conference on the “ruinous and unfair competition between prison-made products and free industry and labor” (70 Cong. Rec. S656 (1928)).  The eventual legislative response to the committee’s report led to federal laws regulating the manufacture, sale and distribution of prison-made products. Congress enacted the Hawes-Cooper Act in 1929, the Ashurst-Sumners Act in 1935 (now known as 18 U.S.C. § 1761(a)), and the Walsh-Healey Act in 1936. Walsh controlled the production of prison-made goods while Ashurst prohibited the distribution of such products in interstate transportation or commerce.  Both statutes authorized federal criminal prosecutions for violations of state laws enacted pursuant to the Hawes-Cooper Act. Private companies got involved again in 1979, when Congress passed a law establishing the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program which allows employment opportunities for prisoners in some circumstances.  PIECP relaxed the restrictions imposed under the Ashurst-Sumners and Walsh-Healey Acts, and allowed for the manufacture, sale and distribution of prisoner-made products across state lines.  However, PIECP limited participation in the program to 38 jurisdictions (later increased to 50), and required each to apply to the U.S. Department of Justice for certification.

According to the International Labor Organization, in 2000-2011 wages in American prisons ranged between $0.23 and $1.15 an hour. In California, prisoners earn between $0.30 and $0.95 an hour before deductions.

Over the years, the courts have held that inmates may be required to work and are not protected by the constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude. They have also consistently held that inmates have no constitutional right to compensation and that inmates are paid by the “grace of the state.” Under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all able-bodied sentenced prisoners were required to work, except those who participated full-time in education or other treatment programs or who were considered security risks. Correctional standards promulgated by the American Correctional Association provide that sentenced inmates, who are generally housed in maximum, medium, or minimum security prisons, be required to work and be paid for that work. Some states require, as with Arizona, all able-bodied inmates to work.

Inmates have reported that some private companies, such as Martori Farms, do not check for medical background or age when pulling women for jobs.

Modern prison labor systems

Mississippi for-profit prison labor
Forced labor exists in many prisons. In Mississippi, Parchman Farm operated as a for-profit plantation, which yielded revenues for the state from its earliest years. Many prisoners were used to clear the dense growth in the Mississippi bottomland, and then to cultivate the land for agriculture. By the mid-20th century, it had 21,000 acres (8,498 ha) under cultivation. In the late 20th century, prison conditions were investigated under civil rights laws, when abuses of prisoners and harsh working conditions were exposed. These revelations during the 1970s led the state to abandon the for-profit aspect of its forced labor from convicts and planned to hire a professional penologist to head the prison. A state commission recommended reducing the size of acreage, to grow only what is needed for the prison.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
The 2017 Northern California wildfires consumed over 201,000 acres of land and took 42 lives. The state fire agency, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), mobilized over 11,000 firefighters in response, of which 1,500 were prisoners of minimum security conservation camps overseen by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 43 conservation camps for adult offenders exist in California and 30 to 40% of CAL FIRE firefighters are inmates from these camps. Inmates within the firefighting programs receive 2 days off for every day they spend in the conservation camps and receive around US$2 per hour. Most California inmate programs inside of institutions receive a little over $0.25 to $1.25 per hour for labor. The inmate firefighter camps have their origins in the prisoner work camps that built many of the roads across rural and remote areas of California during the early 1900s.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Responsible for the largest prison population in the United States (over 140,000 inmates) the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is known for being one of the most profitable prison systems in the country on part to their prison labor system. Prisoners do a variety of labor and tasks from raising, processing, and harvesting meat and vegetables to manufacturing soap and clothing items.  The inmates receive no monetary salary or compensation for their labor and receive other rewards in time credits, which could work towards cutting down a prison sentence and allow for early release under mandatory supervision. Prisoners are allotted to work up to 12 hours per day. The penal labor system, managed by Texas Correctional Industries, were valued at US$88.9 million in 2014.  The Texas Department of Criminal Justice states that the prisoner’s free labor pays for room and board while the work they perform in prison equips inmates with the skills and experience necessary to gain and maintain employment after they are released. Texas is one of the 4 states in the United States that does not pay inmates for their labor in monetary funds, with the other states being Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama.

Georgia Department of Corrections
Pat Biegler, director of the Georgia Public Works department stated that the prison labor system implemented in Georgia facilities saves the department around US$140,000 per week. The largest county prison work camp in Columbus, Georgia, Muscogee County Prison, saves the city around $17 to US$20 million annually according to officials, with local entities also benefiting from the monetary funds the program receives from the state of Georgia.  According to Prison Warden of Muscogee County Prison, Dwight Hamrick, the top priority is to provide prison labor to Columbus Consolidated Government and to rehabilitate inmates, with all inmates being required to work. Inmates performing tasks related to sanitation, golf course, recycling, and landfill receive a monetary compensation of around US$3 per day, while those in jobs such as facility maintenance, transportation, and street beautification do not receive any compensation.

Prison Labor Legislation

Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR or FPI) is a wholly owned United States government corporation created in 1934 that uses penal labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to produce goods and services. FPI is restricted to selling its products and services to federal government agencies, with some recent exceptions.

The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) is a federal program that was initiated along with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Prison-Industries Act in 1979.  This program legalized the transportation of prison-made goods across state lines and allows prison inmates to earn market wages in private sector jobs that can go towards tax deductions, victim compensation, family support, and room and board. The PIECP, ALEC, and Prison-Industries Act were created with the goal of motivating state and local governments to create employment opportunities that mimic private sector work, generate services that allow offenders to contribute to society, offset the cost of their incarceration, reduce inmate idleness, cultivate job skills, and improve the success rates of transition back into the community after release. Before these programs, prison labor for the private sector had been outlawed for decades to avoid competition. The introduction of prison labor in the private sector, the implementation of PIECP, ALEC, and Prison-Industries Act in state prisons all contributed a substantial role in cultivating the prison-industrial complex. Between the years 1980 through 1994, prison industry profits jumped substantially from $392 million to $1.31 billion. copied content from Prison-industrial complex; see that page’s history for attribution

The Prison-Industries Act allowed third-party companies to buy prison manufactured goods from prison factories and sell the products locally or ship them across state lines.  Through the program PIECP, there were “thirty jurisdictions with active [PIE] operations.” in states such as Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and twelve others.

California Prison Industry Authority is an entity within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that develops and operates industrial, agricultural, and service enterprises using penal labor.


Free Alabama Movement
Three prisoners — Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council — who led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement have been in solitary confinement since the start of the labor strike. Protests took place in three Alabama prisons, and the movement has smuggled out videos and pictures of abusive conditions, and authorities say the men will remain in solitary confinement indefinitely. The prisoners’ work stoppages and refusal to cooperate with authorities in Alabama are modeled on actions that took place in the Georgia prison system in December 2010. The strike leaders argue that refusing to work is a tactic that would force prison authorities to hire compensated labor or to induce the prisoners to return to their jobs by paying a fair wage. Prisoners appear to be currently organizing in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Council, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, said “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have [prisoners] that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”

Ray said “We do not believe in the political process … We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline. We have focused our first boycott on McDonald’s. McDonald’s uses prisoners to process beef for patties and package bread, milk, chicken products. We have called for a national Stop Campaign against McDonald’s. We have identified this corporation to expose all the others. There are too many corporations exploiting prison labor to try and take them all on at once.””

“The Convict Lease System and Lynch Law are twin infamies which flourish hand in hand in many of the United States.  They are the two great outgrowths and results of the class legislation under which our people suffer today”
Frederick Douglas

PBS: Slavery by Another Name (Convict Leasing)

Wikipedia: Convict leasing

“Convict leasing was a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States. Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations (e.g. Tennessee Coal and Iron Company). The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners. The state of Louisiana leased out convicts as early as 1844, but the system expanded all through the South with the emancipation of slaves at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It could be lucrative for the states: in 1898 some 73% of Alabama’s entire annual state revenue came from convict leasing…

…Convict leasing in the United States was widespread in the South during the Reconstruction Period. (1865–1877) after the end of the Civil War, when many southern legislatures were ruled by majority coalitions of blacks and Radical Republicans, and Union generals acted as military governors. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force once their slaves had been freed. Some southern legislatures passed Black Codes to restrict free movement of blacks and force them into employment with whites. If convicted of vagrancy, blacks could be imprisoned, and they also received sentences for a variety of petty offenses. States began to lease convict labor to the plantations and other facilities seeking labor, as the freedmen were trying to withdraw and work for themselves. This provided the states with a new source of revenue during years when they were financially strapped, and lessees profited by the use of forced labor at below market rates…

…While northern states sometimes contracted for prison labor, the historian Alex Lichtenstein notes that,

“only in the South did the state entirely give up its control to the contractor; and only in the South did the physical “penitentiary” become virtually synonymous with the various private enterprises in which convicts labored.”

Corruption, lack of accountability, and racial violence resulted in “one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.” African Americans, mostly adult males, due to “vigorous and selective enforcement of laws and discriminatory sentencing,” made up the vast majority—but not all—of the convicts leased.

The writer Douglas A. Blackmon described the system:

“It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.”

U.S. Steel is among American companies who have acknowledged using African-American leased convict labor.  The practice peaked around 1880, was formally outlawed by the last state (Alabama) in 1928, and persisted in various forms until it was abolished by President Franklin D. Roosevelt via Francis Biddle’s “Circular 3591″ of December 12, 1941.”

PBS: “Inside Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison

“The history of Mississippi State Penitentiary is a history of failed reforms. Its creation in 1901 was borne of a statewide shame and frustration at the contemporary system of convict leasing, writes David Oshinsky, historian and author of “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.”

In the Reconstructionist south, states’ coffers were empty, prisons destroyed, and their former free labor supply was emancipated. Many southern states, including Mississippi, began arresting almost exclusively young, black men on charges ranging from laundering to larceny to murder. Some were legitimate, but many more were fabricated or embellished. The state began leasing the prisoners to wealthy contractors, who would further sublease them to companies.

“The convicts, under convict leasing, would do the kind of work that free labor would not want to do. In other words, the work a white worker might not want to do,” Oshinsky said.

Under convict leasing, the inmates were essentially slaves again, Oshinsky said. They worked long hours for no pay, were poorly fed, and slept in tents at work sites doing dangerous jobs like dynamiting tunnels for railroad companies and clearing malarial-filled swamps for construction. Convicts, sometimes including children under age 10, were whipped and beaten, underfed, and rarely given medical treatment. Oshinksy writes that between 9 and 16 percent of convicts died yearly in the 1880s.

But poor whites began to resent the system that drove wages down for free workers. In 1904, Mississippi elected a new governor – James Kimble Vardaman – who aimed to reform the system, in part to benefit the lower-class whites. Parchman’s first year of operation was in 1905. It was massive, remote, and modeled after a traditional southern plantation.

Parchman was originally comprised of three separate farms: a small farm, which was maintained by white convicts, a smaller one farmed by women (mostly black), and a huge sprawling plantation for the prison’s black convicts. Over 20,000 acres and 46 miles, it was intended to be self-sufficient and profitable for the state, and it was.

Convicts, called gunmen, picked cotton under the watch of the most violent offenders, who were given guns and called trusty-shooters, or trusties, Oshinsky said. Hogjaw and Kinnie, the trusties Ward writes about in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” were also real men; in 1947 Hogjaw was pardoned for killing an escaping convict. The farm was profitable; in 1918, Oshinsky wrote that the prison had a net revenue of $825,000, or about $800 per inmate.

In 1911, The New York Times ran a sprawling spread in the Sunday edition which heaped praise on the prison.

“The pride of Mississippi, however, is the ‘Parchman Place,’” the article read. “Actually instances have been known of when negroes were turned out of the penitentiary, given a new suit and $10 in money, they would not want to leave and would inquire if there was not some way by which they could stay there.”

But the reality, says Oshinksy, is that Parchman was nearly uninhabitable. Convicts worked six days a week, lived in barracks with no separation or classification by crime, and were often subject to punishment by a whip referred to as “Black Annie.”

Destination Doom

Parchman Farm stayed this way, more or less, for the next 70 years. Cotton picking became mechanized and the state instituted some small reforms. A relatively impotent parole board deferred to the superintendent, Oshinksy writes, and small vocational and educational programs excluded black prisoners. A maximum security unit with a guard tower, fences, and gates housed individual cells, a gas chamber for executions, and a solitary confinement wing.

Otherwise, Parchman remained frozen in time, a segregated, harsh prison farm. It was during this period that it housed some of its most famous prisoners: Elvis Presley’s father Vernon was imprisoned in 1938 for “check forgery,” and blues singers Bukka White and Son House for dubious claims of violence. After his release, White composed his famous “Parchman Farm Blues,” which warned young men about the horror of the prison.

Some of the Freedom Riders, a group of interracial young civil rights activists who boycotted Jim Crow laws, served time at Parchman, although they were segregated from the general population. Claude Liggins, 77, said the racism by the guards at Parchman was mostly directed at the white Freedom Riders. “They couldn’t understand why they would want to go against their own race and support us,” Liggins, who is black, said. “They had several white men who were beaten almost to death.”

In 1971, a civil rights lawyer named Roy Haber visited a convict at Parchman who was challenging his conviction. While there, Haber heard accounts from other inmates and personally witnessed the conditions, which he described as the last legal vestiges of slavery.

Almost a century earlier, the 13th amendment had abolished slavery in all cases except in penal servitude. “You can make somebody work if they’re a prisoner. Using that distinction, they were able to maintain a slave state within the prison,” Haber said.

Haber represented the inmates in a class action lawsuit against the prison in the now landmark case of Gates v. Collier. In 1971, the judge ruled in favor of the inmates, and throughout the next decade, he forced the prison to desegregate, eliminate “Black Annie” and other unconstitutional forms of punishment, and end the forced field labor.

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History of the War on Drugs

According to ACLU, “Drug arrests now account for a quarter of the people locked up in America, but drug use rates have remained steady. Over the last 40 years, we have spent trillions of dollars on the failed and ineffective War on Drugs. Drug use has not declined, while millions of people—disproportionately poor people and people of color—have been caged and then branded with criminal records that pose barriers to employment, housing, and stability.”

Drug Policy: A Brief History of the Drug War

Nixon and the Generation Gap

In the 1960s, as drugs became symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent, the government halted scientific research to evaluate their medical safety and efficacy. In June 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.

A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted: “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”Nixon temporarily placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by a commission he appointed led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer.

In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations. Between 1973 and 1977, however, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession. In January 1977, President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a campaign platform that included marijuana decriminalization. In October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Within just a few years, though, the tide had shifted. Proposals to decriminalize marijuana were abandoned as parents became increasingly concerned about high rates of teen marijuana use. Marijuana was ultimately caught up in a broader cultural backlash against the perceived permissiveness of the 1970s.

The 1980s and 90s: Drug Hysteria and Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates

The presidency of Ronald Reagan marked the start of a long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration, largely thanks to his unprecedented expansion of the drug war. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.

Public concern about illicit drug use built throughout the 1980s, largely due to media portrayals of people addicted to the smokeable form of cocaine dubbed “crack.” Soon after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his wife, Nancy Reagan, began a highly-publicized anti-drug campaign, coining the slogan “Just Say No.”

This set the stage for the zero tolerance policies implemented in the mid-to-late 1980s. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who believed that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot,” founded the DARE drug education program, which was quickly adopted nationwide despite the lack of evidence of its effectiveness. The increasingly harsh drug policies also blocked the expansion of syringe access programs and other harm reduction policies to reduce the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.

In the late 1980s, a political hysteria about drugs led to the passage of draconian penalties in Congress and state legislatures that rapidly increased the prison population. In 1985, the proportion of Americans polled who saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem” was just 2-6 percent. The figure grew through the remainder of the 1980s until, in September 1989, it reached a remarkable 64 percent – one of the most intense fixations by the American public on any issue in polling history. Within less than a year, however, the figure plummeted to less than 10 percent, as the media lost interest. The draconian policies enacted during the hysteria remained, however, and continued to result in escalating levels of arrests and incarceration.

Although Bill Clinton advocated for treatment instead of incarceration during his 1992 presidential campaign, after his first few months in the White House he reverted to the drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors by continuing to escalate the drug war. Notoriously, Clinton rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.

He also rejected, with the encouragement of drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, Health Secretary Donna Shalala’s advice to end the federal ban on funding for syringe access programs. Yet, a month before leaving office, Clinton asserted in a Rolling Stone interview that “we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment” of people who use drugs, and said that marijuana use “should be decriminalized.”

At the height of the drug war hysteria in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a movement emerged seeking a new approach to drug policy. In 1987, Arnold Trebach and Kevin Zeese founded the Drug Policy Foundation – describing it as the “loyal opposition to the war on drugs.” Prominent conservatives such as William Buckley and Milton Friedman had long advocated for ending drug prohibition, as had civil libertarians such as longtime ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser. In the late 1980s they were joined by Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Federal Judge Robert Sweet, Princeton professor Ethan Nadelmann, and other activists, scholars and policymakers.

In 1994, Nadelmann founded The Lindesmith Center as the first U.S. project of George Soros’ Open Society Institute. In 2000, the growing Center merged with the Drug Policy Foundation to create the Drug Policy Alliance.

The New Millennium: The Pendulum Shifts – Slowly – Toward Sensible Drug Policy

George W. Bush arrived in the White House as the drug war was running out of steam – yet he allocated more money than ever to it. His drug czar, John Walters, zealously focused on marijuana and launched a major campaign to promote student drug testing. While rates of illicit drug use remained constant, overdose fatalities rose rapidly.

The era of George W. Bush also witnessed the rapid escalation of the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement. By the end of Bush’s term, there were about 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year – mostly for nonviolent drug law offenses, often misdemeanors. While federal reform mostly stalled under Bush, state-level reforms finally began to slow the growth of the drug war.

Politicians now routinely admit to having used marijuana, and even cocaine, when they were younger. When Michael Bloomberg was questioned during his 2001 mayoral campaign about whether he had ever used marijuana, he said, “You bet I did – and I enjoyed it.” Barack Obama also candidly discussed his prior cocaine and marijuana use: “When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently – that was the point.”

Public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of sensible reforms that expand health-based approaches while reducing the role of criminalization in drug policy.

Marijuana reform has gained unprecedented momentum throughout the Americas. Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington State, and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for adults. In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legally regulate marijuana. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans legalize marijuana for adults by 2018.

In response to a worsening overdose epidemic, dozens of U.S. states passed laws to increase access to the overdose antidote, naloxone, as well as “911 Good Samaritan” laws to encourage people to seek medical help in the event of an overdose.

Yet the assault on American citizens and others continues, with 700,000 people still arrested for marijuana offenses each year and almost 500,000 people still behind bars for nothing more than a drug law violation.

President Obama, despite supporting several successful policy changes – such as reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, ending the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, and ending federal interference with state medical marijuana laws – did not shift the majority of drug policy funding to a health-based approach.

Now, the new administration is threatening to take us backward toward a 1980s style drug war. President Trump is calling for a wall to keep drugs out of the country, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear that he does not support the sovereignty of states to legalize marijuana, and believes “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Progress is inevitably slow, and even with an administration hostile to reform there is still unprecedented momentum behind drug policy reform in states and localities across the country. The Drug Policy Alliance and its allies will continue to advocate for health-based reforms such as marijuana legalization, drug decriminalization, safe consumption sites, naloxone access, bail reform, and more.”

Jacobin: How a Democrat Killed Welfare

Bill Clinton gutted welfare and criminalized the poor, all while funneling more money into the carceral state.

“Bill Clinton’s 1992 election was meant to be a turning point in American politics. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief, believing him to be a much-needed break from the Reagan-Bush era of “small government” and social welfare cuts.But the optimism surrounding Clinton’s election — and favorable assessments of his time in office since — ignore the destruction his administration brought to poor and working people, especially African Americans, and mask not only the continuation but intensification of anti-poor policies. Rather than offering a reprieve from punitive austerity, Clinton took the Reagan-Bush agenda a step further. If his administration was a turning point, it turned us in the wrong direction.

In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in history, which allocated $10 billion for prison construction, expanded the death penalty, and eliminated federal funding for inmate education. The act intensified police surveillance and racial profiling, and locked up millions for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession. It helped usher in the era of mass incarceration that devastated communities of color (for which Clinton himself has recently apologized).

Clinton’s simultaneous expansion of federal law enforcement and shrinking of the federal workforce to its lowest level in thirty years reallocated taxpayer dollars from employing people in social service jobs to putting more cops on the streets.

The starkest example of the many racist and anti-poor measures directed at African Americans and passed during his administration was the 1996 welfare reform bill, which transformed welfare from an exclusive and unequal cash assistance system that stigmatized its recipients into one that actually criminalized them.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended traditional welfare by turning a federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), into block grants, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF established tougher mandates on poor single mothers and gave states more flexibility in how they spent welfare dollars (opening the door for increased discrimination against minorities).

It prohibits anyone from receiving assistance for more than two consecutive years or for more than five years over the course of their life. The act also requires aid recipients to be employed, in most cases, at least thirty hours a week to get their welfare checks, amounting to an hourly wage well below the legal minimum.

Once recipients reach their program time limit, TANF forces them even further into the labor market with little consideration of how they could ensure their children are properly cared for or whether paid employment will earn them an adequate wage. Many more are not even able to find work. A 2012 report by the Urban Institute concluded that for recipients with barriers to employment, TANF did little to help them find jobs.

Sweeping in scope, TANF contains clauses to bolster marriage, mandate job training, and offer parenting classes. The “flexibility” that was a hallmark of the welfare reform bill enabled states to shift welfare funds away from direct cash assistance toward child care programs or subsidies for companies hiring welfare recipients, meaning that a greater portion of public welfare dollars went to the private sector.

States were pressured to reduce welfare rolls — now the singular quantitative measure of success for the program — and used multiple strategies to deter the needy from applying for aid. They implemented complicated and demeaning application procedures and relied on fingerprinting and drug testing to weed out the “criminal element” — even though there was little evidence of widespread criminal activity among recipients.

The net result was that all recipients and applicants were assumed to be potential criminals. Surveillance of low-income women punished black women in disproportionate numbers, resulting in more black children in foster care and black women in prison. Today, welfare and law enforcement work together to closely monitor the parenting of poor mothers.

These punitive policies were not new, but rather an extension of a long, racialized attack on welfare. AFDC was not controversial when it was instituted in the 1930s. Many people subscribed to traditional ideas about gender roles, believing that poor single mothers without a male breadwinner should be supported by the state in order to enable them to stay home and care for their children.

The overwhelming majority of recipients at the time, however, were white women. Women of color were considered less deserving of assistance. State and local social administrators of AFDC, especially in the South, systematically excluded African Americans and Mexican Americans from welfare receipt through “suitable home clauses” and “employable mother laws,” which denied assistance to mothers who didn’t keep “proper” homes or who it was believed could get a job and become self-supporting.

As black migration to the North intensified, more women of color applied for assistance, resulting in opposition to the welfare program. Journalists wrote about welfare fraud and the “problem” of black migration, and there were growing calls to get people off the rolls. In 1967, the Johnson administration instituted a Work Incentive Program (WIN), the first-ever mandatory federal employment rule for AFDC, requiring states to direct a portion of their welfare population to employment programs.

This landmark legislation shifted the role of welfare away from support for single mothers toward one of requiring those mothers to take paid employment outside the home. Although symbolically important because it signaled a new direction in federal policy, WIN was never adequately funded nor effectively enforced. The welfare rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s opposed the mandatory work rules and fought for higher monthly benefits, tempering some of these regressive policies. But only temporarily.

The punitive approach to addressing poverty was a result of the way race and poverty had become intertwined in the national debate. In the 1960s, urban social disorder, black demands for economic equality, and federal anti-poverty initiatives drew the nation’s attention to the persistent problem of black poverty. But the dominant liberal approach explained poverty as a product of black culture, reinforcing the notion that certain poor people were responsible for their own poverty.

Most notoriously articulated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the culture of poverty argument suggested that a dysfunctional family structure — in particular single-parent families — was a primary reason for persistent African-American inequality.

The solution became one of attempting to instill proper values of work and marriage in black men and women. Poor black women were demonized as “welfare queens,” a trope popularized by Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, which implied that black women chose welfare over work and milked the system for all it was worth. This rhetoric was used to justify sweeping cuts in welfare spending.

Likewise, Clinton’s welfare reform bill was rooted in a culture of poverty argument, evidenced by his racially coded language of dependency and people taking advantage of the system. Stereotypes about women were the foundation of the 1996 welfare reform debate.

Clinton alluded to the fear of black street crime, drug use, crack babies, the breakdown of the family, and the drain on public dollars. His primary goal in dismantling AFDC, as he put it, was to end the “cycle of dependence” and “achieve a national welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of the land.”

Clinton did not offer a departure from either earlier liberal policies that blamed the poor for their poverty or neoliberal economics. Instead, he turned what had been a few piecemeal reforms into a systematic overhaul of federal policy that led to the criminalization of the welfare poor. He redirected state resources away from financial support for the needy and toward surveillance and criminalization.

In an era of market worship, those who couldn’t demonstrate self-reliance or independence were identified not only as unworthy of assistance, but as a potential threat to the core institutions of American society.

Clinton’s dismantling of welfare, couched in a language of personal responsibility and public policy correction, was the culmination of a trend among both Democrats and Republicans to deter and discourage poor women of color from applying for assistance. In this regard, there was little new about the “New Democrat.””

The Atlantic: Jeff Sessions Reinvigorates the Drug War

“Democratic and Republican officials alike took up the banner of criminal-justice reform over the past five years, hoping to reduce the nation’s unprecedented prison population and scale back the harshest punishments of the tough-on-crime era. Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a major step toward rolling back their efforts.In a memo released Friday, Sessions instructed federal prosecutors nationwide to seek the strongest possible charges and sentences against defendants they target. “It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” he wrote. “This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences.”Friday’s policy change effectively rescinds Obama-era guidelines for federal prosecutors that were designed to curtail the harshest sentences for defendants charged with low-level drug offenses. The previous memo, first promulgated by then-Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013, reserved the most severe options in the federal sentencing guidelines for “serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers” instead of defendants charged with lower-level offenses. Holder’s changes addressed longstanding criticisms of the federal posture toward drug crimes. “In some cases, mandatory-minimum and recidivist-enhancement statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution,” he wrote at the time. “Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”
To that end, he instructed prosecutors not to list the quantity of drugs seized when charging a defendant unless he or she was “an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others within a criminal organization,” had used violence, or had a lengthy criminal history. Prosecutors should also consider, he said, if their charges “would create a gross sentencing disparity” compared with other defendants.Sessions’s new memo effectively rejects that stance, insisting on seeking the maximum punishments lawfully possible. “Prosecutors must disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory-minimum sentences, and should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors” prescribed by federal drug laws, he wrote. Any deviations from the policy require “supervisory approval” from the Justice Department…
…Rolling back Justice Department policies to a more draconian era wouldn’t be a surprising move for the former Alabama senator. As policing and justice issues rose to the forefront of the national conversation in recent years, Sessions became a frequent critic of reform efforts, including federal oversight of local law enforcement. He also played a prominent role in scuttling a bipartisan sentencing-reform bill in the Senate last year that had the support of figures ranging from Barack Obama to the Koch brothers.Framing the attorney general’s policy change is a one-year uptick in national crime rates after almost two decades of precipitous decline. “My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a ‘blip,’ but the start of a dangerous new trend,” he said during a speech in Richmond in March. “I worry that we risk losing the hard-won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place.” An immigration hardliner, Sessions has also tried to draw connections between immigrants and crime while criticizing sanctuary cities like New York City and San Francisco that don’t cooperate with federal immigration policy.
Sessions isn’t the administration’s only voice for a harsher criminal-justice stance. Trump has also cast the possible threat of higher crime in dramatic terms, portraying himself as its only solution. “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” he said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last year. During his inaugural address in January, he told the crowd that drugs, gangs, and crime “have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he added.Proponents of criminal-justice reform haven’t let the Trump administration’s portrayal of crime in American life go unchallenged. In a report analyzing crime trends from 1990 to 2016 published last month, the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice concluded that the nationwide murder rate rose an estimated 7.8 percent last year. (A complete assessment of crime in 2016 won’t be available until the FBI releases its annual statistical report later this year.) But the Brennan Center noted that a large share of the increase could be attributed to a spike in homicides in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., instead of a nationwide surge.What’s behind the increase in homicides in those cities is also unclear. Chicago’s steady increase in gun violence has drawn the most scrutiny, including from Trump himself, who threatened to “send in the Feds” if necessary. (It’s unclear what that would entail.) Researchers studying the homicide rate in Chicago haven’t discerned any specific cause for the rise, even among factors usually blamed for rising crime.Friday’s memo is expected to be the first of many breaks the attorney general makes with Obama-era policies on high-profile criminal-justice matters. Sessions previously ordered a comprehensive review of the Justice Department’s consent decrees with local police departments. Those agreements were among the Obama Justice Department’s most valued tools in reforming troubled law-enforcement agencies. Sessions, however, has been a frequent critic of the decrees in general, describing them as unnecessary federal intrusion into the local policing practices.”

Jay Z – The War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush

Jezebel: Nixon Policy Advisor Admits He Invented War On Drugs to Suppress ‘Anti-War Left and Black People’

“Dan Baum, writing in support of drug legalization at Harper’s, has unleashed a frank 1994 quote from former Nixon policy advisor John Ehrlichman, and as inadvertently salient an argument for legalizing drugs as any I’ve ever seen:

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

I must have looked shocked. Ehrlichman just shrugged. Then he looked at his watch, handed me a signed copy of his steamy spy novel, The Company, and led me to the door.

Bold mine.

That drugs have been used as a tactic to marginalize and imprison peoples who are inconvenient, so to speak, for conservatives and neo-cons doesn’t really come as a surprise—and not just because Nixon was a noted racist. The War on Drugs was a Nixon invention but, as Baum explains, it’s been useful for every president thereafter, and its function as a suppressive tool didn’t exactly wane—recall the way it defined Reagan’s crack era, which was funneled into black neighborhoods by the CIA and then used to decimate an entire generation. Or the way relatively minor drug offenses are the main contributor to the current mass incarceration crisis, which disproportionately affects young black and brown men.

Adjacent to this, Baum lays out a clear and logical argument for the way legalization could work, using Portugal and the Netherlands as precedents, and advocating for it to remain in the control of the state—a “state-run monopoly”—rather than free markets, lest addiction become a market incentive the way it has with alcohol and cigarettes. (Of course, the deeper problem of racial prejudice remains strong in this scenario too—the legal weed market has already locked out people of color to a dramatic and unfair degree, and black people are much more likely to be arrested for pot-related offenses even in states where it’s legal.) Baum cites the way marijuana is regulated in his home state of Colorado (of course this dude is from Boulder), but also makes the case that weed is the path to killing the drug war, in its capacity as an admitted racist and antiliberal Nixonian tool:

The citizens of the U.S. jurisdictions that legalized marijuana may have set in motion more machinery than most of them had imagined. “Without marijuana prohibition, the government can’t sustain the drug war,” Ira Glasser, who ran the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001, told me. “Without marijuana, the use of drugs is negligible, and you can’t justify the law-enforcement and prison spending on the other drugs. Their use is vanishingly small. I always thought that if you could cut the marijuana head off the beast, the drug war couldn’t be sustained.”


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Prisons Today: Private Prisons and Profits

Private prisons: How US corporations make money out of locking you up

Global Research Article, “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?

Human rights organizations, as well as political and social ones, are condemning what they are calling a new form of inhumane exploitation in the United States, where they say a prison population of up to 2 million – mostly Black and Hispanic – are working for various industries for a pittance. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don’t have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.”

Currently, there are approximately 2 million inmates incarcerated in state, federal, and private prisons throughout the country. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”

The figures reflect that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: Sadly, the U.S. has a half million more prisoners than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Additionally, statistics show that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, but only 5% of the world’s population. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population exploded to more than 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates- today, there are 100 private prisons, with 62,000 inmates. And according to reports, projections show that by the coming decade, the number is expected to reach 360,000.

What has happened over the last 10 years? Why are there so many prisoners?

“The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.”

The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. The industry also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.”


According to reports by human rights organizations, factors that increase the profit potential for those who invest in the prison industry complex include:

  • Jailing persons convicted of non-violent crimes, and long prison sentences for possession of microscopic quantities of illegal drugs. Federal law stipulates five years’ imprisonment without possibility of parole for possession of 5 grams of crack or 3.5 ounces of heroin, and 10 years for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack. A sentence of 5 years for cocaine powder requires possession of 500 grams – 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence. Most of those who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly Blacks and Latinos use rock cocaine. In Texas, a person may be sentenced for up to two years’ imprisonment for possessing 4 ounces of marijuana. In New York, the 1973 Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of 4 ounces of any illegal drug.
  • The passage in 13 states of the “three strikes” law (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies), made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One of the most disturbing cases resulting from this measure was that of a prisoner who received three 25-year sentences, based on convictions involving theft of a car and two bicycles
  • Longer sentences.
  • The passage of laws that require minimum sentencing, without regard for circumstances.
  • A large expansion of work by prisoners creating profits that motivate the incarceration of more people for longer periods of time.
  • More punishment of prisoners, so as to lengthen their sentences…

Who is investing?

…At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generated by prison labor. Between 1980-1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum.

And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month.

Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.

[Former] Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix recently urged Nike to cut its production in Indonesia and bring it to his state, telling the shoe manufacturer that “there won’t be any transportation costs; we’re offering you competitive prison labor (here).”


The prison privatization boom began in the 1980s, under the governments of Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., but reached its height in the 1990s under William Clinton, when Wall Street stocks were selling like hotcakes. Clinton’s program for cutting the federal workforce resulted in the Justice Departments contracting of private prison corporations for the incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates.

Private prisons are the biggest business in the prison industry complex. About 18 corporations guard 10,000 prisoners in 27 states. The two largest are Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut, which together control 75%. Private prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one. According to Russell Boraas, a private prison administrator in Virginia, “the secret to low operating costs is having a minimal number of guards for the maximum number of prisoners.” The CCA has an ultra-modern prison in Lawrenceville, Virginia, where five guards on dayshift and two at night watch over 750 prisoners. In these prisons, inmates may get their sentences reduced for “good behavior,” but for any infraction, they get 30 days added – which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.


Profits are so good that now there is a new business: importing inmates with long sentences, meaning the worst criminals. When a federal judge ruled that overcrowding in Texas prisons was cruel and unusual punishment, the CCA signed contracts with sheriffs in poor counties to build and run new jails and share the profits. According to a December 1998 Atlantic Monthly magazine article, this program was backed by investors from Merrill-Lynch, Shearson-Lehman, American Express and Allstate, and the operation was scattered all over rural Texas. That state’s governor, Ann Richards, followed the example of Mario Cuomo in New York and built so many state prisons that the market became flooded, cutting into private prison profits.

After a law signed by Clinton in 1996 – ending court supervision and decisions – caused overcrowding and violent, unsafe conditions in federal prisons, private prison corporations in Texas began to contact other states whose prisons were overcrowded, offering “rent-a-cell” services in the CCA prisons located in small towns throughout Texas. The commission for a rent-a-cell salesman is $2.50 to $5.50 per day per bed. The county gets $1.50 for each prisoner.


  • Ninety-seven percent of 125,000 federal inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes.
  • It is believed that more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent of the crimes they are accused of.
  • Of these, the majority are awaiting trial. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses.
  • Sixteen percent of the country’s 2 million prisoners suffer from mental illness.”

GEO Group Private Prisons and Trump

In the United States, approximately 6% of state prisons, 16% of federal prisons and some local prisons in various states are owned by for-profit companies. This means that a third-party entity is contracted by the government to incarcerate individuals. These private prison companies are paid per-diem per prisoner or prisoner space, even if it is not occupied. The real estate to incarcerate people is some of the most profitable in the U.S. Among other devastating effects such as separating families and increasing mental illness, this has propogated institutionalized slavery cemented in policy-lead systemic racism, with 1 in 3 black men having a better chance of going to prison than to college. The U.S. holds 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s inmates.

Prison privatization began in the 1980’s, with the war and drugs and harsher sentencing for petty crimes (i.e. mandatory sentencing and the three-strikes law). This increased the costs to governments, giving them more incentive to find funding sources, which began their contractual agreements with private companies. Private companies hold 130,000 prisoners and 16,000 civil immigration detainees, allowing the top two companies to become billionaires Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Grouptood at nearly $3 billion). These institutions house civil rights violations and corruption from physical abuse, medical neglect and sexual harassment within these detention facilities. In 1984, a number of investors in Tennessee created the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) used venture capital to lease out and profit off of prisoners in cells/per-bed. It is now the largest private corrections company in the U.S., with its worth at $1.7 billion in 2012. These companies are also contracted to house undocumented immigrants and resident aliens, many of which reside in inhumane conditions

Private Prison Influence Over Judges

According to NPR,

“A Pennsylvania judge was sentenced to 28 years in prison in connection to a bribery scandal that roiled the state’s juvenile justice system. Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. was convicted of taking $1 million in bribes from developers of juvenile detention centers. The judge then presided over cases that would send juveniles to those same centers. The case came to be known as “kids-for-cash.””

Trump Administration Reverses Obama’s Attempt to Decrease Private Prisons

According to a February 2017 Time article,

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Thursday his strong support for the federal government’s continued use of private prisons, reversing an Obama administration directive to phase out their use. Stock prices of major private prison companies rose at the news.”

Vice: The Immigrant Crackdown Is a Cash Cow for Private Prisons

Detaining immigrants has turned into a very lucrative growth industry

“Earlier this month, Daniel Ragsdale, the second-in-command at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), confirmed he will be leaving his position to work at GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison company. “While you may be losing me as a colleague, please know that I will continue to be a strong advocate for you and your mission,” said Ragsdale in a farewell email to his ICE colleagues.

He’s certainly not going far—GEO operates immigrant detention centers and will likely compete for a contract to run a new facility that will house up to 9,500 undocumented immigrants. (It was just given renewals on two existing contracts, to the tune of $664 million.) Ragsdale isn’t the first to go from ICE to GEO, but his move underscored the close relationship between the federal agency tasked with detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants and the private prison industry that helps house those detained immigrants. As of last year, more than two-thirds of immigrant detainees were housed in private facilities.

“Daniel Ragsdale’s move to GEO is another shameful example of the revolving door that exists between the federal agencies issuing lucrative immigration detention and prison contracts and the private prison companies receiving them,” said a statement from Mary Small, policy director of Detention Watch Network, a national coalition of organizations fighting for immigration detention reform.

“This is a standard tactic for both CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer working for the ACLU’s Prison Project, referring to two largest private prisons companies in the US. “They both hire from federal and state agencies that they are also seeking contacts with.”

Contracts from ICE could be especially important because the US prison population has declined recently as harsh sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders, have become unfashionable.

“GEO group and other major companies have understood that criminal justice is not a growth area,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform nonprofit. “Immigration detention is something these companies are focusing on.”

GEO began contracting with ICE in the mid 80s, when the immigration detention system was a fraction of the size it is today. Then came the toughening of immigration laws in the mid 1990s, which greatly expanded mandatory detention of noncitizens pending their immigration proceedings. After 9//11, border security and visa screening became a priority for the federal government, resulting in the creation of ICE in 2003. Today the US immigrant detention system holds more than 400,000 people every year, with ICE overseeing an expansive network of more than 250 facilities, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. For the 2017 budget, ICE requested $2.2 billion to maintain these facilities; the number of people taken into custody by the agency has risen to more than 40,000 people per day.

ICE has also increasingly outsourced detention to private companies. In 2005, 25 percent of immigrants in ICE custody were in facilities operated by private prison companies. By 2009, that number was 49 percent, and today it is 73 percent, according to a report by the Detention Watch Network. And GEO Group holds more immigrant detainees than any other private prison company.

A 2016 Justice Department report found that private prisons were more likely to have rule violations than government-run facilities, confirming what advocates have long said about private prisons being cruel and inhumane. “Private prisons are a recipe for abuse and neglect,” said Carl Takei. “We have seen over and over again in terms of incidences of violence, understaffing, and medical neglect.”

Adrian Hernandez Garay, who spent 35 months at the Big Spring Correctional Institution, a GEO facility in Texas, told me that he was fed beans and rice seven days a week, a symptom of routine mistreatment. “The conditions inside were very bad. The facilities were old. The guards were poorly trained. If you got sick all they would just give you Tylenol and tell you to get back to your cell,” said Garay, who spoke with me through a translator from his home in Juarez, Mexico.

Garay previously served time at multiple detention centers for illegal re-entry into the US and described the conditions at the GEO facility as “far worse” than the other detentions centers he had been inside. (I reached out to Big Spring for comment and was referred to the GEO press office, who did not respond to my questions about the facility.)

The kinds of abuses described by Garay are not isolated. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found widespread abuse and neglect in immigrant detention centers in six southern states. But the Trump administration so far has shown no desire to reform this system, and instead will likely expand it.

GEO’s hiring of Daniel Ragsdale is, according to Takei, a simple attempt to attain more lucrative contracts. “ICE is a cash cow for these businesses,” said Takei. “They take the expertise they have working for the ICE and use that to lobby for even greater increases in their share of this system of mass detention,” said Bethany Carson, an immigration policy researcher at Grassroots Leadership, an organization working to abolish for-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers.

GEO routinely seeks to influence the federal government via lobbyists like Brian Ballard, who fundraised for Trump, and a pair of former aides to Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general. (Sessions recently rescinded the Obama administration directive to phase out private contacts in the federal prisons system.) GEO also allegedly gave $225,000 to a pro-Trump group, which would have been illegal since federal contractors aren’t permitted to make political contributions.

GEO maintains that it does not lobby directly to effect policy. “As a matter of longstanding policy our company does not advocate for or against specific criminal justice, sentencing or immigration policies” said Pablo Paez, a company spokesperson, in an emailed statement. However the company has clearly allied itself with Trump, whose draconian policies on crime and illegal immigration seem designed to increase the prison population. (Private prison company stocks skyrocketed after the election.) GEO and CoreCivic also support individual policies that would keep more bodies behind bars; a GEO lobbyist recently wrote a bill in Texas that would make it easier to keep detained immigrant children in the same facilities as their parents.

Crucially, these lobbying efforts help keep in place the the controversial immigrant detention bed quota, which requires ICE to maintain and pay for at least 31,000 beds at all times The arbitrary quota has been described by the the Center for Constitutional Rights as a primary driver of an immigrant detention—it also improves assures private prison companies that there will always be a need for their facilities.

This is the result of such a close relationship between private prison companies and the government that hires them—are policies like the bed quota just cynically designed to make these businesses money?

“When you have a situation where there is a mandate whose only benefit is the bottom line of specific companies you have to ask the question,” said Florida Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch, who has fought to end the detention bed mandate.

“We have a policy that requires that tens of thousand of people being rounded up every day,” he added. “It does not make the country any safer. It does exactly the opposite, in the most inhumane way, and it only benefits one group.”

Detention Watch Network: “Immigration Detention 101″

The United States government maintains the world’s largest immigration detention system

Immigration detention is the practice of incarcerating immigrants while they await a determination of their immigration status or potential deportation. In 2016, the United States government detained nearly 360,000 people in a sprawling system of over 200 immigration jails across the country.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that runs the detention system, subcontracts the majority of detention space to county jails and private prison companies.

Immigrants in detention include undocumented and documented immigrants, many who have been in the U.S. for years and are now facing exile, as well as survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including children, pregnant women, and individuals who are seriously ill.

In detention, immigrants are often subjected to harsh conditions of confinement and denied access to adequate medical care, legal counsel and family contact. Since 2003, a reported 180 people have died in immigration custody.

Detention in Numbers

  • Number of beds39,000
  • Number of people detained each year359,520 (FY 2016 – latest numbers)
  • Cost per day$134 for adult detention
    $319 for family detention
  • Detention budget$2.6 billion (FY 2017)
  • Number of facilities205
  • Percent of people held in facilities operated by private companiesmore than 73 percent
  • Number of deaths since 2003180

History of Immigration Detention in the United States

The United States is the world’s leading incarcerator with over two million people in prisons and jails across the country. As the U.S. expanded prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, the detention of immigrants, once a little known practice, began to take shape.

In the early 1980s several thousand Cuban and Haitian refugees arriving on Florida’s shores each year were swept into newly opened detention facilities. Immigration policy began to emulate the criminal justice system in the late ‘80s when, during the height of the War on Drugs, Congress amended the Immigration and Naturalization Act to require the mandatory detention of immigrants with certain criminal convictions. This meant that their detention was automatic and compulsory, without a hearing or any consideration of their circumstances.

The 1990s brought on a paradigm shift in immigration policy, leading to detention being a primary means of immigration enforcement. In 1996, the U.S. enacted legislation that dramatically expanded the use of detention. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded mandatory detention. The 1996 laws also rendered any non-U.S. citizen, including legal permanent residents, vulnerable to detention and deportation.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service or INS was divided into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It also moved from the Department of Justice to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Immigration was now a national security issue and nowhere was this clearer than in ICE’s strategic plan for 2003-2012, Operation Endgame, which stated its purpose to, “promote the public safety and national security by ensuring the departure from the United States of all removable aliens through the fair and effective enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws.”

Under the Obama administration, the implementation of the detention bed quota and the expansion of deportation programs such as 287(g), Secure Communities and the Criminal Alien Program, funneled thousands of immigrants into detention centers. In 2014, we saw even more detention expansion when the White House responded to an influx of Central American refugee families with the resurgence of family detention.

The Trump administration has further expanded these parts of the deportation dragnet — increasing the number of 287(g) agreements and other forms of entanglement with local law enforcement and the criminal legal system — while also ramping up community raids and eliminating the policies that deprioritized detention and deportation for some immigrants under the previous administration.

The drastic expansion of mandatory detention combined with a skyrocketing detention budget has created a sprawling and unaccountable system of mass detention. As a result, the number of individuals detained has grown dramatically. The average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 39,000 in 2017.

After three decades of expansion, the detention system now captures and holds as many as 400,000 immigrants each year.”

Detention Watch Network: Family Detention

“Families fleeing extreme violence in Central America are migrating to the United States in search of refuge. Rather than providing protection, the United States detains women and children seeking asylum in family detention centers.

Family detention is the inhumane and unjust policy of jailing immigrant mothers with their children – including babies. Upon arrival in the U.S., families are locked up in remote and punitive detention centers, with little access to legal and social services, often experiencing widespread human and civil rights violations.

The government expanded the use of family detention in 2014 in an attempt to deter asylum seeking women and children from coming to the U.S. from Central America. This policy was implemented despite the U.S. having a direct hand in creating the violent and unstable conditions prevailing in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador that are causing many to flee.

Families fleeing extreme violence in Central America are migrating to the United States in search of refuge. Rather than providing protection, the United States detains women and children seeking asylum in family detention centers.

Family detention is the inhumane and unjust policy of jailing immigrant mothers with their children – including babies. Upon arrival in the U.S., families are locked up in remote and punitive detention centers, with little access to legal and social services, often experiencing widespread human and civil rights violations.

The government expanded the use of family detention in 2014 in an attempt to deter asylum seeking women and children from coming to the U.S. from Central America. This policy was implemented despite the U.S. having a direct hand in creating the violent and unstable conditions prevailing in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador that are causing many to flee.”

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