Saturday, April 26, 2014

All the Feds Men: The War on Drugs in a For Profit Prison System

For good or bad, the real deep effects of a Presidential reign in America are not seen for generations.  The effects of a President’s vision for America and the laws they get passed to make that vision a reality have real life consequences.  Consequences that the average person feels for the rest of their lives, their children’s lives and grandchildren’s lives.

For instance, one of the first laws that was passed with bipartisan support in the infancy of the Clinton Administration was the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  That was quite a feat since Republicans had fought against FMLA since 1984.

The FMLA was introduced in Congress every year from 1984 to 1993 and was blocked repeatedly by entrenched, well-funded opponents. For years we built and nurtured a strong, broad-based coalition and led fierce and tireless advocacy. Congress passed the legislation in 1991 and 1992 — but it was vetoed both times by President George H.W. Bush…

The end of the story is well known — the FMLA passed with bipartisan support in January 1993 and was signed by President Clinton as the first accomplishment of his new administration. It was a historic day for women and families, and one of our proudest moments as an organization.

Prior to FMLA the illness of a family member or the addition of a child could have cost you your job.  With the passage of FMLA men were able to take an unpaid leave to contribute to the care and nurturing of their child in the first months of their lives.  Today fathers are equal partners in the raising of their children, unlike any generation before.

One of the most egregious effects of presidential visions for America was the “War on Drugs” and the effects have been devastating for multiple generations.  

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. 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.

So the placement of marijuana as a Schedule One drug, (the most dangerous drug with no medicinal purposes) was to be temporary until a commission he appointed could review the drug.  That Republican commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing marijuana in 1972.  So what did President Nixon do?

Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations.

States began to follow Nixon’s “war on drugs,” first with New York enacting the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws in 1973. The laws, named for then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, required long mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for even first-time, nonviolent drug offenses. Gov. Rockefeller said it was time to take a criminal justice approach to drug policy. Other states followed New York’s example.

President Carter ran on a platform to decriminalize marijuana.

The 1970s and Marijuana

Then, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a campaign platform that included marijuana decriminalization. There was even movement towards marijuana decriminalization in Congress — in October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use, but the measure never received enough support to become law.

When you talk about the effects of a presidential reign being realized generations later, you must look at the devastation caused by Reagan’s zealous, profit driven war on drugs.

The 1980s and 90s: Drug Hysteria

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 nearly 500,000 by 2000.

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, driven largely by the country’s fixation on crack-cocaine, 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. However, the resulting political hysteria had already led to the passage of draconian penalties at the state and federal levels. Even as the drug scare faded from the public mind, these policies produced escalating levels of arrests and incarceration.

With the Reagan crusade of war on drugs and massive incarcerations came the privatization of America’s prisons for profit.


Prison Privatization and the Use of Incarceration

Overview: Private sector involvement in prisons is not new — federal and state governments have had a long history of contracting out specific services to private firms, including medical services, food preparation, vocational training, and inmate transportation. 

The 1980s, though, ushered in a new era of prison privatization. With a burgeoning prison population resulting from the “war on drugs” and increased use of incarceration, prison overcrowding and rising costs became increasingly problematic for local, state, and federal governments. In response to this expanding criminal justice system, private business interests saw an opportunity for expansion, and consequently, private-sector involvement in prisons moved from the simple contracting of services to contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prisons.

Today, the privatization of prisons refers both to the takeover of existing public facilities by private operators and to the building and operation of new and additional prisons by for-profit prison companies. (Many of the new prisons, additionally, are built to house out-of-state inmates.)

So the war on drugs gave birth to a highly profitable, Wall Street profit driven prison system.  After all, who is more vulnerable to predators than locked up people with no rights?

This gave rise to ancillary services companies raking in the big bucks on captive consumers.
One such company that was birthed out of Reagan’s War on Drugs is a company called Global Links.  According to Prison Legal News:

Nationwide PLN Survey Examines Prison Phone Contracts, Kickbacks
by John E. Dannenberg

An exhaustive analysis of prison phone contracts nationwide has revealed that with only limited exceptions, telephone service providers offer lucrative kickbacks (politely termed “commissions”) to state contracting agencies – amounting on average to 42% of gross revenues from prisoners’ phone calls – in order to obtain exclusive, monopolistic contracts for prison phone services.

These contracts are priced not only to unjustly enrich the telephone companies by charging much higher rates than those paid by the general public, but are further inflated to cover the commission payments, which suck over $143 million per year out of the pockets of prisoners’ families – who are the overwhelming recipients of prison phone calls. Averaging a 42% kickback nationwide, this indicates that the phone market in state prison systems is worth more than an estimated $362 million annually in gross revenue.

Prisoners don’t have the luxury of scheduling phone calls during those time periods.

Holy cow, $362 million annually that prisoner’s families must pay or no contact.  I wonder why that is so high. 

The phone contracts were reviewed to determine the service provider; the kickback percentage; the annual dollar amount of the kickbacks; and the rates charged for local calls, intrastate calls (within a state based on calls from one Local Access and Transport Area to another, known as interLATA), and interstate calls (long distance between states). To simplify this survey, only collect call and daytime rates were analyzed.

Around 30 states allow discounted debit and/or prepaid collect calls, which provide lower prison phone rates (much lower in some cases). However, since other states don’t offer such options and not all prisoners or their families have access to debit or prepaid accounts, only collect calls – which are available in all prison systems except Iowa’s – were compared. Also, while telephone companies sometimes provide reduced rates for evening and nighttime calls, many prisoners don’t have the luxury of scheduling phone calls during those time periods.

Yes, prisoners don’t have the luxury of scheduling phone calls during hours of reduced rates.  As we know from the Sentencing Project’s article, due to the war on drugs, the privatization of prisons and the overcrowding, many of the new prisons, are built to house out-of-state inmates.

CaaChing!  Global Link makes out big time if prisoners are shipped out of state.  Their families probably can’t afford to visit them, so phone calls are all they have.   According to Global Link’s website:

HAVE YOU RECENTLY had a loved one arrested and/or incarcerated in a County, State or Federal facility that is "long distance" from you?  
ARE YOU CURRENTLY paying $5-$20 per inmate call because they are billed as "long distance" with "per minute" charges? 

FACT: The ONLY way to save money on inmate calls is to have a phone number that is "local" to your inmate's jail. 

WHY?  Without a LOCAL number your cost for jail calls will include very expensive long distance "per minute" fees, which will cost you as much as $25 per call. 

FACT: Our local numbers save you up to 80%.  By being LOCAL to the jail, they enable you to avoid the costly "long distance" & "per minute" fees. 

According to Robert Woodson, who was a recent guest on C-Span’s “Washington Journal” Global Links monopoly on prison telephone services includes 470 correctional systems.  Global Links pays a $40K signing contract and then prisons make $270 million/year by charging families 7 times what outside people pay for phone calls to and from prisons.    Those companies are worth $1.2 billion dollars.

Eric Holder’s Justice Department has announced a new criteria for expedited clemency applications for the victims of those unjust sentences.  According to Reason Magazine:

Today Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced new criteria for expedited consideration of clemency applications by President Obama, focusing on prisoners serving sentences longer than the ones currently imposed for similar offenses.  "Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws erode people's confidence in our criminal justice system," Cole said. "I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals—equal justice under law."

It seems plausible that thousands of federal prisoners could meet Cole's criteria. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), more than 23,000 federal prisoners have served at least 10 years. Drug offenders, who account for half of federal prisoners, will be the main beneficiaries of the new policy. FAMM estimates, for example, that 8,800 federal prisoners could benefit from retroactive application of shorter crack sentences enacted by Congress in 2010.

So, when Deputy Attorney General Cole announced new clemency guidelines for releasing some of these low level prisoners who received sentences that far outweighed the seriousness of their crimes, it is being met with fierce resistance from the prison industry represented by Republican Senators.  From NewsMax:

According to this article at “NewsMax”:

Senate Republicans Rip Obama's Plan to Pardon More Drug Offenders
Wednesday, 23 Apr 2014 11:02 PM
By Todd Beamon

Top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday slammed President Barack Obama for again trying to circumvent Congress with a plan to consider clemency for more convicted nonviolent drug offenders.

Sen. Jeff Sessions called it "an alarming abuse of the pardon power."

"The president is now implementing through executive action what Congress expressly chose not to pass into law," the Alabama senator charged. "These are uncharted waters.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, said that "the president has authority to grant clemency to certain individuals who are no longer dangerous to the community."

"But I hope President Obama is not seeking to change sentencing policy unilaterally," he added. "Congress, not the president, has authority to make sentencing policy.

The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, cautioned: "The new guidelines are one thing on paper, but we'll need to see how they actually play out in practice.

"The bigger point we need to discuss is how Congress can best lower some sentences or time served and raise other sentences for crimes such as child pornography, terrorism, sexual assault, domestic violence, and various fraud offenses," he said.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas called for "meaningful reform of our nation's prison system," which "requires a well-thought-out proposal for using rehabilitation, jobs, and training to help prisoners re-enter society — not an election-year push with no plan to reduce their risk of becoming repeat offenders."

Yes, the GOP doesn’t want any Administration to change the sentencing guidelines that would cut into the profits of the GOP’s War on Drugs Prison Planet.

Let’s hope the Holder Justice Department does not cave to the GOP demands for any sentencing changes to be legislated through the GOP dominated congress. 

So as previously stated, for good or bad, the real deep effects of a Presidential reign in America are not seen for generations.  It’s time to drive a stake through the heart of the Nixon/Reagan prison industrial complex.

By Patricia Baeten

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