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Marijuana a Thorn in Side of Private Prison Industry

posted Oct 24, 2011, 9:01 PM by Cynara Velazquez
Private prison corporations are reaping huge profits from the War on Drugs and marijuana prohibition. Private prison corporations are paid per-inmate; therefore they have an economic interest to increase incarceration rates. If marijuana were to be legalized in California, these corporations would stand to lose countless millions of dollars in revenue from state government contracts.

Here in San Diego, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO GROUP, formerly known as Wackenhut, operate the Western Region Detention Facility in San Diego and the San Diego Correctional Facility. These are the two largest and most influential private prison corporations in the nation. Both of these corporations have deep pockets and have a financial interest in doing what they can to keep incarceration rates high by influencing policymakers to pass legislation which would increase corporate profits while and opposing legislation which would hamper private prison growth.

Private prison corporations are limited as to how much money they can contribute to individual candidates, however they are not limited in how much they can give to private lobbyists. These private lobbyists are not required to divulge what issues they promote or oppose when lobbying on legislation. CCA and GEO Group have both spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on donations to lobbyists, according to the Justice Institute in its report titled, Gaming the System. Although, which particular issues the lobbyists address are not public knowledge, it would make sense that CCA and GEO Group would support legislation which will increase their own profits. This means any legislation that would potentially decrease incarceration rates would be a law that the private prison corporations may lobby against.

If this is the case, then one of the issues that the private prison corporations would be especially interested in influencing is the regulation of drugs, including marijuana. If marijuana and other drugs were to be legalized or decriminalized, then the private prison corporations would lose large profit margins, due to reduced demand for their services. "The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts... For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances... could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them," wrote CCA in its 2010 annual report. CCA, and more than likely, most other private prison organizations may see support of medical marijuana and legalization of marijuana and other drugs to be a threat to their industry.

When an organization opposes a piece of legislation, such as Proposition 19 or other proposed laws for increased leniency for marijuana or other drug offenders, it can choose to act. Private prison corporations can do this by "maintaining contacts and favorable ties with policymakers," wrote the Justice Institute. CCA and GEO Group are both large contributors to political campaigns for elected officials and also for specific policy issues and debates. Both CCA and GEO Group concentrate their political donations to three specific states, California, Florida, and New Mexico.

California is of particular interest because it has the nation's largest incarcerated population. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered California to dramatically reduce its overcrowded prison system, which in effect is an order to reduce the profit margins of the private prison corporations. CCA contributed $459,150 to California campaigns between the years of 2003 and 2010. GEO Group donated $227,000 to California campaigns during that same time period. Political contributions by these two corporations are not dictated by any particular political ideology or party, but are instead designed to gain beneficial relationships with those in power, according to the Justice Institute. Whether CCA or GEO Group lobbied directly against medical marijuana and legalization of marijuana is undisclosed to the public. However, it only makes sense that their political lobbying dollars went to protect their financial interests and profit margins, which are based upon increasing incarceration rates.