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José Fernando López Headshot

The Long Arm of Private Prisons

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In Mid-February I had the chance to attend a forum organized in Mexico City by a nonprofit organization called Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia (Mexico United Against Delinquency), where they presented many arguments against the prohibitionist paradigm of the war on drugs that has cost the country more than 50,000 deaths during the last 5 years. One of the speakers was the former President of Colombia Cesar Gaviria, who fought with great valor in his country against the drug trafficking cartels and today is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an organization that promotes the decriminalization of drugs, and is now chaired by Brazil's former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

At the end of his speech, one of the participants asked Gaviria about the role that the US gun industry had played in the conflict (according to several studies, the majority of guns seized from Meixcan cartels have been purchased in the United States). His response surprised me: "In reality the problem in the United States is not so much the gun industry, it's a bigger one, which is the fact that many prisons in the US are private, the judges live off them and there are persons that oppose the change of policy. Many billions of dollars are invested in repression and this obviously generates certain interests. To convince a policeman or a judge that a radical change in policy is needed is not an easy task. I'm not very worried about the gun salesmen".

Coincidentally, upon my return to Miami, I had the chance to see the news that the Florida Senate had rejected by two votes (21 -19) a proposal to privatize 25 state prisons in the south of the state. Several press articles detailed the circumstances of the debate. According to Bernadette Pardo, a columnist for the Nuevo Herald newspaper, "The GEO Company, which earns millions of dollars managing prisons all over the country, invested 645,000 dollars promoting the proposal [using its lobbyists in Tallahassee, the state's capital]. Both governor Rick Scott and the most influential state Senators and Representatives pushed for the approval of the plan that would make Florida the state with the biggest number of private prisons in the nation."

The columnist's main worry was that said measure would have left 3,800 state employees jobless. Another columnist, Fabiola Santiago, said that the state prison system needed reforming and better management, "but said needs didn't justify placing a crucial part of law enforcement, so crucial on the tasks that are responsibility of the state, in the hands of who knows who of the private sector. It's possible that the government is not a perfect security system, but is accountable, and at the end of the day is accountable to one boss: the public."

The US private prison's history dates back to the Civil War. But its real development came during the 1980's, when the number of detained people as a result of the war on drugs, in which drug consumers, independent of the volume of drugs used, became criminals, grew vertically all over the country (today, there are close to half a million US citizens locked up for this reason, a figure that surpasses that of all the countries of Europe). The number of prisoners overpopulated the prisons, elevated the costs and became a problem for the government. Thus the proliferation of private prisons, to the point that today we have more than 264 private prisons in the whole country.

GEO, the company that lobbied for the privatization of the prisons of South Florida (and was formerly known as Wackenhut) is one of three big corporations that control the private prison systems in the country. The others are CCA (Correction Corporation of America) and Community Education Centers. Among the criticisms aimed towards these companies, it is affirmed that they contribute or have contributed to the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, a non-political conservative organization of state legislators that promotes -- and have helped in the approval of several bills -- a tough-on-crime legislation and free-market principles such as privatization.

If this is the case, President Gaviria, a man that has studied these issues for many years, was not too far off from the truth. Unlike President Gaviria, the role that the gun salesmen have in all that is happening in Latin America does worry me. But I must confess that my radar had no idea of the role that the "private industry" could play in the prison system and criminal politics in the United States (particularly in the prohibitionist politics on the subject of drugs), and it does not seem encouraging to me.