Jun 13, 2013 - Issue 520

BlackCommentator.com: Drug Money - By Larry Matthews - BC Guest Commentator

Every now and then I learn something that’s like a smack on the head. It happened a few days ago. What I learned was something many people already understand but somehow it got by me until a friend mentioned that the people who make the most money from the illegal drug trade are the ones who run the nation’s private prisons. These folks make the cartels look like penny-ante players.

I am a novelist. I make up stories. I could never get away with a story like this. We taxpayers are shelling out something north of 40 billion dollars a year to lock up the world’s largest prison population. We lock up more youth than any other country on Earth. Blacks and Hispanics are over-represented by a wide margin. Over half of them are behind bars on drug charges, many for simple possession of marijuana. A black kid with a joint is several times more likely to be locked up than a white kid with the same joint. We have so many men and women, boys and girls locked up that can’t find enough beds.

Who do we call? Our friends in what politicians in Washington like to call “the private sector.” For-profit companies that make all kinds of claims about efficiency, savings, and so on. They would rather we didn’t pay much attention to the stories about abuse of inmates.

Here’s where the story gets really creepy. These for-profit prison companies spend tens of millions of dollars each year to lobby for more business. In a very real sense, they point at black and Hispanic kids and see dollars. They don’t support legalizing drugs and cite all kinds of research, the same old well-worn “drug fiends and ruined lives” stuff we’ve seen for decades. They discount the evidence from other countries that have loosened drug laws and watched drug problems recede. The top three private prison companies are lobbying for tougher laws and longer sentences. We already have sentencing laws that shock other advanced countries.

It’s one thing to lobby to sell more cars to the government and it’s quite another to lobby to ruin human lives.

Here’s another number. It is estimated that Americans spend $40 billion a year on cocaine. Oddly, that’s what we spend on corrections. South of the border, the profits go to the cartels. North of the border, the profits go to the private prisons. No objective observer would say this is a system that is working or that the so-called “war on drugs” is anything but a slogan.

Now let’s move the creep meter even more. There’s gold, not just in the illegal drug business, but in illegal immigrants. Private prisons rake in over $5 billion by locking up the “illegals” who are rounded up by federal immigration agents. And I’m sure you will not be shocked to learn that private prisons are spending big dollars to lobby against immigration reform that would legalize the residency of many men and women and offer them a path to citizenship.

And so we have an industry that makes obscene amounts of money - taxpayer money - by locking up black kids and even more money by locking up Hispanics who come here to improve their lives by doing the work that we won’t do, like cutting grass and roofing.

How is it that we as a nation have turned our people - and others - into criminals for profit? Are we at a stage in our national life where we see our legal system as nothing more than a profit center for a few influential businessmen and women who slurp at the taxpayers’ trough for funds that are needed to keep our bridges from falling down?

Why do we have twenty-five per cent of the world’s prisoners and only five per cent of the world’s population?

It would be nice to think this is a new problem. But it’s not. Let us consider the words of Woody Guthrie’s song “Deportee:”

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,

Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;

Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,

They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Larry Matthews, is a veteran broadcast journalist. He is the recipient of The George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcast for his reporting on Vietnam veterans. He is also the recipient of a Columbia/DuPont Citation, Society of Professional Journalists, Associated Press, and other awards for investigative reporting. He is the author of five books including, I Used To Be In Radio: a Memoir. Click here to reach Mr. Matthews.