Damon Hininger, amministratore delegato di uno dei due più grandi gruppi carcerari privati degli Stati Uniti, due mesi fa sosteneva che chiunque sarà il prossimo inquilino della Casa Bianca, per il suo business farà poca differenza. “Penso che il prossimo presidente, chiunque sia, avrà da fare così tante cose nella sua amministrazione che il nostro settore sarà in fondo alla lista delle priorità”, era la previsione del numero uno di Corrections Corporation of America (Cca). In effetti lo sarà, ma in un senso ben diverso da quello immaginato da Hininger: il Dipartimento di Giustizia ha infatti annunciato l’intenzione di mettere fine all’utilizzo delle carceri private per i detenuti federali. Il viceprocuratore generale Sally Yates ha presentato un memo che chiede ai funzionari responsabili di non rinnovare i contratti con i gestori delle carceri private nel momento in cui scadranno, o venga “ridotto sostanzialmente l’ambito del contratto”.
Yates cita un rapporto molto severo del Department’s Office of Inspector General. Intanto Shane Bauer ha raccontato in un crudo reportage sulla rivista Mother Jones la sua esperienza di quattro mesi come guardia carceraria presso una struttura della Cca, rendendo consapevole anche l’opinione pubblica del fatto che le carceri private registrano un tasso più elevato di casi di violenza e di infrazione delle regole rispetto agli istituti gestiti dallo Stato e non portano risparmi sostanziali alle casse pubbliche.
L’ex candidato democratico Bernie Sanders, che già un anno fa aveva promosso una proposta di legge per superare questa esperienza ormai trentennale, nata sotto i governi repubblicani diRonald Reagan e George Bush senior, ma definitivamente esplosa negli anni ’90 sotto la presidenza democratica di Bill Clinton, con l’avvento del Violent crime control and law enforcement act del 1994, il cosiddetto “crime bill”. Una dura stretta sui reati e le detenzioni (con l’introduzione della regola per cui chi si macchia di tre reati viene condannato a pene più dure), accompagnata da un budget di 30 miliardi di dollari, che ha visto più che raddoppiare la popolazione carceraria degli Stati Uniti, in particolare quella di origine afro-americana, favorendo accuse di incarcerazioni di massa e naturalmente il business degli istituti privati.
Dal 2013 a oggi la popolazione delle carceri private, invece, si è ridotta da 220mila persone a 195.000, grazie a provvedimenti come lo Smart on Crime Initiative che hanno rivisto la portata di alcuni reati minori. E adesso il governo ha deciso di eliminare daldibattito elettorale un tema che imbarazza entrambi gli schieramenti, anche se Trump si dichiara a favore dell’attuale sistema e la Clinton contro. Inchieste della stampa Usa colleganodonazioni per oltre 288mila dollari arrivate lo scorso anno da parte di società di lobbying ai repubblicani Marco Rubio e Jeb Bush e alla stessa a Hillary Clinton a Corrections Corporation of America e a The Geo Group, l’altro colosso del business della detenzione. Mentre poco più di un mese fa la commissione elettorale federale ha confermato un versamento di 45.000 dollari da parte di The Geo Group sui conti del Trump Victory Fund, veicolo elettorale del candidato repubblicano.
Cca e Geo sono quotate a Wall Street e dopo le dichiarazioni di Sally Yates hanno visto crollare i propri titoli del 40 per cento. Oltre il 90% delle azioni è detenuto da investitori istituzionali. Il primo èVanguard Group, società di gestione da 3.600 miliardi di dollari.Blackrock, Bank of America, Bank of New York Mellon,State Street, Lazard, Wells Fargo sono solo alcuni dei circa 300 investitori istituzionali che hanno quote in una o entrambe le società, che lo scorso anno hanno chiuso entrambe con unfatturato di circa 1,8 miliardi registrando utili per centinaia di milioni.
Secondo il bilancio dello scorso anno, Corrections Corporation of America riceve in media per ogni detenuto circa 70 dollari al giorno, spendendone 47 di cui solo 12 dedicati alla cura del detenuto. Un margine operativo del 33% che ne fa un business evidentemente profittevole, che per mantenere tali ritorni ha dovuto negli anni progressivamente ridurre il numero degli operatori carcerari, sempre meno addestrati e con paghe ai minimi salariali per un lavoro che, secondo alcune ricerche, registra un tasso di disturbi post-traumatici da stress più alto di quello dei soldati che rientrano dall’Iraq o dall’Afghanistan. Corrections Corporation of America detiene oggi oltre 60 strutture, con unapopolazione carceraria di 66.000 persone. The Geo Group ha invece una popolazione di 70.000 persone: insieme raccolgono il 75% della popolazione delle carceri private, che complessivamente rappresenta circa l’8% del totale degli incarcerati negli Usa.
Con circa 2,2 milioni di detenuti, la percentuale di incarcerazione degli Stati Uniti è seconda nel mondo solo alle Seychelles: gli Usa, che rappresentano circa il 4,5% della popolazione del pianeta, hanno oltre il 25% dei prigionieri, circa un milione di origine afro-americana. Negli ultimi anni la detenzione degli immigrati irregolari ha conosciuto un vero e proprio boom, con crescite a doppia cifra per le carceri private. Secondo l’ong Grassroots Leadership questo è avvenuto grazie a un emendamento del Congresso del 2010, che ha disposto che gli stanziamenti a favore dell’Immigration and Customs Enforcement, agenzia federale del Dipartimento della Sicurezza Interna degli Stati Uniti e responsabile del controllo della sicurezza delle frontiere e dell’immigrazione, debbano essere sufficienti a mantenere un livello di almeno 33.400 (poi portati a 34.000) “posti letto” per i detenuti. Tale norma ha creato una vera e propria quota di detenzione di immigrati, favorendo una politica di incarcerazione sempre più aggressiva. Nessun’altra agenzia di sicurezza opera attraverso una quota determinata dal Congresso.
The House I Live In (2012)
From the dealer to the narcotics officer, the inmate to the federal judge, a penetrating look inside America’s criminal justice system, revealing the profound human rights implications of U.S. drug policy.
Drug abuse is primarily a medical problem, not a crime against
society. American anti-drug policy is a means of social control that’s
rooted in racial and ethnic prejudice. The country’s incarceration
industry has become a self-sustaining force, predicated on economics
rather than justice.
None of these arguments, made vigorously in The House I Live In, are novel; some have been advanced for decades, if not longer. But Eugene Jarecki’s documentary assembles them deftly, with much help from former crime reporter David Simon, who left the Baltimore Sun to become the auteur of such mean-streets TV dramas as The Wire.
Jarecki, whose previous films include Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger, approaches the issue from several angles. Much of the movie is a standard historical documentary, beginning with Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs,” but later rewinding to recount how such intoxicants as opium and marijuana went from accepted to outlawed.
This back story will not startle anyone old enough to remember the days when Reefer Madness was a regular midnight attraction at art-house cinemas. Drug-culture aficionados (whether users or not) have long known that various now-banned uppers and downers were once legal and even bourgeois. Most fast-food consumers have heard what the first part of Coca-Cola’s name originally meant.
The movie also has a personal element, involving the drug-destroyed son of Nannie Jeter, who used to work for the filmmaker’s family as a housekeeper. Threaded though the twinned narratives is the commentary of Simon, who calls the treatment of African-American drug users “a holocaust in slow motion.”
The emphasis on racial and ethnic persecution explains the movie’s title. “The House I Live In” is a musical ode to a discrimination-free USA, co-written in 1943 by Abel Meeropol. (He also composed “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching song that became one of Billie Holiday’s signature numbers.)
Many drug-war veterans and observers, including active and retired police officers, appear on screen. But Jarecki keeps returning to Simon, who calls the U.S. “the jailingest country in the world” and Swift-ishly asks, “Why not just kill the poor?”
Class as well as race identify the people most likely to serve hard time for drugs, often under the “mandatory minimum” sentences that have made operating private penitentiaries a reliable business. Laws that treat crack cocaine more harshly than the powdered variety have overwhelmingly affected black defendants. But the burgeoning appetite for crystal meth has stuffed prisons with poor, mostly rural whites.
The U.S. has spent an estimated $1 trillion warring on drugs since Nixon’s presidency, to little effect. Putting nonviolent, nontrafficking dope users in jail seems to serve no purpose. Yet it continues under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The House I Live In shows Nannie Jeter as she hopefully watches Barack Obama’s 2008 electoral victory, but doesn’t analyze the current president’s apparent reluctance to significantly alter anti-drug policies.
Then, too, it’s a fact that many Americans seem to want to see dopers go to jail, and not just because their imprisonment boosts the economies of prison-dependent rural towns and counties. The House I Live In doesn’t discuss the popularity of harsh anti-drug laws, but support for them surely has something to do with fear of the vicious dealers whose crimes are grist for news coverage, cop shows and such lurid movies as the current End of Watch.
Maybe that’s something Jarecki should have asked David Simon about.
DRUG WAR TODAY
40 Years, $1 Trillion, 45 Million Arrests: This is the War on Drugs.
Forty years ago, President Nixon called a press conference to tell the American people that their “public enemy #1” was drug abuse. He then proceeded to declare an all-out war on drug users and sellers, with resounding repercussions on criminal justice policy and on vast numbers of Americans.
Subsequent presidents, drug czars, and local politicians have followed Nixon’s lead, fueling an unprecedented boom in the country’s prison population and waging an ever-escalating campaign against what many consider to be nothing more than a public health problem.
The war on drugs has been a failure practically, morally, and economically. The result of this law enforcement approach are stark: today, there are more than 500,000 people incarcerated for drug offenses; billions of dollars are spent annually on narcotics enforcement; treatment is still out of reach for millions of people; and drugs are more available and cheaper than ever before.
But there is also a growing recognition that the course of the past 40 years must change, and there is increasing momentum for drug policy reform from all levels of government and civil society.
Please visit the Community Action tab to find organizations in your state and community that are working to end the war on drugs.
• In 2009 nearly 1.7 million people were arrested in the U.S. for nonviolent drug charges – more than half of those arrests were for marijuana possession alone. Less than 20% was for the sale or manufacture of a drug.
• Even though White and Black people use drugs at approximately equal rates, Black people are 10.1 times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses. Today, Black Americans represent 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes, even though they comprise only 13% of the U.S. Population.
DRUG WAR HISTORY
A Brief Outline of Drug Policies in the United States
1914 – The Harrison Act restricts the sale of heroin and cocaine – both legal at the time – and establishes a legal framework for federal intervention on drug policy.
1919 – Alcohol prohibition is enacted as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. The failure of Prohibition led to its repeal in 1933 – the only Constitutional Amendment ever repealed by the States.
1937 – After the 1936 release of the anti-marijuana film “Reefer Madness,” combined with growing pressure from western states over complaints about Mexican laborers, Congress passes the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which in effect criminalizes the possession and use of marijuana. More…
1951 – Boggs Amendment – Congress enacts federal mandatory minimums for drug possession. More…
1956 – Narcotics Control Act increases penalties for drug offenses, including possession. More…
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. 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.
The 1970s and Marijuana
Between 1973 and 1979, although many states were enacting tough laws against drugs, marijuana was largely exempt, and a number of states actually eased their marijuana laws by decriminalizing possession of small amounts. 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.
Within just a few years, the tide had shifted. Proposals to decriminalize marijuana were abandoned as they were ultimately caught up in a broader cultural backlash against the perceived permissiveness of the 1970s.
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.
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 stated that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot,” founded the DARE drug education program, which was quickly adopted nationwide despite the lack of evidence of its effectiveness. Meanwhile, the increasingly harsh drug policies blocked the expansion of syringe access programs and other harm reduction policies to reduce the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.
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.
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. Notoriously, Clinton rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, which had already led to astonishing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. 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.”
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 began to 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.” Senator Barack Obama also candidly discussed his prior cocaine and marijuana use: “When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently – that was the point.”
Despite the changed public face of drug use, the assault on Americans persisted. Bloomberg oversaw a higher rate of low-level marijuana arrests than any mayor in New York City history. And Obama, despite advocating for reforms – such as reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, ending the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, and supporting state medical marijuana laws – has yet to shift drug control funding to a health-based approach.
Progress is inevitably slow, but today there is unprecedented momentum behind drug policy reform. 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. The growing movement included support from across the political spectrum – from prominent conservatives and liberals, civil libertarians and progressives. That movement is growing today.
Alexander, M. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010
Gray, M. Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Musto, D. The American Dream: Origins of Narcotic Control. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.