In Arizona an unsettling trend appears to be underway: the use of private prison employees in law enforcement operations.
The state has graced national headlines in recent years as the result of its cozy relationship with the for-profit prison industry. Such controversies have included the role of private prison corporations in SB 1070 and similar anti-immigrant legislation disseminated in other states; a 2010 private prison escape that resulted in two murders and a nationwide manhunt; and a failed bid to privatize nearly the entire Arizona prison system.
And now, recent events in the central Arizona town of Casa Grande show the hand of private corrections corporations reaching into the classroom, assisting local law enforcement agencies in drug raids at public schools.
Trick or Treat
At 9 a.m. on the morning of October 31, 2012, students at Vista Grande High School in Casa Grande were settling in to their daily routine when something unusual occurred.
Vista Grande High School Principal Tim Hamilton ordered the school — with a student population of 1,776 — on “lock down,” kicking off the first “drug sweep” in the school’s four-year history. According to Hamilton, “lock down” is a state in which, “everybody is locked in the room they are in, and nobody leaves — nobody leaves the school, nobody comes into the school.”
“Everybody is locked in, and then they bring the dogs in, and they are teamed with an administrator and go in and out of classrooms. They go to a classroom and they have the kids come out and line up against a wall. The dog goes in and they close the door behind, and then the dog does its thing, and if it gets a hit, it sits on a bag and won’t move.”
While such “drug sweeps” have become a routine matter in many of the nation’s schools, along with the use of metal detectors and zero-tolerance policies, one feature of this raid was unusual. According to Casa Grande Police Department (CGPD) Public Information Officer Thomas Anderson, four “law enforcement agencies” took part in the operation: CGPD (which served as the lead agency and operation coordinator), the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Gila River Indian Community Police Department, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
It is the involvement of CCA — the nation’s largest private, for-profit prison corporation — that causes this high school “drug sweep” to stand out as unusual; CCA is not, despite CGPD’s evident opinion to the contrary, a law enforcement agency.
“To invite for-profit prison guards to conduct law enforcement actions in a high school is perhaps the most direct expression of the ‘schools-to-prison pipeline’ I’ve ever seen,” said Caroline Isaacs, program director of the Tucson office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker social justice organization that advocates for criminal justice reform.
“All the research shows that CCA doesn’t properly train its staff to do the jobs they actually have. They most certainly do not have anywhere near the training and experience–to say nothing of the legal authority–to conduct a drug raid on a high school,” Isaacs added. “It is chilling to think that any school official would be willing to put vulnerable students at risk this way.”
Welcome to Prison Town, U.S.A.
CCA, the nation’s largest for-profit prison/immigrant detention center operator, with more than 92,000 prison and immigrant detention “beds” in 20 states and the District of Columbia, reported $1.7 billion in gross revenue last year. This revenue is derived almost exclusively from tax payer-funded government (county, state, federal) contracts through which the corporation is paid per-diem, per-prisoner rates for the warehousing of prisoners and immigrant detainees.
And, CCA has a substantial presence in Casa Grande and throughout Arizona’s Pinal County (Casa Grande is the largest town in Pinal County). The corporation owns and operates a total of six correctional/detention facilities in the county, distributed through the towns of Florence and Eloy.
These facilities hold a mixture of prisoners from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety Division of Corrections, TransCor (a detainee/prisoner transportation subsidiary of CCA), the Pascua Yaqi Tribe, the U.S. Air Force, the Vermont Department of Corrections, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In September of this year, CCA was awarded a contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to house 1,000 medium security prisoners at the corporation’s Red Rock Correctional Center in Eloy.
In 2009, the Central Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation listed CCA as the largest non-governmental employer in Pinal County. To boot, CCA is a “Board Level” member of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a powerful trade/lobby organization, and is active in the Eloy, Florence, and Casa Grande chambers of commerce. (For more on CCA’s political influence in Arizona, see “Brownskins and Greenbacks,” DBA Press, June 2010.)
This CCA presence, coupled with the location of two correctional facilities operated by GEO Group (the nation’s second largest for-profit prison/immigrant detention center contractor) in the county, as well as two ADC-run prison complexes, makes Pinal County — which once cited mining and agriculture as its economic bedrock — a de facto prison industry community.
Despite the obvious differences between CCA and actual law enforcement agencies, those involved in the Vista Grande High School drug sweep seem unable to differentiate between CCA employees and law enforcement officers.
“CCA is like a skip and a hop away from us– as far as the one in Florence,” said Anderson. “We work pretty closely with all surrounding agencies, whatever kind of law enforcement they are– be they police, or immigration and naturalization, or the prison systems. So, yeah, this seems pretty regular to me.”
For his part, Hamilton seems equally unable to differentiate between law enforcement officers and employees of a for-profit prison corporation. ”To be honest with you, I couldn’t tell if they were Casa Grande Police, Pinal County police, Gila River, the sheriff’s department– they all look the same,” said Hamilton.