Corrections Corporation of America used in drug sweeps of public school students in Arizona
In Arizona an unsettling trend appears to be underway: the use of private prison employees in law enforcement operations.
“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,” —Caroline Isaacs, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
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.
Questions of Legality
But they are not the same.
Aside from the fact that CCA is a private corporation that derives its profits from the incarceration of human beings– such as minimum and medium security drug offenders — Arizona Administrative Code provides that, in order for any individual to engage in the duties of a “peace officer,” that individual must obtain certification from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board. Arizona Revised Statutes defines “peace officer” to include such law enforcement personnel as: municipal police officers, constables, marshals, Department of Public Safety personnel, and community college/university police.
The POST Board is comprised of the Arizona Attorney General, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, the director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, municipal police department chiefs, county sheriffs, state university personnel, and other public safety/law enforcement personnel. POST’s essential purpose, as defined by Arizona law is to “prescribe reasonable minimum qualifications for officers to be appointed to enforce the laws of this state and the political subdivisions of this state and certify officers in compliance with these qualifications.”
And, Arizona Administrative Code is very clear on this point: “a person who is not certified by the Board or whose certified status is inactive shall not function as a peace officer or be assigned the duties of a peace officer by an agency . . . ”
According to POST Executive Director Lyle Mann, POST provides two types of certification: standards and training certification for “peace officers,” and standards and training certification for correctional officers. Arizona Administrative Code mandates that ADC officers be POST certified. However, according to Mann, employees of private prison contractors are exempt from this standards and training requirements. As such, said Mann, no CCA employee is POST certified — as either a “peace officer” or a correctional officer.
It is important to note that Arizona Administrative Code explicitly states that non-regular “peace officers” — secondary parties engaging in certain limited aspects of law enforcement under the command/supervision of regular peace officers — must also be POST certified.
According to Arizona Administrative Code, a “limited-authority peace officer” is defined as “a peace officer who is certified to perform the duties of a peace officer only in the presence and under the supervision of a full-authority peace officer.” The Code goes on to state that duties which may be performed by a “limited-authority peace officer” in the presence of a “full-authority peace officer” include: “investigative activities performed to detect, prevent, or suppress crime, or to enforce criminal or traffic laws of the state, county, or municipality.”
This definition seems to fit the description — with the exception that CCA employees aiding CGPD “peace officers” are not POST certified — of what occurred at Vista Grande High School on the morning of October 31, 2012.
According to Officer Anderson and Principal Hamilton, the raid was organized and conducted at Hamilton’s request.
“We need to keep drugs off our campus,” said Hamilton when asked why he requested the raid. “We wanted to make sure our campus . . . we wanted to send a message to kids that we don’t want that stuff on our campus.”
Hamilton stated that, outside from this desire to send a “message to kids,” he had no knowledge of any particular drug use problem on his school’s campus.
CGPD then issued a request for assistance to what it considered to be other local law enforcement agencies — including CCA.
According to Anderson, CCA provided two canine units (handlers and dogs) to aid in the high school “drug sweep.” These CCA canine units worked under the command of the lead CGPD canine unit.
According to Anderson, there is no contract or formal agreement for such services extant between CGPD and CCA. Rather, said Anderson, CCA simply agreed to participate in the raid when approached by CGPD “K-9” officers. Anderson stated that he does not know whether CGPD ever contacted POST-certified correctional canine units at either of the two nearby ADC-operated prisons.
As to the general role canine units play in such school “drug sweeps,” Anderson stated that the dogs and their handlers are typically utilized to detect the presence of illicit materials in classrooms and school parking lots.
This activity, as was conducted by CCA employees, would seem to fall squarely under the Arizona Administrative Code description of duties performed by “limited-authority peace officers” — officers who may perform “investigative activities” for the purpose of detecting, preventing, or suppressing criminal activity, and who are only authorized to do so while in the presence of “full-authority peace officers,” such as CGPD. Such “limited-authority peace officers” are required to be POST certified.
Regardless, according to both Anderson and Hamilton, this type of activity has been going on for years in Pinal County.
According to Anderson, a similar “drug sweep” — utilizing CCA canine units — was conducted at Casa Grande’s Union High School in 2011. Anderson has been unable to provide further details relating to this event.
According to Anderson, the Vista Grande High School raid is unlikely to be the last instance of CCA partnership with local law enforcement, as he assumed CGPD would use the corporation’s canine teams again, if needed.
And, according to Hamilton, he requested and had executed “drug sweeps” utilizing CCA canine units “two or three times a year,” while serving as principal at Coolidge High School in Coolidge, Arizona — also located in Pinal County, roughly ten miles from the private prison mecca of Florence. Hamilton was principal at Coolidge High School from 2003 through 2007.
CCA did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding their involvement in law enforcement operations at public schools in Pinal County.
Conflict of Interest: From the Cradle to the Cell
According to Anderson, three students were arrested as a result of the October 31 Vista Grande raid: two female students, ages 15 and 17, as well as one 15-year-old male. According to Anderson, the 15-year-old female was found in possession of .10 grams of marijuana; the 15-year-old male student was found in possession of .50 grams of marijuana; and the 17-year-old female was found in possession of 10 ounces of marijuana. According to Anderson, this last quantity was “individually packaged.”
According to Anderson, the students were referred to the juvenile division of Pinal County Superior Court. All students were then released to their parents/legal guardians. According to Hamilton, the school will commence expulsion hearings against all students arrested.
It is worth noting that, while (as of November 12, 2012) charges have yet to be filed against students arrested in the October 31 Vista Grande drug raid, it is possible, under Arizona law, for the 17-year-old female allegedly found to be in possession of 10 ounces of “individually packaged” marijuana to be sentenced as an adult if charged with possession with intent to distribute — a felony which would could carry a prison sentence.
In addition, it is important to note that, under Arizona law, individuals arrested for illicit activity/possession of illicit substances on or near school grounds may face “drug-free school zone” sentencing enhancements. Those convicted of drug (including marijuana) offenses in Arizona courts, and sentenced through the stringent criteria of “drug-free school zone” sentencing enhancements, lose the possibility of sentence suspension, parole, or probation (which would rule out the possibility of a deferral or diversion). This sentencing enhancement also adds a mandatory year to any prison sentence handed down by the court.
While the recently-awarded 1,000 CCA Arizona prison beds have yet to come into operation, it is exactly this kind of low risk, minimum to medium security prisoner that corporations such as CCA derive much of their profit from.
Furthermore, according to Anderson, the Vista Grande High School marijuana arrests have sparked a broader, ongoing investigation.
Given the fact that such high school raids may serve as the foundation for larger narcotics investigations which may net additional adult offenders — and given the tremendous pressure for information a prosecutor may exert on a student through discretionary use of “drug-free school zone” sentencing enhancements — concerned citizens say that CCA’s involvement in such raids constitutes a clear conflict of interest.
“They’re [CCA] not the criminal justice system. They are benefactors of the criminal justice system,” said correctional specialist and prison reform advocate, Carl Toersbijns.
Toersbijns, now retired (he retired in 2010), served as a deputy warden of operations at ADC-operated Arizona State Prison (ASP) Eyeman, as a deputy warden of operations at ASP Safford, as a deputy warden of operations at New Mexico Department of Corrections-operated Western New Mexico Correctional Facility (Grants, New Mexico), and as an associate warden at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (at Los Lunas, New Mexico). Collectively, Toersbijns’ career in corrections has spanned over 25 years in both Arizona and New Mexico. Such work, said Toersbijns, has entailed everything from details with prison canine units, to prison gang units.
“They [CCA] use the criminal justice system as a means of making income — for profit,” added Toersbijns. “So, their interest in the criminal justice system is totally opposite of the police officer. The police officer is public safety. The primary interest for CCA and associated entities is profit. So, there most definitely is a conflict of interest.”
Profit-Driven Roadmap to the Present: “Tough-on-Crime” Mania and the Introduction of the “War on Drugs” to the Classroom.
As some opponents of prison privatization attest, CCA embodies the worst pitfalls of public-private partnerships, in that the corporation has worked in the past to advance criminal justice legislation that has contributed to both a swell in U.S. prison/detention center populations and, consequently, CCA’s bottom line.
For example, CCA was active (both as a co-chair and member) in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Public Safety and Elections Task Force (formerly the ALEC Criminal Justice Task Force) through the 1990s, to the end of 2010.
ALEC bills itself as “the nation’s largest, non-partisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators,” working toward the advancement of the “Jeffersonian ideals” of limited federal government. In reality, ALEC is almost entirely funded by corporations and sources other than legislative dues, and it is overwhelmingly comprised of Republican state lawmakers and an untold number of large corporations and influential law/lobby firms (although at least 41 companies have announced they have stopped funding ALEC in the wake of public exposure of its activities). ALEC’s primary objective is to adopt and disseminate “model legislation,” much of which is drafted entirely by its private sector members. ALEC boasts that nearly 20 percent of this “model legislation” introduced in state legislatures nationwide is passed into law annually.
In the wake of reporting outlining CCA’s involvement with ALEC and the spread of immigration law based on SB 1070, CCA told the Arizona Republic, in September 2011, that the corporation left ALEC at an undisclosed time in 2010.
Records obtained by DBA Press show the direct sponsorship of both CCA and of Management and Training Corporation (“MTC,” currently the nation’s third largest for-profit prison/immigrant detention center operator) of the August 2010 ALEC Annual Meeting, as well as the likely involvement of lobbyists employed by both CCA, MTC and GEO Group in the December, 2010 ALEC “States and Nation Policy Summit”.
Arizona lobby reports also show clear GEO Group involvement with ALEC during the December, 2009 ALEC States and Nation Policy Summit — the meeting at which then-Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce introduced legislation (that would later be introduced in the Arizona legislature as SB 1070) for adoption as a piece of ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force “model legislation.” Subsequently, copycat legislation similar to this ALEC model bill — the “No More Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act” — began appearing in state legislatures throughout the nation.
Furthermore, the ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force was instrumental, during the years of CCA’s membership and leadership, in proliferating such ‘tough-on-crime’ legislation as: “three strikes,” “truth in sentencing” and “mandatory minimum” sentencing guidelines.
And ALEC also advanced the model “Private Correctional Facilities Act,” which allowed private corporations to operate state prisons.
These guidelines and pieces of “model legislation” (including the “Private Correctional Facilities Act”) were advanced by ALEC in partnership with CrimeStrike, a division of the National Rifle Association (“NRA,” a longtime ALEC private sector member), throughout the first half of the 1990s. Critics of this effort saw CrimeStrike largely as a response to the Clinton administration’s desire to strengthen firearms violence prevention laws. As such, the CrimeStrike campaign spawned the saying, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”– and posited that the solution to crime would be found through the use of greater criminal penalties. This strategy took advantage of, and perpetuated, the “tough-on-crime” sentiments of the day.
Largely as a result of model laws/sentencing guidelines advanced by the ALEC/NRA CrimeStrike partnership, the United States experienced a boom in the number of incarcerated individuals (in state and federal prisons, as well as in jails)– from just over 1.1 million incarcerated in 1990, to nearly 2.3 million in 2010.
During the years of CCA’s Criminal Justice/Public Safety and Elections Task Force involvement, ALEC also advanced and advocated “model legislation” that not only resulted in greater drug law enforcement presence on public school campuses, but that also mandated tough sentencing enhancements for drug offenses committed in “drug-free school zones.”
The ALEC “Drug-Free Schools Act” called for the use of federal funds provided through the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986 for “enhanced apprehension, prevention and education efforts” in joint cooperation between law enforcement agencies and local school districts.
Multiple ALEC publications (including the ALEC “Sourcebook for American State Legislation 1993-94,” which lists CCA among the organization’s private sector members and advisors), along with the ALEC “Use of a Minor in Drug Operations Act” reference the “model Drug-Free School Zone Act,” although it is unclear whether this “model” bill originated with ALEC.
It is clear, however, that the model “Drug-Free School Zone Act,” which establishes “drug-free school zones” and carries sentencing enhancements similar to the enhancements codified in Arizona law, was promoted by a broad coalition of public interests groups during the ‘tough-on-crime’ fervor of the early-to-mid 1990s. The model bill enjoyed such support that the 1992 National Office of Drug Control Policy (NODCP) established federal assistance in establishing “drug-free school zones,” as well as mandatory sentencing enhancements nationwide.
Interestingly enough, this NODCP initiative, which was set forth in a report discussing the agency’s “national priorities” for 1992, advocated state adoption of several other known pieces of ALEC model legislation, such as the “Use of a Minor in a Drug Operations Act,” as well as other ALEC “models” calling for the suspension or revocation of occupational licenses for professionals convicted of drug crimes, the eviction of drug offenders from public housing, and the use of “mandatory minimum” sentencing guidelines.
Not surprisingly, ALEC, along with several other public policy groups, was credited by the NODCP as having been “especially helpful in the formulation of this strategy.”
In April of 2012, following widespread criticism and loss of corporate sponsorship due to such pieces of “model legislation” disseminated by the Public Safety and Elections Task Force as the “Stand Your Ground Act,” the “Voter ID Act” and the “No More Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act,” ALEC announced that it would disband the task force (an announcement that PRWatch has critiqued as a “PR” maneuver).
Unfortunately, as the October 31 Vista Grande High School drug raid illustrates, the purported discontinuation of this task force comes only after the damage of two decades of private prison industry influence in the legislative process has taken its toll.
Is Any of this Right?
Vast differences between law enforcement agencies and private, for-profit corrections corporations aside, former ADC deputy warden and corrections specialist Carl Toersbijns said he sees a greater underlying problem in the practice of using any prison — public or private — personnel in school drug raids.
The simple fact is this: correctional officers — people who work on a continual basis around adult criminal offenders– have a much different mentality than a teacher, principal, or police officer. This mentality, he believes, may not be the most suitable mentality to subject school children to.
“Children are different — they don’t act like adults, and I don’t think you ought to use corrections officers around children,” said Toersbijns. “It’s a different culture, it’s a different setting, it’s a different approach. It’s inappropriate.” For example, the term “lockdown,” said Toersbijns, may mean an entirely different thing to a corrections officer than it means to school personnel, students, or police.
“They use that terminology, ‘lock down,’ in the police department too. When they’ve got something going on in the neighborhood — a robbery suspect in the neighborhood — they lock the schools down [. . .] If you have a group there, that you’ve called in to do a job, and some of them are correctional officers, and they hear the words ‘lock down,’ it has a different meaning — it has a total different meaning [. . .] You don’t tell a correctional officer ‘this school’s on lock down,’ because the mentality is: ‘oh, I can go anywhere I want and tear up anything I want and grab anything that I want. That’s the mentality we use in prison. Prisoners don’t have rights — you and I both know that — when it comes to search and seizure, they don’t have no rights. Children have rights.”
Thanks to Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News (www.prisonlegalnews.org) for his contribution to this article. CMD staffers Rebekah Wilce and Alex Oberley also contributed to this article.