July 2016 Monthly Mosaic: The Prison Industrial Complex and the War on Drugs

July 2016 Monthly Mosaic: The Prison Industrial Complex and the War on Drugs

July 2016 Monthly Mosaic

The Prison Industrial Complex and the War on Drugs


Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s original motto was “Schools Not Prisons,” in response to the “Aid Elimination Penalty,” an amendment added to the Higher Education Act in 1998, which excluded students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid to attend institutions of higher learning.

In early 2006, SSDP and our allies forced Congress to scale back the law, allowing people who got convicted before they decided to go to college to move on with their lives and earn an education.

Then, during the Higher Education Act Reauthorization process of 2008, Congress further scaled back the penalty, making it easier for students with drug convictions to regain eligibility for financial aid. However, college students who get convicted still lose financial aid, meaning many of them are forced to leave school temporarily, if not permanently.

SSDP strongly believes that when young people are  struggling with problematic drug use, taking them out of school and putting them in prison not only denies them real  treatment, but is a serious human rights violation.

While the drug war is starting to show signs of ending, the War on Drugs remains one of the policies most responsible for feeding the prison industrial complex. As of 2014, 50% of sentenced offenders in federal prison and 16% of state prisoners were serving time for drug offenses.

This issue of the Monthly Mosaic will offer an in-depth view into the relationship between prisons and the War on Drugs.


What Is the Prison Industrial Complex?

In 1961, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his farewell address to issue a warning about what he saw as a new threat to democracy: politicians, media, and defense contractors whipping up fears of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union in hopes of increasing military spending.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address

Similarly, the prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need—has arisen from a confluence of special interests that has given U.S. prison construction a seemingly unstoppable momentum.

Correctional officials see danger in prison overcrowding. Others see opportunity. The nearly two million Americans behind bars—the majority of them nonviolent offenders—mean jobs for depressed regions and windfalls for profiteers.

Eric Schlosser, The Prison-Industrial Complex

When The Atlantic published the article quoted above in December 1998, the United States had approximately 1.8 million people behind bars. Eighteen years later, the American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

Source: Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016

Source: Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016


The School-to-Prison Pipeline.

“Schools Not Prisons” spoke to more than just the “Aid Elimination Penalty.” Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in response to the no-excuses rhetoric of “tough on crime” laws, young people have increasingly been treated as criminals within the educational system.

Theschool-to-prison pipelinerefers to the policies and practices that push students out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Because of zero-tolerance policies, when a student acts out, he or she can be kicked out of the classroom, suspended, expelled or even referred to law enforcement.

“By 1997, 79 percent of schools around the country had implemented zero-tolerance policies, and by 2000, schools were suspending more than 3 million children per year. (By way of comparison, that’s the same number of students who…graduate from public high schools [in 2015]).”

Eli Hager, When School Feels Like Jail

For students in many parts of the country, going to school means walking through metal detectors, getting patted down, having their bag opened and searched, interacting with police and drug dogs, and worse—all on a daily basis.  Schools are increasingly sending more students to alternative schools and in-school detention—where they are often warehoused but not taught,  surveilling students with cameras, and even using restraint and seclusion tactics, including locking kids in small, enclosed areas—sometimes called “boxes”—as punishment. 19 states currently allow corporal punishments in schools, and in four states in particular— Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas—corporal punishment is frequently used on students.

These punishments are not only ineffective, they are counterproductive. Students who have been suspended or expelled are twice as likely to repeat their grade and three times as likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system the very year they were punished. Black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended and even more likely to be expelled or referred to law enforcement for the same infractions.

“I understand safety…but I feel like they’re my aggressor, like I’m unappreciated. School shouldn’t feel like that.

Student in Sunflower County, Mississippi, When School Feels Like Jail


Youth Behind Bars.

In 2011, more than 95,000 youth were held in American prisons and jails. Many of these facilities punish, protect, house, or “treat” their young prisoners with the use of solitary confinement—for days, weeks, months, or even years at a time. More than a third of adolescents behind bars had spent anywhere between one to six months in solitary confinement before their eighteenth birthday.

Solitary confinement can cause extreme psychological, physical, and developmental harm. For children, who are still developing and more vulnerable to irreparable harm, the risks are magnified – particularly for kids with disabilities or histories of trauma and abuse. While confined, children are regularly deprived of the services, programming, and other tools that they need for healthy growth, education, and development.”

Human Rights Watch/ACLU, Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States

Whether in adult facilities or housed with other youth, juvenile detainees are at an alarming risk for sexual abuse. The estimated 250,000 minors who are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults each year are five times as likely to be sexually assaulted— often within their first 48 hours of incarceration—contributing to their high suicide rates (juvenile offenders housed in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide). There are nearly 17 allegations of sexual violence per 1,000 youth held in juvenile facilities, which is likely a low estimate as prisoners reported a 15 times higher rate of abuse than the official numbers show. In juvenile detention settings, boys are most likely to be abused by another detainee. Meanwhile, the more than 14,000 girls incarcerated in the United States—a number that has been rapidly increasing in recent decades —are at greatest risk for abuse by male staff, particularly those minors known to have a history of prostitution.  Transgender girls are further tormented by constant sexual harassment, as they tend to be placed in boys’ facilities, in accordance with their birth gender.

Sexual abuse by facilities staff spans a gamut from flirting and sexual talk, to unwanted touching, to intercourse with incarcerated girls. Sexual abuse can also include the excessive or retaliatory use of strip searches…Officials ignore or inadequately investigate girls’ complaints.”

ACLU, Incarcerated Girls Testify at U.S. Social Forum


The Ban the Box Movement.

The 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. with a conviction history face major institutional obstacles to living a “normal” life after incarceration. One of the biggest barriers to securing jobs, housing, or the opportunity to enroll in institutions of higher education, is simply that many of these institutions ask about prior conviction history.

Started in 2004 by All of Us or None, a national civil rights movement of formerly-incarcerated people and their families, the Ban the Box campaign challenges the stereotypes of people with conviction histories by asking employers to choose their best candidates based on job skills and qualifications, instead of  relying on past convictions as a disqualifier.

In April 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its Enforcement Guidance on Consideration of Arrest or Conviction Records in Employment Decisions in reaction to growing support for Ban the Box, and the EEOC has already begun prosecuting employers who have a blanket ban on hiring people with felony convictions, which the Committee sees as a violation of the EEOC requirement for “individualized assessment” of the circumstances of any past convictions.

Today over 45 cities and counties—including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, and San Francisco—have removed the question regarding conviction history from their employment applications. Seven states—Hawaii, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—have changed public employment hiring practices to reduce discrimination based on arrest or conviction records. Certain cities and counties, as well as the whole state of Massachusetts, have required private employers to adopt ban the box policies. Meanwhile, private employers across the country are voluntarily adopting ban the box hiring policies.

Any box that inquires into criminal history has a strong chilling effect on applications in general…We know that when people see any box asking about their criminal background, a lot of them assume that they won’t have a chance to be admitted on their merits and they won’t pursue the process.”

Kimberley Guillemet, ‎manager of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Reentry, Eric Garcetti wants College Applications to Stop Asking About Students’ Criminal Records

But felony convictions negatively impact career ambitions in more than one way. About 66% of colleges collect information on criminal history from all prospective applicants. More tellingly, about 66% of people with felony convictions who start college applications never finish them, likely assuming they will be automatically denied entry. In response to these concerning statistics, the Ban the Box movement has now set its sights on higher education, with some powerful allies helping to blaze the path forward.

In May, Education Secretary John B. King Jr. released a “Dear Colleague” letter to universities and colleges alongside with a guide that recommended colleges consider delaying questions about criminal records until after admissions decisions.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti recruited 32 other mayors across the country to petition the Common Application Association (which processes around 4 million college applications per year)  and Universal College Application “to remove any box that inquires into a person’s past criminal history from your admissions applications.”


Responding to People Who Argue for Prison/Jail Expansion

Some public officials, like San Francisco’s former Sheriff Ross Mirakirimi, have advocated for increased local spending towards jail construction, while at the same time using social justice rhetoric and quotes to feign support for criminal justice reform and human rights advocacy causes. On one hand, the Sheriff condemns the disproportionate and overpopulated African American representation in the carceral system. On the other hand, he recommends the construction of new facilities to disperse/distribute incarcerated peoples across multiple facilities to ease overcrowding.  

For example, Mirakirimi has advocated for the construction of a new Women’s Jail Facility in San Francisco, arguing that this new facility would not only decrease overcrowding at the local level, but also allocate funding and resources for trans* people undergoing transition. The framing of ‘lock-people-up-so-they-can-receive-services’ is all too common, but is faulty because it does not address the underlying issues surrounding systemic inequality, or carceral overcrowding.

Instead of opting into policies that expand the prison/jail system for the sake of incremental shifts for access to resources, we should holistically reconsider the characteristics that make marginalized communities vulnerable to the risk of incarceration in the first place. Below are some resources you can use to argue against jail expansion:


Take Action.

Do an SSDP DARE (and get 10 points on the SSDP Chapter Activity Tracker)!

  • Has your campus banned the box on college and employment applications? If not, start a campaign for all applicants to be viewed fairly.

Get Involved.

Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous issues have covered topics such as  domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war.

The DARE committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues.

If you have any questions, please contact Frances at frances@ssdp.org. We look forward to reading your submissions!