Sessions' Pot Crackdown Is Great for South Florida's Giant Private-Prison Company

Sessions' Pot Crackdown Is Great for South Florida's Giant Private-Prison Company
Gage Skidmore / Flickr
There was a brief period, a little more than a year ago, when it seemed Boca Raton's multibillion-dollar private-prison juggernaut, the GEO Group, might go extinct. The Obama administration had just dealt a huge blow to  GEO, which is among the nation's largest private managers of prisons and also one of its biggest political donors. President Barack Obama had signed a memo phasing out federal use of private prison facilities nationwide. He hoped to stop letting private contractors profit off imprisoning the nation's predominantly poor, black underclass.

It didn't happen quickly enough, though. And now racist house elf Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed Obama's decision. Sessions yesterday made an unconscionable decision that seems primed to benefit companies such as GEO — that is, announcing that the federal government might once again begin raiding and prosecuting marijuana sellers and growers in states where recreational or medical pot is legal.

Sessions claimed yesterday's directive would simply give federal prosecutors leeway to arrest marijuana business owners and growers if they see fit. But many outside observers assume the ruling will precipitate a huge anti-pot crackdown. Multiple states, including California, legalized recreational marijuana January 1 — and yesterday's directive has already thrown marijuana markets in those states into turmoil. This includes Florida, where the Miami Herald noted late yesterday that medical marijuana growers in the Sunshine State have been thrown into "uncertainty."

One industry that's not feeling shaky today is private prisons. Given that both Sessions and the Trump campaign have clear ties to GEO and its main competitor, CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA), it's impossible not to view the directive as a gift to some of the most heinous corporate profiteers in America. More federal marijuana prosecutions means more federal drug offenders. More federal drug offenders means more demand for GEO and CoreCivic facilities. GEO, for example, runs about 140 facilities nationwide. (GEO has been sued repeatedly for allegedly forcing ICE detainees to work for food and was accused by the American Civil Liberties Union of torturing Iraqi detainees at an Arizona facility.)

This isn't conspiracy-mongering: GEO and CoreCivic stocks have reportedly tripled under Trump since hitting a low after the Obama announcement. Investment banks have been bullish on GEO and CoreCivic: As the German magazine Der Spiegel noted in September, Deutsche Bank recently issued an analyst's report that included "buy" recommendations for both GEO and CoreCivic stock. GEO operates facilities for both the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And those groups have estimated that an extra 12,000 prison beds would be needed in 2018 to keep up with added "demand."
The ties among Sessions, the Trump campaign, and GEO are well documented, especially by Nation reporter David Dayen: For one, two former staffers in Sessions' office left public service to become GEO lobbyists in October 2016. Sessions himself has also repeatedly fought to bring private-prison facilities to his home state of Alabama.

But even more obvious, GEO used a subsidiary to illegally dump $225,000 into a pro-Trump political action committee despite a ban on political contributions from federal contractors. The nonprofit Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about the demonstrably illegal donation. But, to date, the Trump campaign has not been sanctioned. In June 2017, the legal center filed a lawsuit to determine whether the campaign contributions influenced Sessions or the Trump Justice Department. (GEO maintains its contributions were legal.)

“By contributing to a super PAC closely associated with Trump — the only presidential nominee to endorse private prisons — GEO presumably sought to influence the government contracting process and to ensure that a Trump administration would protect its access to taxpayer dollars,” Brendan Fischer, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, said in 2016.

GEO's aims were obvious. The firm first gave $100,000 to the Rebulding Amerca PAC August 19, 2016, the day after the Obama administration announced it was rolling back its use of GEO facilities. GEO also donated $250,000 to the Trump Inaugural Committee. (In 2015, the company also donated $100,000 to Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign.) With the Obama Justice Department attempting to phase out GEO's business model (the federal government has reportedly paid GEO $4 billion over the past decade), the company engaged in an unprecedented influence-peddling spree in 2016, vomiting $670,000 at super-PACs, donating $732,940 directly to campaigns, and spending $1.74 million on lobbying, according to the Washingon Post. (CoreCivic has similarly sprayed cash at the Trump administration with the campaign equivalent of a fire hose.)

In an internal video released to the public last year, a brave DOJ intern asked Sessions if donations from private prison contractors influenced his policymaking, to which he stammered out an odd, wooden-sounding denial.
The donations seem to have paid off, in that just one month after Sessions killed Obama's plan to roll back private-prison usage, GEO won a $110 million contract to build an immigrant-detention center in Texas for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In October, the Post detailed that GEO employees were effectively setting up shop at the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort, just a hop, skip, and jump from GEO's Boca Raton headquarters. GEO had previously held its annual "leadership conference" at venues around Boca, but last October's conference was conspicuously moved to the Trump National Doral Miami.

“It is the opposite of draining the swamp,” one ACLU lawyer told the Post.

It's impossible not to view Sessions' decision yesterday with all of this in mind. Prosecuting marijuana users doesn't give Sessions or Trump any added polling benefit: A majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, and the Republican Party's libertarian wing is staunchly pro-pot. Even hard-core Trump defenders such as lunatic North Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, who wants to shut down the FBI probe into Donald Trump's alleged Russia ties, said he was furious with Sessions yesterday.
So if this policy doesn't even please the typical Trump voter, whom does it please? Other than local cops, who would shoot themselves directly into the sun if Trump asked, it satisfies nobody, save a massive Florida company with way too much power that should never have legally existed in the first place.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.