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Locking up nonviolent drug users and perpetuating the 42-year-old War on Drugs has become a profitable and political tool used by Oklahoma’s elected officials and the for-profit prison industry.

Many of those offenders have a recognized need for treatment or a halfway house setting instead of incarceration, said state Rep. Gus Blackwell (R-Laverne), an advocate for reforming Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

“We need to look at who we are locking up and why we are locking them up,” he said.

Nonviolent offenders make up 51.6 percent of the 25,580 inmates housed in state-run and for-profit prisons. In addition, 2,683 inmates (10 percent) are serving time in Oklahoma prisons for drug possession.

Nationally, more than 1.5 million people were arrested last year on nonviolent drug complaints and more than half of those arrests (749,825) were connected to marijuana, and 88 percent of those people were booked on possession-only complaints. Marijuana possession-only arrest figures are not available in Oklahoma City or statewide, but one defense lawyer suggests local and state figures mirror the national trend.

“Pot, you might say, is law enforcement’s top cash crop. They don’t want to see it go away,” said OKC defense attorney Chad Moody, who bills himself as the “Drug Lawyer.” “The last thing our criminal justice system wants is for people to stop getting drunk or high,” he said. “It’s a revenue stream with all the fines and fees people pay. Municipal courts, as much as state and federal courts, are revenue courts.”

The battle rages
Since 1937, political leaders and business executives have armed themselves with reefer madness messages claiming marijuana would push people to commit violent acts while producing a generation of insane drug addicts.

Although none of those claims have been proven true, the battle against marijuana and the continued incarceration of pot users remains big business for the for-profit prison industry.

in the heart of the Bible Belt, Oklahoma has some of the harshest drug
laws in the nation, which is an asset to private prisons because of the
beds that will be occupied, said state Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Forest
Park), a proponent of legalizing marijuana.

initial pot possession charge typically results in probation for the
offender, but a second offense is a felony punishable by two to 10 years
in prison.

The strict
drug laws and maintaining marijuana as an illegal substance is a recipe
for big profits. For instance, Oklahoma contracts with private prison
giants Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, Inc.,
to operate three corrections facilities that warehouse 7,540 inmates.
Both companies are proponents of the rigid drug laws for one reason:
more inmates equate to a larger bottom line.

(private prisons) [is] a necessary evil as long as the prison
population is growing,” said Justin Jones, former director for the
Department of Corrections. “It’s like buying a car. You get what you pay
for. In Oklahoma, because of the economy, you’re getting the basics and
that’s it.”

Oklahoma’s growing prison population has been driven,
in part, by a rising crime rate and a truth-insentencing law that
requires certain categories of prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of
their sentence before they are eligible for parole.

2010, the CCA annual report reflected the profit-driven motive with
written statements describing the company’s future and the effects
reduced sentencing laws or decriminalization might have on the firm.

possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control,
including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions
and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and
services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement
efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing
practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that
are currently proscribed by our criminal laws,” company officials wrote
in the report.

instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or
illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested,
convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for
correctional facilities to house them,” the report states.

officials also fear that more inmates, because of their good behavior,
could be released early and cause a reduction in the company’s profit

CCA officials did not return emails or telephone calls requesting comment for this story.

Money and favors
a result, for-profit prison firms have made a commitment to lobby state
leaders, providing them with campaign contributions and other gifts,
according to an investigation by the Tulsa World. Legislative attempts
to legalize and decriminalize marijuana and to approve medical marijuana
have all failed at the state Capitol.

newspaper reported in May that private prison interests have given
nearly $200,000 to 79 of the 149 Oklahoma legislators since 2004. House
Speaker T.W. Shannon (R-Lawton) was the No. 1 recipient of private
prison-related donations totaling $34,950. That figure includes $22,500
contributed by three private prison companies to fund the 2013 Speaker’s

Lawton is the
site of a private prison operated by The GEO Group, Inc., one of the
firms that contributed to lawmakers’ campaign coffers.

Meanwhile, Gov. Mary
Fallin has enjoyed private prison support, which includes $33,608 in
gifts and campaign contributions from employees, political action
committees and lobbyists employed by those companies, the newspaper’s
investigation showed.

the private prison industry gives to Oklahoma’s elected officials, it
also receives plenty in return. Spending on private prisons increased
from $57 million in 2004 to $73 million last fiscal year, said
Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie.

Massie said the increase corresponds to a higher number of prison inmates during the last eight years.

Former DOC director Jones has a different viewpoint on the campaign contributions by private prison interests.

you take me to dinner at Mickey Mantle’s every night for a year, are
you going to be upset if I don’t look favorably on a request later on?”
he said.

“That’s the American way.”

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