Thanks to ALEC, Arizona High School Students Treated Like Convicts In Prison Style Lockdown

The act of falsely portraying oneself as a member of legitimate law enforcement for the purpose of deception is illegal in most countries and usually carries a custodial sentence. Most cases of impersonating law enforcement is for the purpose of some kind of gain, intimidation, or to commit a crime. So-called private security services do not have the authority regular law enforcement enjoys any more than a regular prison correctional officer, and yet in Arizona, a local police department, in conjunction with high school officials, assigned “law enforcement” status to corrections officers employed by a private corporation. The incident is problematic on several fronts, especially considering the victims were public school students who were treated like convicts in a lock down maneuver during regular instructional hours.

The incident in Arizona is part of a disconcerting trend involving the for-profit prison industry nationwide, and a plague on the state that garnered media attention during the SB 1070 “papers please” controversy that highlighted the use of prison employees in law enforcement operations. It is disturbing enough that private corporations are making major inroads into the penal system and profiting from taxpayer dollars, but using them in law enforcement capacity involving public school students borders on misappropriating public funds and conflict of interest.

In an Arizona city, Casa Grande, a private corrections corporation extended their reach into classrooms when they assisted local law enforcement agencies during a drug raid at Vista Grande High School. The principal, Tim Hamilton ordered a “lock down” of all 1,776 students for the first drug sweep in the school’s history. Hamilton described the lock down as a case where “everybody is locked in the room they are in, and nobody leaves — nobody leaves the school, nobody comes into the school.” Hamilton continued that once everyone is locked in the classrooms, an administrator is teamed with a “law enforcement officer,” and “they bring the dogs in and 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.” Although situations arise that make locking schools down appropriate, it seems a bit much during routine checks for drugs on a campus, and in Vista Grande’s case, this drug raid was highly unusual.

The public information officer for the Casa Grande Police Department (CGPD) said the raid’s operation comprised four “law enforcement agencies” including CGPD, Arizona Department of Public Safety, Gila River Indian Community Police Department, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Three of the participants were legitimate law enforcement agencies, the corporate prison guards however, were not members of law enforcement or a public agency; they were private prison guards.  CCA is the nation’s largest for-profit (private) prison corporation and their presence at a high school “drug sweep” is strange, and an outrage, and despite CGPD’s opinion, they are not part of any law enforcement agency.

The program director of the Tucson office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Caroline Isaacs, said that “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.” Isaacs’ organization advocates for criminal justice reform and she remarked that “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. It is chilling to think that any school official would be willing to put vulnerable students at risk this way.” There may be legality issues with allowing private prison guards to conduct a drug sweep at a public school because the Arizona Administrative Code (AAC) says that for an individual to engage in duties of a peace officer, they require certification from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) that qualifies police officers, constables, marshals, Dept. of Public Safety personnel, and community college and university police to serve as “law enforcement” officers.  In fact the AAC says, “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.” Apparently in Arizona, corporate profits supersede requirements to serve as a “peace officer,” especially when dealing with public school students.

There is no provision in the AAC for a corporation’s employee to serve as a peace officer, but as benefactors of taxpayer-funded criminal justice system, it was important for Arizona to assist conflict of interest and ensure that CCA make a profit. CCA’s interest in the criminal justice system is the polar opposite of real law enforcement whose primary interest is public safety unlike CCA’s profit-oriented motivation, and it takes on another level of outrage when considering that CCA was co-chair and member in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) now-ended Public Safety and Elections Task Force. The ALEC task force was behind the voter ID laws and Stand Your Ground (Castle Doctrine) model legislation rampant in Republican-controlled states.

During CCA’s tenure as member and leader of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force, they were instrumental in pushing three strikes laws, truth in sentencing, and mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines based on ALEC model legislation devised in conjunction with a division of the NRA (CrimeStrike). It is no coincidence that America witnessed an explosion in the number of incarcerated Americans after the ALEC-NRA CrimeStrike legislative activities, and interestingly, ALEC also pushed model legislation for greater law enforcement presence  on public school campuses, and mandated tougher sentences for offenses in so-called “drug free zones” like public schools. It is extremely difficult to NOT see a direct correlation between CCA’s prison guard presence at a public high school “drug sweep” and their advancement of ALEC’s agenda to create a bigger prison population for their member, Corrections Corporation of America. Although the ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force is discontinued, the Arizona high school drug raid illustrates the damage of allowing the corporate prison industry to influence the legislative process that is affecting the nation’s population; especially students.

There is a reason it is a bad idea to privatize any part of the government or its agencies, and particularly when corporations write laws to benefit their industry. A naïve person might believe Republicans passed ALEC’s model legislation expanding the prison population out of concern for public safety, but members of ALEC (Republicans) also voted to award contracts to Corrections Corporation of America, so they knew they were passing corporate authored legislation that provided the corporation with a steady supply of income in the form of prisoners. If any American thinks Republicans, champions of privatization, would not privatize every part of the government and then pass legislation to benefit corporations is a buffoon and a fool. For over three decades the GOP has worked solely for corporate interests in every industry from agriculture to the military, so the idea that Arizona legislators passed legislation to provide prisoners and increase profits for Corrections Corporation of America is nearly as certain as their prison guards were impersonating law enforcement officers and terrorizing public school students. If Arizona’s leaders, and the students’ parents, had a modicum of sense they would call for an investigation into the Casa Grande police department, Corrections Corporation of America, and the principal who subjected the students to a lockdown worthy of a high-security prison, but not a public high school.

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