A hallmark of the tough-on-crime era was the militarization of domestic law enforcement, especially on the anti drug front. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were first formed from police ranks in the 1960s to handle extreme cases such as mass shootings and hostage situations. But by the 1990s their hallmark mission was serving narcotics warrants through “forced, unannounced entry.” In 1972, there were a few hundred SWAT squad raids. There were thirty thousand in 1996; forty thousand in 2001; and fifty thousand in 2015.
For more than a hundred years, federal law prohibited the military from being deployed inside the United States against American citizens. Over the past several decades, that line has become blurred. In 1988, Congress created the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Enforcement Assistance Program in honor of an NYPD officer killed on duty at the residence of a drug case witness. The changes were intended to encourage local police forces to apply for federal grants to assist them in anti-drug enforcement.
A decade later the Pentagon began donating military weapons to local governments. Observers such as journalist Dexter Filkins documented tens of billions of dollars of military matériel, “all of which [was] designed for combat,” procured by domestic police departments through donations or using grant money from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. This included armored personnel carriers like the $20 million mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle (MRAP), M16 assault rifles, grenade launchers, infrared sight guns, even bayonets. Critics like Filkins hypothesized that using the SWAT teams and their military equipment for routine police operations encouraged the police to act in ways they otherwise would not.
In one instance in 2014, the sheriff’s department of Richland County, South Carolina, deployed its SWAT team to raid a “home in a run-down neighborhood” where the residents were suspected of holding cannabis. The team members, dressed for full combat— “black fatigues, helmets, and assault rifles”—smashed the doors and windows, entered the home, and arrested the owner’s son. They confiscated $837 in cash that the son claimed he needed to manage his landscaping business. For their trouble, the officers seized a gram and a half—a trace amount—of marijuana. As critics saw it, the 780 cases of flawed paramilitary raids that reached appellate courts between 1989 and 2001 were clear evidence that “community policing” had become “military policing.”
Another consequence of the tough-on-crime policies and the wave of incarceration that followed was a “prison building boom the likes of which the world has never seen.” America’s federal prison population swelled by almost 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, a rate that far outpaced the ability of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to accommodate inmates in its own facilities. The undersupply led the bureau in the 2000s to broker deals with private prison operators to confine federal inmates. In 2013, the bureau recorded thirty thousand inmates, or about one-sixth of all federal prisoners, in private facilities. In 2014, the country’s fifth-largest prison system, after those of the federal government and the three largest states, was operated by one private prison outfit, the Corrections Corporation of America (now named CoreCivic).
There is no disputing that the prison boom opened up fantastic business opportunities. But it also raised significant ethical questions. Whereas for states there tended to be financial and political incentives to reduce recidivism, for private prisons recidivism meant repeat customers. Equally, there are profit incentives for private companies that limit or eliminate spending on myriad inmate services that for a public institution might seem advisable or even obligatory. The less Corrections Corporation had to spend on food, education, vocational training, medical care, and rehabilitation, the better the bottom line. Given that almost all of these firms were not publicly traded—save the publicly held private prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group—getting accurate information on their business practices was “nearly impossible.” In 2016, New Yorker investigative journalist Eric Markowitz reported that Corizon Health, the nation’s largest prison health care entity, treated over three hundred thousand inmates and brought in $1.4 billion each year in revenue. Corizon was also the subject of numerous investigations and lawsuits and was named as a defendant in hundreds of malpractice suits. Many of the private outfits gave state and local entities a slice of their sizable revenues—one company stated in its public relations materials that it had paid $1.3 billion in state “commissions” over the previous decade.
It was perhaps not surprising that these same companies lobbied hard for three strikes and other tough-on-crime measures. In 2011, the two largest private prison companies donated almost $3 million to politicians and hired 242 lobbyists nationwide. Less noted but nonetheless telling, the food industry also lobbied to keep prisons full, as wholesalers knew that a captive market of 2.2 million Americans was “powerless to protest if much of the food delivered to them is well past its sell-by date.”
From Drugs and Thugs by Russell Crandall. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Russell Crandall is professor of American foreign policy and international politics at Davidson College and the author of seven books, including America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror.