High school drug raids and private prisons


by David Safier

Hat tip to Vince Rabago for pointing out this AlterNet article about a drug raid at Vista Grande High School in Casa Grande. The article focuses on the use of CCA, Corrections Corporation of American — a private, for-profit prison corporation — in the raid. But let me start by looking at the raid itself.

The school's principal, Tim Hamilton, requested the raid. The school was put on "lock down." No one could go in or out. Students were lined up against the walls of their classrooms while drug sniffing dogs checked for drugs on the students or in their bags.

This is a prison-style procedure where every student is treated like a suspect, a potential criminal. It wasn't in response to a bomb threat or a student who was suspected of having a weapon. The purpose of the raid was simply to find illegal drugs.

Was the raid because of an epidemic of drug use and sales at the school?
Not according to the principal, who said, "We
wanted to send a message to kids that we don't want that stuff on our
campus." And not according to the results. Three students were arrested in the raid: one for .1 grams of
marijuana, one for .5 grams of marijuana, and one, a 17-year-old female, who had  10 ounces of marijuana which was packaged for sale. That's it.
Three people, one of whom was apparently dealing a drug whose illegal
status is being questioned by legislators and law enforcement leaders
across the country.

As someone who spent over 30 years teaching high school, I see this as incredibly destructive to the atmosphere of a school. Schools, by definition, have to create codes of discipline while they promote education, but when the disciplinary measures become this heavy-handed, the balance is tipped toward fear and repression. How long does it take for a teacher to recreate a positive learning atmosphere in class? How long does it take for students to get the raid out of their heads and focus on their studies?

The article was less about the raid itself and more about the involvement of the for-profit prison corporation in the process. Police were leading the raid, but including a corporation whose job isn't to prevent crime but to profit from it creates an unhealthy partnership.

CCA is a major presence in Arizona, supported by many legislators and advisors who whisper in Jan Brewer's ear.

CCA, the nation's largest for-profit prison/immigrant detention center operator, with more than 92,000 prison and immigrant detention "beds" in 20 states and the District of Columbia, reported $1.7 billion in gross revenue last year. This revenue is derived almost exclusively from tax payer-funded government (county, state, federal) contracts through which the corporation is paid per-diem, per-prisoner rates for the warehousing of prisoners and immigrant detainees.

And, CCA has a substantial presence in Casa Grande and throughout Arizona's Pinal County (Casa Grande is the largest town in Pinal County). The corporation owns and operates a total of six correctional/detention facilities in the county, distributed through the towns of Florence and Eloy.

These facilities hold a mixture of prisoners from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety Division of Corrections, TransCor (a detainee/prisoner transportation subsidiary of CCA), the Pascua Yaqi Tribe, the U.S. Air Force, the Vermont Department of Corrections, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In September of this year, CCA was awarded a contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to house 1,000 medium security prisoners at the corporation's Red Rock Correctional Center in Eloy.

In 2009, the Central Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation listed CCA as the largest non-governmental employer in Pinal County. To boot, CCA is a "Board Level" member of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a powerful trade/lobby organization, and is active in the Eloy, Florence, and Casa Grande chambers of commerce.

When prisons are run for a profit, more convictions make for good business. Three-strikes-and-you're-out laws, immigrant incarceration courtesy of SB1070 and other laws clamping down on illegal immigrants are lobbied for by this power industry. Bringing them in the schools raises the situation almost to the level of satire, where the prison industry is using our institutions of education to sign up new customers.


  1. Agreed, Dave. There are charges of racism on Facebook about this incident. From his name, it sounds as if the principal is Anglo. I read that the school is 70% Lationo. If these facts are correct, it does smell like racism.

  2. Lori, I was curious to see if there was any news coverage. A google search brought up numerous repetitions of the piece I linked to and one short item in the Casa Grande Dispatch November 1 (http://www.trivalleycentral.com/casa_grande_dispatch/area_news/arrested-in-vista-grande-high-drug-sweep/article_b9eed8ac-243d-11e2-bd4c-001a4bcf887a.html). From the news article:

    “Eight officers with dogs from Casa Grande Police, Gila River Police, Arizona Department of Public Safety and Corrections Corporation of America arrived at the school at 9 a.m. and the school was placed on lock-down. Every vehicle, backpack and classroom was searched by the dogs.

    “A 15-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy were found with marijuana in their backpacks and marijuana also was found in a 17-year-old girl’s car, according to police. The amount of marijuana found was not released.The three students now face suspension or expulsion for violating school policy.”

    So, an entire school swept for drugs. Two students had small amounts of marijuana in their backpacks, and the only reasonably large quantity was in a girl’s car. As a former high school teacher, I’d say that sounds like a school that qualifies as surprisingly drug free, not a place that deserves to be treated like a prison yard.

  3. This is a very disturbing incident. I was shocked that I happened a month ago, and we are just now hearing about it. As Lori points out above, why was this not covered by the mainstream media?

    In response to Drug Free School Zone, above, there are other ways to intervene with kids and drugs in schools. I have taught on the college level and have given a few guest lectures in high school and middle school. When I worked in addiction at the UA, I used to give anti-smoking lectures which primarily focused on media manipulation of kids to encourage smoking. (These were not finger-wagging, just-say-no talks.) Anyway, after the one class at Tucson High, I asked my son about all of the kids with their heads in the desks. It was a morning class, but why was this allowed? He said those kids come in drunk or stoned every day. He said it was common place for the teachers just let the kids sleep. This is a problem and an opportunity for intervention. If the kids are obviously impaired, why are they not sent home or sent to the nurse? The parents should at least be called.

  4. This is outrageous, where are the parents speaking out? Why can’t I find a local news article on this? I have to laugh not to cry.

  5. This is something that needs to happen in several middle schools and high schools in the Tucson area. Sabino, Sahuaro, Catalina Foothills all have some pretty serious drug issues, and not just weed. Coke, heroin, and Meth are popular drugs on these campuses and need to be dealt with.

    And just because only 3 were caught, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. Keep drugs out of schools.