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On 31 October 2012, a group of local law enforcement agencies and approximately 20 trained sniffer dogs descended on the Vista Grande High School in Arizona to perform a drug sweep.The officers and dogs showed up in the early morning and the school was put on lockdown, meaning all of the doors were locked and none of the children was allowed to leave.
According to the school’s principal, Tim Hamilton, the dogs did not go near the children, who were made to wait in the hallways for the hour or so that the officers and canines swept through their classrooms.
Ultimately, the dogs sniffed out three personal stashes of marijuana, and the three kids who owned these stashes were taken away by the police. Two of the kids have been put on long-term suspension, one has been expelled and all three are facing criminal charges.
Drug sweeps of schools are not uncommon occurrences in the recent past in America, much to the chagrin of civil rights advocates, who see such sweeps as an efficient means of diverting certain kids to prison – in some cases, even before they make it to adolescence, via the much-criticised “school-to-prison pipeline”.
What was unusual about this particular raid, however, is that, among the team of law enforcement personnel and canines put together by the local Casa Grande police department, there were prison guards employed by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s largest for-profit prison company, which owns and operates several prisons in the area. CCA was also kind enough to provide their sniffer dogs for the raid.
What’s even more unusual about this is that pretty much nobody in a position of authority in and around Casa Grande seems to think there’s anything wrong with 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 have ever seen,” says Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee.
Aside from the fact that CCA is a private corporation whose driving goal is to fill more prison beds because that is how it generates revenue for its shareholders, prison guards are neither qualified, nor legally entitled, to take part in law enforcement activities.
According the Arizona’s administrative code, any individual engaging in the duties of a “peace officer” must obtain certification from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training (Post). Prison guards are not Post-certified by default, because they are not obliged to undertake the necessary training (since it’s not their job to go about making arrests).
To make matters worse, CCA’s private prison guards are not even Post-certified as correctional officers because they are exempt from the Arizona state standards and training requirements. Despite this, Post’s executive director, Lyle Mann, could see no problem with CCA sending its guards and sniffer dogs into the high school.
As far as he could see, CCA was just behaving as the good corporate citizen he believes it to be (a view shared by many in Arizona) by helping out its neighbours. This is how Mann explained this view to me:
“CCA is one of the largest employers in the area. They employ more people than anyone I know in the state in that area. They try hard to be a good corporate citizen. They give money to charity, sponsor leukemia runs and other things good corporate citizens should do. So this government entity [the school] asked this good corporate citizen to loan them their tools [the dogs and the prisons guards], which they did, free of charge. The dogs are trained to take part in law enforcement activities; whoever handles the dogs is immaterial. So, although it is correct that those guards are not certified to carry out law enforcement actions, what they did at the school did not really require Post certification. They were just doing what a good corporate citizen should do.”
Officer Thomas Anderson, spokesperson for the Casa Grande police department shared the view that it was the dogs’ qualification and not the guards who handled them that counted, so there was no issue in his eyes with the prison guards being present at the raid.
He also indicated that this was not the only time they have used CCA guards and dogs in local law enforcement operations, but he refused to elaborate.
CCA did not respond to queries regarding how frequently they donate the use of their dogs and guards to local law enforcement efforts, or whether they do, in fact, donate those services free of charge.
In response to CCA’s efforts on 31 October 2012 to be a good corporate citizen by sending its sniffer dogs into the local high school, three school kids are now facing drug charges, two for possession of marijuana and one for possession of marijuana with intent to sell.
Principal Hamilton believes that two of the kids will probably be sentenced to probation; the other may do jail time.
“In other states, they’re legalizing marijuana,” says Alex Friedmann, editor of Prison Legal News. “In Arizona, kids are being kicked out of school for possession.”
While it is, of course, important to keep drugs out of school, surely counseling and intervention would be more appropriate measures than funelling children into prisons and landing them with criminal records.
Sadly, in Casa Grande, the grownups charged with care of these kids care appear to be more concerned about the well-being of CCA, the for-profit prison company and “good corporate citizen”, than they are for the children who may end filling CCA’s lucrative prison beds.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk