Part of the now-infamous war on crime, a 100-to-1 ratio was implemented in sentencing for crack cocaine. So, a person caught selling five grams of crack received the same prison sentence as someone dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine.

The mandatory-minimums were harsh, too. That same person caught selling five grams of crack received a five-year minimum sentence; 50 grams or more and the minimum was 10 years.

Despite clear racial, economic, and cultural disparities, cries from constituents fell on deaf ears while law-enforcement lobbyists successfully cajoled and frightened congressional leaders.

US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, for one, strongly opposed reducing the crack-cocaine minimums. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a 325,000 member national organization that bills itself as "the voice of our nations' law-enforcement officers," also spent $550,000 lobbying Congress over the past three years. Among their interests: stopping the Powder-Crack Cocaine Penalty Equalization Act, along with promoting a litany of other Draconian measures.

Prison business
To be fair, government employees weren't the only ones to lobby against crack-cocaine sentence equalization. A little-recognized subset of this vast prison-industrial complex lobbying community is composed of private correctional corporations, which sign lucrative contracts with governments to house inmates for profit, often shipping them to facilities out of state.

It is, of course, in these private prisons' economic interests to see more people in prison serving longer sentences. And with current facilities bursting at the seams, times for this burgeoning industry are good. The country's largest private prison provider, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), spent more than $2.7 million from 2006 through September 2008 on lobbying for stricter laws. Last year alone, the company, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, generated $133 million in net income.

For the past 25 years, the CCA has built itself into a corrections powerhouse — it operates nearly 70 facilities housing more than 75,000 detainees. As it does for, say, contractors in Iraq, though, privatization comes with an inevitable lack of oversight. The CCA has been involved in numerous wrongful-death lawsuits, and it has been a constant target of prison-reform groups who claim the private facilities are understaffed and their detainees abused.

Yet another private prison provider, the GEO Group, which has annual revenue topping $1 billion, has come under intense scrutiny for dozens — if not hundreds — of inmate deaths in the past decade. One such prisoner death led to the recent indictment of Vice-President Dick Cheney on November 18, in which a rather ornery Texas state prosecutor claimed that Cheney's substantial investments in the GEO Group made him partly responsible for prisoner abuse — a dubious prosecutorial theory (in fact, it was dismissed this Monday), but with a grain of practical truth.

Nonetheless, states facing prison overcrowding turn to these corporations to outsource inmates. California, for example, has commissioned the CCA to ship convicts as far away as Tennessee (where financially strapped relatives and friends frequently cannot visit). The CCA has exported nearly 4000 California prisoners to states across the country under a $115 million contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Over the next three years, 8000 more are planned to be shipped out of the Golden State.

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