Each time the 100-strong crowd assembled for the national Occupy for Prisoners day roared below the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago on Monday evening, the lights in a couple of windows would flicker on and off – prisoners up above, responding to the chants of “build schools, not prisons” and “we're with you, brothers and sisters.”
“I can only imagine how excited they might have been to see that there are people in the free world that are concerned about them.” said Christan Bufford, an organizer for juvenile justice with the Southwest Youth Collaborative. “When you are in there [detention], you feel like you are the only person in the world.”
Bufford would know – he spent four months in the Illinois Youth Department of Corrected at the age of 16 after an aggravated gun charge and a probation violation. The statistics on mass incarceration for juveniles are bleak. For the more than 93,000 young people in the juvenile justice system in 2008, about 80 percent went on to have contact with the adult criminal justice system, found the MacArthur Foundation.
And the stigma that comes with being part of the juvenile justice system is constant, says Bufford. “Even if it is supposed to go away when you are 17, all you hear is 'this will follow you forever, [you've] messed up your life,'” said Bufford. “The juvenile justice system is not the solution, we really need to be focusing on restorative community based alternatives.”
Juvenile justice was one part of the criminal justice system (or injustice system, as some activists call it) that was highlighted in Chicago's Occupy for Prisoners event on Monday, February 20. Eighteen other cities around the country came together as well to bring attention to the plight of a section of the 99 percent – prisoners.
In the United States, more than 2.2 million people sit behind bars, according to the Justice Policy Institute. Some of the most oft-cited statistics are that more people are incarcerated today than in China or Stalin's Russia, giving America the dubious honor of being the largest jailer.
But behind the shocking statistics are harsh sentencing laws and lucrative contracts for private prison firms that continue to drive the mass incarceration system, say the protesters at Occupy for Prisons, and they are calling for a fundamental change to the system.
“Softer sheets and fluffier pillows will not do for change,” said Yasmin Nair, an academic and writer in Chicago, with the group Gender Just. “Prison has become a way to increase systemic injustice.”
The protests call for an end to a variety of ills that activists see in the system: three strikes bills, which mandate the harshest prison term for anyone with three criminal convictions; solitary confinement; overcrowding; the death penalty; jail time for drug offenses; adult sentencing for children; and for-profit prisons, among other issues.
“In several different places around the country, Occupiers have organically taken up this work,” said Brit Schulte, an activists with Occupy Chicago and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
Occupy's movement against injustice in the banking system, and the massive profits of corporations, are exactly what Occupy for Prisoners is pushing for, said Schulte.
Wells Fargo, a target of Occupy events in the past, has heavily invested in the private prison industry and owns 3.5 million shares in the second-largest private prison operator in the country, GEO Group, as Truthout previously reported.
Meanwhile, prisons make “enormous amounts of profit off the backs of black and brown people in our country,” said Schulte. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the maximum wage for prisoners working at UNICOR, the federal agency that employs prisoners, is $1.15 an hour. The minimum wage for prisoners is $0.23.
The current prison population falls sharply along racial lines – African-Americans only make up 12 percent of the US population, while they make up about 40 percent of the prison population.
In fact, “there are more African Americans under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began,” points out Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
“The New Jim Crows” calls out these racial disparities as a modern-day counterpart to the old Jim Crow laws, arguing that the prison system and the difficulty for felons to find jobs or get public aid disenfranchise the black community much the same way that segregation laws did before they were abolished in 1965.
The book itself calls for a human rights movement to end the new Jim Crow, and Schulte says that the Occupy for Prisoners day was only the start of a spike in this movement. “We are in a very special place right now with this movement, because it's just getting going,” said Schulte.
The National Prison Divestment Campaign was launched less than a year ago, to pressure corporations to divest from private prisons, and, so far, the United Methodist Church Board of Pension and Health Benefits has withdrawn nearly $1 million in stocks from the two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America.
And last summer, prisoners at Pelican Bay State's Secure Housing Unit went on a three-week hunger strike for demands, including that staff stop using food as punishment, “adequate natural sunlight”, one photo a year, and brought the plight of prisoners to national attention.
“When we set out to do these demonstrations,” said Schulte, “we didn't want to just call for better conditions, but also give voice to the people that have been affected by this system.”