On Wednesday, January 24, the Occupy movement joined the National Prison Divestment Campaign in 13 cities across the country for a nationwide day of action that gave a voice to an invisible segment of the 99 percent exploited by the private prison industry.
The National Prison Divestment Campaign was organized less than a year ago by Enlace, a coalition of US and Mexican low-wage worker centers and unions, to pressure corporations to divest from private prisons, whose chief investors include some of country's largest financial institutions such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, both of which have provoked the ire of the Occupy movement for their role in tanking the economy, among other things.
In Washington, DC, occupiers and prison reform advocates converged on Tivoli Square across the street from the Columbia Heights Wells Fargo.
Tivoli Square is a commercial complex surrounded by big box stores and chain restaurants that popped up over the last decade along 14th Street between Park Road and Harvard Street. It was constructed as part of the city's attempt to revitalize the neighborhood, which was destroyed in the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite the gentrification that has predictably followed, Columbia Heights still maintains a strong African-American and Latino presence and is somewhat of a hipster haven, which is apparent almost immediately upon exiting the Columbia Heights Metro Station on 14th Street and Irving.
The evening was filled with chants demanding an end to Wells Fargo's investment in the private prison industry. Over the loud speaker, lead organizers led dozens of protesters in chants that captured nods of approval from the swarms of pedestrians passing by. “Wells Fargo just face it, your investments are racist,” shouted the crowd. According to SEC filings, the bank owns 3.5 million shares in GEO Group, the nation's second-largest private prison operator.
Many of the protesters believe that Wells Fargo epitomizes Wall Street's connection to mass incarceration, a common cause that unifies occupiers and prison reform advocates. Emily Tucker from the Detention Watch Network told Truthout that she reached out to Occupy DC when planning the rally because “They were already doing regular actions at Wells Fargo, so they helped big time with organizing the event.”
John Tuzcu, an organizer with Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change (SPARC) credited Occupy DC with bringing together leaders from organizations like his to plan the protest, arguing that the goals of Occupy and the prison divestment movement clearly overlap due to the “explicit connection between profit motive and imprisonment,” an idea that was echoed throughout the evening.
Yango, a middle-aged African-American DC native active in both Occupy DC and the prison divestment movement, spent over a decade in Rivers Correctional Facility, a private prison located in Winton, North Carolina, 251 miles outside DC. “Rivers,” as many call it, is of particular interest to DC residents like Yango because it was built specifically to house DC inmates to meet a condition in the 1997 DC Revitalization Act mandating that 50 percent of DC felons be housed in privately operated federal facilities. In 2001, the Bureau of Federal Prisons (BOP) awarded the GEO Group (known at the time as Wackenhut Corrections Corporation) a contract to construct and operate “Rivers,” which currently houses upwards of 1,400 low-security DC inmates.
Yango described his time there as “a horror story” marked by inedible sludge and negligent medical treatment, although he emphasized that the worst aspect was, “There are no programs for men who are housed there which means that when a guy comes out of Rivers, he is not prepared to come back to his community to make a positive contribution.”
According to the DC Department of Corrections, African-Americans make up 92 percent of the city's prison population compared to just 55 percent of the overall DC population. With this in mind, it comes as a shock to many that GEO knowingly built the prison on the former site of one of North Carolina's largest slave plantations. The symbolism of making a profit from jailing black nonviolent offenders atop the remnants of a plantation their ancestors were forced to labor on was not lost on the crowd.
“Wells Fargo is an enemy in our community,” declared Yango, referencing their direct contribution to the GEO Group. “We're not out here trying to be soft on criminals. In fact I want the criminal laws enforced. I want the bankers locked up.”
While there is no doubt that private prisons stand to profit from American inmates, it is skyrocketing immigration detention to which they owe their continued existence. A decade ago, private prisons, faced with endless lawsuits and stagnant incarceration rates, were a dying industry. Fortunately for them, the harsh crackdown on immigration following the 2001 terrorist attacks provided a new and growing supply of detainees to fill their beds.
Since the Department of Homeland Security took over immigration enforcement in 2003, the number of immigrants detained each year has almost doubled to 390,000. Today, nearly 50 percent of all federally detained immigrants are housed in private prisons compared with just 6 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners, making immigration detention a gold mine for companies like the GEO Group, whose revenues climbed from $517 million in 2002 to $1.3 billion in 2010, a 121 percent jump.
The private prison industry is so reliant on immigration detention that their army of lobbyists helped craft Arizona's SB 1070, the state's draconian immigration law that gives police the authority to arrest and detain individuals they suspect are undocumented based solely on police discretion.
In Tivoli Square, Matias Ramos, cofounder of United We Dream, the immigrant youth-led movement that seeks a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, took to the microphone to share his experiences with immigration enforcement. Ramos, who was 13 years old when he came to the US from Argentina, was briefly detained in 2010 and nearly deported last September, but thanks to an outpouring of support, his detainment was short lived and he was granted a temporary stay just days before his scheduled deportation.
He addressed the crowd and the surrounding passersby over the loudspeaker in both English and Spanish in an attempt to reach out to all the residents of Columbia Heights. “At a time we're being told there's no money for our schools, there's no money for unemployment insurance, there's no money for food stamps and yet we're giving taxpayer money to all these corporations to jail people that come to this country looking for a better life,” Ramos said.
As an activist heavily involved in both immigrants rights and Occupy DC, Ramos has a unique perspective on the convergence of the two movements.
“It's very clear when you start connecting the dots for people that you have these banks that are investing in these prison corporations and these prison corporations are working with these lobby groups to pass all these laws that end in more incarcerations, more deportations,” Ramos told Truthout. “It all goes full circle in this profit system that has a lot of benefit for Wells Fargo but no benefits for society because on the other end is families being broken up, workers losing work, kids growing up without their parents and that breaks us up as a society.”
Jai Shankar, a civil engineer from India, has lived in the United States for 20 years. Three years ago, he was arrested and detained after reporting a stolen camera to the DC Police. He was held in Hampton Roads Regional Jail, a private prison in Portsmouth, Virginia, for over five months and has been shackled with an ankle monitor for the last two years as he awaits deportation.
Shankar works for the Tenants Advocacy Coalition or TENAC, a nonprofit that helps DC tenants stay in their homes. He sees a clear link between those who are abused by the for-profit prison industry and DC renters exploited by landlords. “Everything is a business,” argued Shankar, adding that Hampton Roads charged detainees “$20 dollars to talk on the phone for 15 minutes.”
In the end, the protesters demonstrated that prisoners and immigrants locked up in private prisons are victims of the same system, a system that throws families out of their homes, shackles students with endless debt and allows those with the most to pay the least. Perhaps one of the greatest successes of the Occupy movement thus far has been to unify these victims and their advocates by creating a channel for grassroots organizations to form alliances, make connections and discover that they are oftentimes fighting against the same profit-driven entities.