The United States has just 5 percent of the world’s population and over 20 percent of its prisoners. Since 1980 alone, America’s prison population has quadrupled. While this enormous prison population, as well as its deep racial biases, should be of concern to anyone, prisons should be of particular concern to the Occupy movement.
Since Occupy first exploded onto the scene, many within the political establishment and mainstream media have criticized occupiers alternatively for a lack of demands and for embracing too many seemingly unrelated demands. In spite of this confusion among those who are the self-appointed gatekeepers of political discourse, most people have understood Occupy as being a movement concerned with corporate influence over government, economic inequality and the economic crisis at large. It is precisely for those reasons that Occupy should be concerned about America’s penal population (which is not to say that many Occupy groups and occupiers are not).
The current regime of mass incarceration is very much tied to the emergence of the neoliberal state in America. The neoliberal state demands stability for the market, but ultimately generates instability with its generation of surplus populations and lack of social resources. This means that while neoliberalism seeks to limit state intervention in the market and slash social welfare nets in the name of “freedom,” it inevitably results in increased coercion, militarization and incarceration. And with its desire to subject every aspect of society to the market, prisons become not just a necessity under neoliberalism, but a profitable venture. These factors, not an epidemic of criminality, are the chief causes of mass incarceration in America. Prisons are therefore very much tied to the larger economic polices that Occupy opposes.
Only a small percentage of prisons are private, but the privatization of prisons represents the worst of corporate profiteering from human suffering. Stories about private prison companies influencing policy are plentiful. A judge in Pennsylvania accepted bribes for sending juvenile offenders to a for-profit prison. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) helped draft Arizona’s draconian immigration law. Additionally, CCA recently sent a proposal to 48 governors offering to buy prisons as long as the states promised to keep them at 90 percent capacity for 20 years.
Many of the financial institutions that have already gathered the ire of Occupy are profiting from prisons. Wells Fargo, which received $38 billion from the bank bailout, was also the second-largest shareholder of GEO Group, a for-profit prison company, though its latest SEC filings show it recently dumped 75 percent of its GEO stock, a move which occupiers and their allies consider a major victory as they continue their efforts. In addition to investing in private prisons, both Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch write prison construction bonds. Even when prisons are not private, Wall Street still finds a way to profit from them.
In California, general obligation bonds which pledge the full faith of the state and increase debt must be approved not only by the legislature, but by popular referendum. While in the past, prison expansion had been approved by the public, in the early 1980s, after lobbying from private financial firms, the state legislature changed the status of prison bonds to lease revenue bonds. Lease revenue bonds were previously reserved only for education and allowed the state to borrow money with the debt staying off the record, and thus, not subject to the ballot initiative. Such bonds were also tax-exempt.
Many Occupy activists have already started to make these connections. Both Occupy DC and Occupy Portland have targeted Wells Fargo over their investments in private prisons. Occupy Baltimore protested the construction of a new youth jail. Additionally, a prison-focused group, Occupy 4 Prisoners, has formed. What’s important is not only that Occupy embraces America’s prison problem as a cause, but is clear in linking it to its larger agenda of resisting unchecked corporate power and structural economic problems.