Occupy demonstrators rally against prisons

By Kaley Fowler

Chants of “Prisoners are the 99 percent!” and “Racist prisons, we say no!” filled the streets of downtown Chicago as Occupy Chicago members made their way to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, 71 W. Van Buren St.

Approximately 150 protesters rallied together Feb. 20 at the corner of Jackson Boulevard and LaSalle Street to raise awareness about prison conditions and the way prisoners are treated.

“We’re here Occupying because we want to see more emphasis on the prisoners’ rights,” said Ronald Schupp, an Occupy Chicago activist. “There is too much emphasis on building prisons and not enough [emphasis] on the needs of the people.”

The demonstration was part of a nationwide movement declared “National Occupy Day for Prisoners,” during which 16 cities hosted protests, including Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.

Among a long list of demands, the protesters called for a stop to “racist” mass incarcerations, an end to prison labor and abolition of the death penalty, which was repealed in Illinois on March 9,2011.

Several speakers representing Chicago human rights groups addressed the crowd regarding the need for prison reform. The topics ranged from racial inequality to juvenile detention rights to immigration incarceration trends.

“We are a mass incarceration nation [and] have 2.4 million people behind bars, which are mostly black and brown people,” said Brit Schulte, a spokeswoman for Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “We have to look at what that actually represents and what that says about our country.”

A large portion of the rally was dedicated to raising awareness about racially motivated incarcerations, which are becoming an “epidemic,” according Daryle Brown, a spokesman for the Positive Anti-Crime Thrust Inc., a Chicago-based organization dedicated to creating positive relations between African–Americans and police.

Brown said that the per capita rate of incarceration for African–American men is five times the rate for white men. He added that African-American men between the ages of 25–29 are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men in the same age range.

“What is so insidious, so heart-wrenching about this epidemic is that it is imminently curable if only enough people cared,” Brown said. “If this epidemic was occurring anywhere else besides the black and brown and poor neighborhoods of our country, all of our greatest scientists, researchers and politicians would be in a mad rush to find a cure.”

According to Ted Pearson, co-chair of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, an organization against unjust treatment of individuals based on political or social beliefs, the prison system is being “utilized to re-impose racial segregation.”

“The values of the whole system are skewed in the wrong direction,” Pearson said. “They favor the rich, the wealthy and the white and disfavor the black, the Latino and young people.”

He said that point is illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” a book frequently referenced at the rally that argues post-prison life for minorities is comparable to that during the 20th century Jim Crow era that prevented African-Americans from actively participating in society.

“Even after our black brothers and sisters are released from prison after completing their sentences, parole and probation obligations, there is a blazing red ‘F’ stamped on them for the rest of their lives,” Brown said. “An ex-felon can be legally discriminated against in many ways. [There are] so many hoops to jump through [and] years to wait before being reinstated.”

Protesters also called for an end to mass incarceration of immigrants.

According to Rozalinda Borcilă, an activist involved in the No Name Collective, a research group that studies the patterns of immigrant incarceration, imprisonment rates for immigrants are at a record high.

She explained that large numbers of immigrants are frequently incarcerated for reasons related to documentation, such as having expired visas.

Borcilă said immigrants were fined as punishment for having invalid documentation before 1996 but in recent years the punishment has escalated to imprisonment as a way of “targeting all immigrants as criminals.”

She added that plans to build an immigrant detention center in the Village of Crete are currently being discussed by village officials and U.S. Immigrants and Customs Enforcement. The Crete Detention Center, if implemented, would house only convicted immigrants, keeping them out of regular prisons.

“I’m not interested in making detention nicer for immigrants by processing them all in one place,” Borcilă said. “Arguably it’s not even going to do that. All it’s going to do is increase the capacity to lock up more and more people.”

In addition to identifying what they believe is wrong with the prison industry, many protesters offered solutions and alternatives to the current system Schupp suggested focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment as a means of reducing crime, while Schulte argued that the crime rate would decrease if more resources and aid were made available to the poor, mentally ill and uneducated.

“The system as it is now [needs to be] replaced by one that might work,” Pearson said. “It’s a revolutionary task to reorient our whole society to really promote human values of solidarity, brotherhood and all the things that we’re supposed to be about.”