Dream Defenders, a coalition of students, youth and alumni, who organized in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, have planned a protest in Boca Raton, Florida, to coincide with the last presidential debate.
Specifically, the group hopes to highlight the problems of the country’s rapidly growing prison population, institutional racism and what organizers call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“Black and brown people account for 61 percent of the prison population, while they account only for 31 percent of the population of the United States,” the group states on its website.
“This is not by chance. A system of profiling and a society permeated by racism has allowed the private prison system to run rampant through our communities; turning our schools into pipelines to their prisons. Today, black and brown children are becoming the biggest cash crop in Florida.”
Dream Defenders is the group behind the #changethedebate hashtag on Twitter, an online movement that aspired to draw attention to important topics overlooked by the presidential candidates and debate moderators. Twitter users were invited to submit their own suggestions for the candidates, including (but not limited to) climate change, class inequality and gun violence.
Nelini Stamp, an Occupy Wall Street organizer, moved to Florida in order to help students organize because most activists move to the Bay Area or New York City in order to become activists, leaving what Stamp fears is a training vacuum in other states.
“I wanted to stay here, not just for the election, and then leave,” says Stamp. “That’s what a lot of people do. They go to other states, make sure other people come out and vote, building all of these leaders in other communities, and then it’s peace-out after the election.”
Stamp is committed to stay until well after the election is over, to help activists organize, but also to hold leaders accountable post-election.
Stamp sees a lot of parallels between the Occupy movement and her current work fighting to reform the schools-to-prisons pipeline. Wells Fargo, one of the five largest banks in America and a longtime target of Occupy (Wells Fargo was one of the leading subprime mortgage lenders prior to the 2008 crash and was later handed $37 billion from the US government), is also making a killing in the private prisons business.
Wells Fargo, glutted with taxpayer dollars, has been expanding its stake in GEO Group, the second-largest private jailer in America. As Glenn Greenwald points out at Salon, by the end of 2011, Wells Fargo was the company’s second-largest investor, holding 4.3 million shares valued at more than $72 million. By March 2012, that stake had grown to more than 4.4 million shares, worth $86.7 million.
“After the closure of [Zuccotti,], a lot of people were wandering around, saying, ‘What do we do now?’ ” says Stamp. “But now, I’m still connected to the housing movement, I’m still connected to the labor movement. I still know what’s going on, but now I can connect another struggle to the housing movement. I feel, if it wasn’t for Occupy, I wouldn’t be in Florida.”
Florida, along with Ohio and Virginia, are considered pivotal states-to-win in the presidential election. It’s that national attention that inspired Dream Defenders to try to change the national dialogue.
“Occupy changed the national debate about the economy. ‘Capitalism’ became a bad word. The ‘one percent’ is being used by Obama now in debates, so Occupy changed the debate. It wasn’t about austerity anymore. It was about how we can achieve equality. So we were thinking about it, and the last debate is going to be in Boca Raton, Florida, which is the home of GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the nation,” says Stamp, adding that though the candidates have visited Florida seemingly countless times in the past few months, they haven’t addressed the growing problem of privatized prisons and the schools-to-prison pipeline.
Private prison companies have always claimed private prisons operate more efficiently and will save taxpayers money, but time and time again that has been proven to not be the case.
The Bureau of Prisons performed a study on the costs of “of the privately operated prison in Taft, California with similar Bureau facilities,” and found that “the BOP institutions were somewhat less costly than the private facility.” Additionally, the Florida Department of Corrections has stated, “public prisons were at least 11% less costly than private prisons.”
An audit by the state of Arizona found the state’s private prisons were spending only $2.75 less per prisoner per day than public institutions. And that’s taking into consideration private prisons’ lower wages, huge cost-cutting techniques, and billions gained in contract earnings. That hardly screams “efficiency.”
Furthermore, there have been widespread reports of negligence and abuse by private prison staffs. In Hawaii, prisoners were beaten and abused by employees of the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company that contracts guards for prison facilities. In July 2010, five prisoners were threatened with death, kicked and beaten by the guards.
During a riot in a private Mississippi prison that resulted in twenty inmates and guards being injured, an inmate reportedly phoned a local TV station will a cell phone, sending photos to confirm that he was inside the facility.
“They always beat us and hit us,” the prisoner told the local reporter. “We just pay them back. We’re trying to get better food, medical [care], programs, clothes, and we’re trying to get some respect from the officers and lieutenants.”
But it’s impossible to talk about prison reform without talking about race, and the targeting of poor black and brown individuals by institutionally racist policies like the War on Drugs and stop-and-frisk.
“There are millions of Trayvons,” says Stamp, “but the candidates still haven’t talked about race in a real way. Why are we funding incarceration instead of education?”
Activists across the country are taking on our broken criminal justice system. Check out “Unlock the Box: The Fight Against Solitary Confinement in New York.”