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Profits And Punishment: The 99% And The Prison System

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We've witnessed protesters and reporters covering the Occupy Movement be subjected to indiscriminate arrests and police brutality. Tragically, harassment and abuse of people who are committing no crime is nothing new.

Just ask any New Yorker who has been the victim of Stop and Frisk, a New York Police Department policy that permits an officer -- without a warrant -- to stop, interrogate and frisk anyone the officer thinks is "suspicious." A study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that:

[A]bout 3 million innocent New Yorkers were subjected to police stops and street interrogations from 2004 through 2010...In 2010, 601,055 New Yorkers were stopped by the police:

517,458 were totally innocent (86 percent);
317,642 were black (53 percent);
190,491 were Latino (32 percent);
55,083 were white (9 percent)

And speaking of the criminal justice system...

It's big business. On November 17, the Occupy Wall Street National Day of Action, I carried a sign that read: "I march in solidarity with the 99% in our prisons and jails -- 2 million+ who can't be with us today. Wall St.: How much do you profit from their incarceration?"

Turns out, quite a bit. A report released in November 2011 by Public Campaign and PICO National Network found that:

Over the last decade, the two largest for-profit prison companies (Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group) saw their annual revenue double as a result of the spike in incarcerations, making them both billion-dollar companies.

Between 1990 and 2009, the total number of inmates in federal and state prisons doubled, while private prisons saw its business explode -- the private prison population in 2009 was 17 times larger than 2 decades earlier.

The US incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world, accounting for almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. The more people incarcerated, the more these companies profit, so it's crucial that they keep "tough-on-crime" legislation coming. According to the report:

Through involvement in the leadership of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), private prison companies have played a key role in lobbying for and passing harsher sentencing for non-violent offenses including three-strike laws, mandatory sentencing, and truth-in-sentencing. They are also behind the recent spate of anti-immigrant state laws that are putting more and more immigrants behind bars -- the new profit center for the prison industrial complex.

At the federal level, the political action committees and executives of private prison companies have given at least $3.3 million to political parties, candidates, and their political action committees since 2001. The private prison industry has given more than $7.3 million to state candidates and political parties since 2001, including $1.9 million in 2010, the highest amount in the past decade.

Who bears the brunt of so-called "tough-on-crime" legislation? The 99% -- generally poor people of color who disproportionately populate our prison cells. While the majority of illegal drug users and dealers are white, three-fourths of those incarcerated for a drug offense is black or Latino, according to Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

It's people like Atiba Parker of Mississippi. Parker, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, was arrested after he allegedly sold crack cocaine to a paid confidential informant in July 2005. After his arrest, he told his family about his drug problem and completed an inpatient rehabilitation program. Parker had begun selling drugs to have enough money to buy marijuana which he used to cope with his mental illness, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization which advocates for sentencing reform.

In April 2006 he was indicted for the 2005 offense. And in November 2006 he was convicted and sentenced to 34 years for two drug sales -- one sale was for 2 rocks of cocaine, the other was for .07 grams of crack cocaine. He was sentenced to another 8 years for possession. His tentative release date, according to the Department of Corrections Website, is 11/06/48. He will be 71 years old. FAMM reports:

Since his incarceration, Atiba has been transferred from facility to facility without access to his psychiatric medication. He has remained sober since completing rehab in 2005 and finds solace in the Bible. Ann [his mother] spends her days trying to secure adequate legal representation for Atiba and has incurred tremendous debt. She writes, "I have always taught my children that if they do something wrong there are consequences...nevertheless, the amount of drugs my son was prosecuted for did not justify his life being taken away."

When people like Parker are released from prison they can be subjected to legalized discrimination in housing, employment and food stamp benefits. A study published in the MIT journal Daedalus in 2010, titled "Incarceration and Social Inequality," found that: "The inequality [of imprisonment] is cumulative because the social and economic penalties that flow from incarceration are accrued by those who already have the weakest economic opportunities."

It's no surprise then that the study also found that serving time in prison is associated with a 40 percent reduction in earnings, reduced hourly wages, and higher unemployment.

Speaking of economic and racial inequality...

It's why I occupy.