On President’s Day (Feb 20, 2012), the prisoners incarcerated in the Suffolk County Jail received a welcome surprise: approximately a hundred protesters stopped by to express their solidarity. This was the final stop in a protest march organized by Occupy Boston’s People of Color Caucus, Ocupemos El Barrio and the Jericho Movement. In addition to showing solidarity with prisoners, those marching were protesting the prison industrial complex, the Massachusetts “3 Strikes” law, and the mass incarceration of people all over the world.
Mass incarceration in the USA is an issue currently at the forefront of civil-rights activism due to its wide-reaching consequences. The U.S. imprisons a greater proportion of its citizens than any other country (with the possible exception of North Korea). A vastly disproportionate number of those imprisoned are either ethnic minorities or of lower socio-economic status.
The grievances go well beyond the sheer number of prisoners. Complex civil rights quandaries arise from for-profit incarceration, felon voting disenfranchisement, and the failure to compensate prison labor. According to protesters, these are violations of prisoners’ human rights. Private prisons, for instance, have an incentive to lobby for harsher laws that will incarcerate more people – because more prisoners mean more profits. Those imprisoned within private prisons in the U.S. are often forced to work for far below minimum wage. And once they are released, former prisoners have great difficulty finding jobs and (depending on which state they live in) may have their voting rights taken away. Civil rights activists have likened this system to modern slavery or a “new Jim Crow” system.
At approximately 3 p.m. protesters began congregating at Boston’s North Station, in preparation for their march to the Suffolk County Jail. The organizers read a statement of the tactics they endorsed: the march was declared to be entirely peaceful, with no intention of disrupting the public or the police at the prison. In part, these tactics’ goal was to make the march safe for former inmates to join as well as others who could not afford to be arrested, such as undocumented immigrants. After this quick statement, protesters began to move down Nashua Street towards the jail.
Numerous signs and banners were on display, supporting those incarcerated or protesting the system that imprisons them – for instance, “Prisoners Have Rights” and “Caging People is Torture.” Protesters kept up a constant series of chants: “Hey hey, ho, ho! The prison system has got to go!” “Money for jobs and education, not for mass incarceration.” and “Hey, let’s face it, the prison system’s racist!”
Once the march arrived at the prison, protestors took time to show their support for the prisoners. They raised their fists in the direction of the jail in a gesture of mass power, which connected the present struggle to twentieth-century movements for civil rights and Black Power. These signs of solidarity were well received: prisoners waved, cheered, and even wrote makeshift signs on note-paper to communicate with the marchers through their barred windows.
During the show of support at the prison, the marchers had a teach-in, inviting numerous speakers to be heard on topics relevant to the march. Advocates for prison reform (or abolition), as well as family members of imprisoned people spoke movingly about the damage that the US’s prison system has done to their lives and to the lives of others. The subjects of discussion ranged from domestic prison policies to international practices of incarceration.
A representative from the Jericho Movement spoke about the effects of imprisonment on minority communities and what could be done to help those who are currently imprisoned. The brother and mother of Tarek Mehanna, an American convicted of providing material support for terrorism, spoke about their family situation and raised awareness of the campaign to support Mehanna at his sentencing hearing. While we are not able to describe all of the speeches here, we encourage readers to watch the complete video of the teach-in here.