All attempts to reform mass incarceration through the traditional mechanisms of electoral politics, the courts and state and federal legislatures are useless. Corporations, which have turned mass incarceration into a huge revenue stream and which have unchecked political and economic power, have no intention of diminishing their profits. And in a system where money has replaced the vote, where corporate lobbyists write legislation and the laws, where chronic unemployment and underemployment, along with inadequate public transportation, sever people in marginal communities from jobs, and where the courts are a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporate state, this demands a sustained, nationwide revolt.
“Organizing boycotts, work stoppages inside prisons and the refusal by prisoners and their families to pay into the accounts of phone companies and commissary companies is the only weapon we have left,” said Amos Caley, who runs the Interfaith Prison Coalition, a group formed by prisoners, the formerly incarcerated, their families and religious leaders. “Mass incarceration is the most important civil rights issue of our day. And it is time for communities of faith to stand with poor people, mostly of color, who are unfairly exploited and abused. We must halt human rights violations against the poor that grow more pronounced each year,” Caley said here. He and other prison reform leaders spoke Saturday at the Elmwood Presbyterian Church.
“We have to shut down the system,” said Gale Muhammad, another speaker and the founder and CEO of Women Who Never Give Up. “All the companies that use prison labor have to be boycotted. And we can’t stop there. We have to boycott the vending machines in the prisons and the phone companies. We have to stop spending our money. Until we hit them in the pocket they won’t listen.”
Former prisoners and prisoners’ relatives — suffering along with the incarcerated under the weight of one of the most exploitative, physically abusive and largest prison systems in the world, frustrated and enraged by the walls that corporations have set in place to stymie rational judicial reform — joined human rights advocates at the church to organize state and nationwide boycotts inside and outside prisons. These boycotts, they said, will be directed against the private phone, money transfer and commissary companies, and against the dozens of corporations that exploit prison labor. The boycotts will target food and merchandise vendors, construction companies, laundry services, uniforms companies, prison equipment vendors, cafeteria services, manufacturers of pepper spray, body armor and the array of medieval instruments used for the physical control of prisoners, and a host of other contractors that profit from mass incarceration. The movement will also call on institutions, especially churches and universities, to divest from corporations that use prison labor.