PITTSFIELD – Standing in a mix of snow and rain, Lenny Kates and others stood up to America’s criminal justice system.
Nearly 2.2 million people sit in prisons or jails in the United States today. That’s up more than 500 percent from 40 years ago, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that pushes for reforms in sentencing policy and examines racial disparities and alternatives to incarceration.
Kates, an active member of Berkshire County’s NAACP chapter, said jails are being used as concentration camps.
“American industry is ruining prisons,” he said in Pittsfield’s Park Square March 31. “They’d rather sentence people than rehabilitate them.”
Rather than investing in prisons, Kates said, the 1 percent “can easily direct their money towards creating rehabilitation programs and jobs and still remain very wealthy.”
“We see large groups of African Americans whose heritage goes back to enslaving people to work for nothing,” he said.
According to a 2016 study by the Economic Policy Institute, the top 1 percent captured 85.1 percent of total income growth between 2009 and 2013 following the 2008 financial crisis in the United States.
Berkshire County NAACP Chapter President Dennis Powell said fighting mass incarceration starts at the local level.
“That’s where it starts,” he said. “If you don’t like it, make a change.”
In the U.S., 130,941 prisoners were held in private prisons, compared to a total of 1,467,839 publicly held prisoners, according to bureau of justice statistics.
CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, and the Geo Group are at the top of the list for private prison companies. In 2016, the CCA earned $1.85 billion in revenues, according to a press release, and The Geo Group earned $2.18 billion in revenues.
In private prisons, instead of the government overseeing all things prison-related, most of the burdens fall on a corporation. The only responsibility of the government is to supply prisoners. The corporation then charges the government for providing services provided based on the number of inmates, usually slightly lower than what it costs to run a public prison or jail.
Proponents of private prisons state they are safer, more cost efficient than public prisons and save taxpayers money.
Critics say gaining revenue based on the number of inmates drives strict law enforcement and incarcerates non-violent offenders.
In August 2016, the Justice Department under the Obama administration announced it would end contracts with private prisons. But, a month after President Trump took office the new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the order.
According to a Forbes report, the stocks of CoreCivic and Geo Group jumped 35 and 25 percent, respectively, just after the reversal was announced.
“Clearly, with 45,” Powell said referring to President Trump, “it’s all coming into being. We’re going to see more prisons privatized.”
Powell said the NAACP has named fighting mass incarceration its top priority in 2017.
“It’s cheaper to educate and give jobs to non-violent offenders,” he said.
In a press conference called by Mayor Linda Tyer and addressing the city’s affirmative action policy March 22, Powell said while the city has made progress, the state’s civil service process still serves as a barrier to minorities.
“Are we where we should be? No. Are we where we were? No,” Powell said at the press conference. He expressed similar sentiments in Park Square March 31.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Powell said. “There are a lot of groups fighting in Massachusetts,” he said.
Pittsfield resident Frank Farkus stood a few steps below Powell under an umbrella.
“It’s really an epidemic in young people of color who are getting prison sentences for nonviolent offenses,” Farkus said. “It’s a disease and it needs to be treated.”
This article first appeared in The Berkshire Courier.