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From Troy Davis to Occupy Wall Street: How the Prison System Destroys the American Dream

The people of Occupy Wall Street are protesting our country's growing inequality--and nowhere is this inequality more acutely felt than the makeup of our prison population.
 
 
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The world watched when the State of Georgia -- with too many peoples' acquiescence to list here -- murdered Troy Anthony Davis. His funeral was held on October 1 in Georgia.

At his funeral on Saturday, a recorded message by Davis was reportedly played in the church: "Everything we do today will clear the way for a better tomorrow. We can correct all the wrongs if we band together. Don't give up the fight."

On the same day as his funeral, miles away in New York, hundreds of peaceful protesters with Occupy Wall Street were arrested as they marched through the streets.

The movement for Troy Davis was for the "99 percent" -- the two million people whose names we don't know, who sit in prison, disenfranchised, mocked and vilified.

The people of Occupy Wall Street are protesting our country's growing inequality, the staggering rise of the rich and the economic fall of just about everyone else, the divestment in education and a social safety net. Nowhere is this gap and these austerity measures more acutely felt than by those in our prisons (whether guilty or innocent), than by the families of those incarcerated, and by the formerly incarcerated who are engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to create a life on the outside.

It should be no surprise that the person who attacked our country's labor movement and welfare system, the man who helped create the 1 percent as it is today is the same person who helped usher in tough-on-crime policies, the war on drugs and the exploding prison system: President Ronald Reagan. Over the last 30 years, as the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and found themselves increasingly tangled in the criminal justice system.

Most inmates were poor when they went in and poorer while they're inside. Incarcerated people are paid as little as 23 cents an hour for their work, according to AlterNet. Many are still poor when they get out, as it's legal for employers to discriminate against someone with a record. Those convicted of a sex offense have even more legalized discrimination to contend with, thanks to the patchwork of archaic and absurd rules aimed at where they can or can't live.

Our prison system, from arrest to conviction, is disproportionately populated by black men, resulting in the following shameful statistics: one in every eight black men in their 20s is in prison or jail and three-fourths of those incarcerated for a drug offense is a person of color. And because many states tie voting rights to criminal records, an estimated 13 percent of black men are banned from voting, according to the Sentencing Project.

In many states, those with a drug conviction are prohibited from receiving food stamps, thanks to the 1996 welfare reform law. Public housing agencies can and do deny housing to those convicted of a crime and even those who were not convicted but only arrested.

In a study published in the MIT journal Daedelus in 2010, titled "Incarceration and Social Inequality," the authors write: "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."

The numbers in their study narrate the story of race, class and destruction:

  • From 1980 to 2008, the U.S. incarceration rate went from 221 to 762 per 100,000. (The US has more people in prison than any other nation.)
  • About 70 percent of state prisoners did not graduate high school.
  • In 1980, around 10 percent of young black men who dropped out of high school were in prison or jail. By 2008, it was 37 percent.
  • Serving time in prison is associated with a 40 percent reduction in earnings and with reduced job tenure, reduced hourly wages, and higher unemployment.

Recently at a city council meeting in my home of Jersey City, a 46-year-old formerly incarcerated man told the council, as reported in the Jersey City Independent: "I've served 16 years in prison. I came home three years ago and tried everything possible you can do. I got my high school diploma and a driver's license...The job system failed me."