"The people who profit from prisons have names and addresses. This August, that address will be Philadelphia." So reads the web site of the Coalition Against the American Corrections Association (http://www.stoptheaca.org). The American Corrections Association (ACA), the trade group for the prison-industrial complex, held its annual convention in Philadelphia this week, and the CA-ACA was there to put it on notice.
A broad coalition of community-based prison reform groups, CA-ACA brought hundreds of people to Philadelphia this week for a series of workshops and demonstrations designed to coincide with and act as a counter to the ACA's week-long industry trade show. At a weekend "counter convention," members of ACT-UP, Mothers Against Police Terror, Youth United for Change, and Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty, among others, dissected the prison industry's profit motive, its racially disparate workings, the impact of the drug war on imprisonment, and the everyday brutality of existence behind bars in the contemporary US.
On Monday, hundreds marched from the Center Philadelphia police station after a news conference laying out protestors' grievances and detailing a new study by the Justice Policy Institute on racial disparity in Pennsylvania. According to "The Color of Keystone: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Use of Incarceration in Pennsylvania"(http://www.cjcj.org/jpi/keystone.html), Pennsylvania had the greatest disparity between white and non-white incarceration rates of any state prison system. Non-whites were imprisoned at a rate 13 times higher than whites and made up 70% of all new Pennsylvania prisoners in the last 20 years. And while the number of prisoners in Pennsylvania quadrupled over the last 20 years, the number of drug offenders grew 16-fold. Blacks entered prison on drug charges at a rate 33 times that of whites, the study reported.
While only one counter convention workshop directly addressed the war on drugs, the Justice Policy Institute report made explicit the intimate connections between repressive drug policy and the prison boom.
For ACA members, the Philly confab was billed as a real moneymaker. "The corrections market is growing due to skyrocketing offender populations," read a blurb on the ACA web site. "The inmate population in the United States is almost two million, with dramatic increases forecasted for the next few years. In the United States alone, more than $5 billion is spent on the construction of new jails and prisons annually. Over $50 billion is budgeted annually for the day-to-day operations of correctional facilities. Product and service demand is increasing in every area from toiletries to furniture to communications equipment. Don't let your company miss out on this prime, revenue-generating opportunity!"
"These people (the American Correctional Association) can't present viable reforms -- they've got vested interests in the destruction of our communities," Philadelphia resident April Rosenblum told the Philadelphia Independent Media Center (http://philly.indymedia.org). "They look at our families torn apart by addiction, our youth denied real resources and education -- and what they see is money to be made off imprisoning us."
For protestors and conventioneers alike, the week culminated with a series of arrests at the show's final plenary session. In a Philadelphia City Paper ad the week before the trade show, the ACA invited its critics to voice their concerns and stated that they were "open to dialogue." The CA-ACA decided to take them up on their offer. But when a small group of activists attempted to address the meeting with a list of demands, conventioneers first attempted to drown them out by singing "America" and "The Star Spangled Banner," then asked police to remove the disruptors.
Philadelphia police arrested 12 people. They remain in jail at press time.