Demonstrators converge on D.C. Jail to demand prison reform

Yesterday nearly 50 protesters gathered at the D.C. Jail to bring attention to the injustices faced by prisoners in the United States.  The crowd, which included participants in Occupy D.C., former prisoners, and families of the incarcerated, marched to jail’s entrance to chants of “Say no to the new Jim Crow!”

John Gaskins, who spent 14 years in prison, says he wants to end what he says is the inhumane use of solitary confinement in prisons.

“They’re keeping guys in solitary confinement for five, six years,” says Gaskins.  “Some guys have been in there for as much as 13 years.  Only because they’ve come to be identified as a voice of dissent.  It all comes down to trying to stand up for your rights.”

Gaskins is in the process of trying to create a community farm that would employ ex-convicts that have recently been released.

“When you get out of prison you find that you’re totally disenfranchised,” he adds.  “We’re just trying to get these guys jobs and get them some healthy food.  Get some fresh produce into their bellies.  If you only have $200 to spend on your EBT card you’re not gonna spend it on vegetables.”

Another issue that riled the protesters is the D.C. government’s proposed changes to its jail visitation policies that would have prisoners and their families viewing each other through video screens, rather than the glass that now separates them.

“I know how much a visit means,” Gaskin says.  “I’ve been without a visit for five or six years at a time.  It’s totally dehumanizing to have some mother not even be able to see her son. All she can see is just some vague image behind the glass.”

Phil Fornaci, a local lawyer who works with prisoners at the DC jail, says many of his clients end up at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Winton, North Carolina.  Two Rivers is a managed by The Geo Group, the world’s second largest private prison company.  In 2007 Fornaci and his organization, The D.C. Prisoners’ Project, initiated a lawsuit against The Geo Group using testimony from prisoners that claimed the facility’s medical care was dangerously inadequate.  According to the lawsuit, the lack of adequate medical care for the prisoners aggravated many of their existing conditions, leading to some inmates losing the ability to walk, disintegrating into mental illness, or requiring emergency surgery.

Wells Fargo, which last year was slapped with an $85 million dollar fine by the Federal Reserve for its predatory lending practices, is also one of the largest investors in The Geo Group.  The Geo Group has used its political muscle to lobby for tougher immigration laws in order to fills its jails.  This has made Wells Fargo a common target for housing activists, immigration rights supporters, and prisoner’s advocates over the last year.

The Occupy DC Criminal Injustice Committee will be picketing the Wells Fargo branches in Colombia Heights (3325 14th St NW) and the Shaw (1901 7th St NW) every Friday afternoon from 4-6 p.m.  For more information, go to