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1A Across America: Black Lives Matter Birmingham Takes On Private Prisons in Alabama

Police officers block a street. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average annual operating cost per incarcerated person is $22,650.
Police officers block a street. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average annual operating cost per incarcerated person is $22,650.

Black Lives Matter Birmingham’s latest campaign targets private prison company CoreCivic. And they already have results. Regions Bank of Alabama has cut ties with CoreCivic. The company has been tapped to build two new men’s correctional facilities in Alabama. The Department of Justice is currently suing the state department of corrections and Alabama due to alleged violations of the constitutional rights of men in custody. 

We talked with state activists about their role in this decision, and what they want to see next.

Transcript

Our host, Jenn White, talks to Cara McClure, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham; Lamar Black, co-founder of Faith & Works; and Joshua Thompson, a student activist from Alabama Students Against Prisons, about their effort to stop the construction of new private prisons in Alabama.

Jenn White, Host: Regions Bank of Alabama has cut ties with private prison operator CoreCivic, which has been tapped to build two new men’s correctional facilities in the state. This divestment comes in direct response to pressure from Black Lives Matter Birmingham, and it could undercut the state’s plans to build these new prisons. A spokesman for Regions said “we are specifically not providing CoreCivic with financing for the construction of the prisons to be built in Alabama.” This is part of the bank’s “commitment to creating more inclusive prosperity and advancing racial equity.” What role did Black Lives Matter Birmingham play in influencing this decision?   

Cara McClure:The role that we played was just connecting the dots and showing the contradiction. I had did some research, looked at their website and saw that the CEO of Regions Bank had written a letter —a commitment to racial justice and racial equity. And I just picked up the phone and called them and said, ‘hey, we need to have a talk because there’s a contradiction between what you’re saying on your website and the fact that you’re profiting off of prison labor and supplying money for CoreCivic — a company that is known for human rights violations.

Jenn White: Joshua, you were in the meeting with Regions Bank. Explain a little bit about what happened in that meeting, what argument you made and how they responded.

Joshua Thompson: We went into the meeting and they kind of wanted to hear our perspective and our thoughts about their relationship with CoreCivic. Cara brought up the contradictions between their commitment to fighting racial injustice while also supporting the building of private prisons and the funding of private prisons. And they asked us a couple of questions along the lines of like, ‘Is the relationship beneficial for the community as far as giving people a seat at the table with companies like CoreCivic?’ And ultimately we told them it wasn’t beneficial to remain in that relationship because they’re still funding the actions of a private prison, which inherently is not a good deed. There’s not really a way to be productive when owning a private prison.

Jenn White: How surprised were you by their decision to cut ties with CoreCivic?

Joshua Thompson: I was actually pretty surprised. It was hard to get what their thoughts were during the meeting. They had a pretty good poker face. But I was surprised and pleased that they did decide to end future relationships with CoreCivic and not continue to give them lines of credit. So, I was very surprised and very pleased.

Jenn White: Lamar, you’re a faith leader. What do you see as the role of the church and faith organizations in ensuring our prison system is humane and just?

Lamar Black: I believe that the job of faith leaders all across the state of Alabama and all across the country is to give to those without a voice a voice to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this is not right, and we want something to be done about it.’

Cara-McClure.jpg

Lamar Black of Faith & Works, Cara McClure of BLM Birmingham and Joshua Thompson of Alabama Students Against Prisons.

Jenn White: Cara, it’s interesting how this started for you because it was this very simple thing of going to the website, looking at this bank’s core values and then pointing out where you saw the contradiction. How does that make you think about how you may approach this work going forward?

Cara McClure: The entire time we were planning this, I was looking at it as a learning opportunity for organizers and activists here in Birmingham and across the state. Going into the meeting, we said that we would talk about how we were impacted by the war on drugs. I talked about how back in 1993 I lost my entire community and support system to the war on drugs. And there is still a war on Black people. One of the execs from Regions said that they signed the contract with CoreCivic 20 years ago. And I was like, ‘Whoa. So you took advantage of a booming opportunity —a trend— of Black suffering.’ So, we are hoping that because of what Regions did, other companies and our elected officials will also take a look. Now, we’re setting our eyes on BL Harbert — the construction company here in Birmingham that is slated to build the prisons. And we have billboards going up saying that BL Harbert profits from slave labor.

Jenn White: The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Alabama for unsafe and unsanitary conditions. A recent DOJ report detailed prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force at the hands of prison staff. The prison population in Alabama is around 160% capacity, with roughly 40% of the staffing required. Joshua, how did Alabama get into this situation?

Joshua Thompson: Well, they got put in this situation by over-policing Black communities. Alabama is 25% Black and the prison population is over 50% Black. So, this was by design. This was for-profit. They knew they needed more people in the prisons to do basically slave labor in order to create a profit for the state and for these companies and individuals. This is largely because of the war on drugs and the war on Black people in the state that’s been going on since forever in Alabama.

Jenn White: Cara, these are terrible conditions in Alabama’s correctional facilities. Are you at all concerned that failing to build new prisons could ultimately hurt the people within facilities that you’re hoping to help?

Cara McClure: You know, we’ve been down this road before in Alabama. I just believe there’s an infatuation with incarceration. Every time that there is a problem or that they say that there’s a problem with overcrowding and things of that nature, then there’s people saying ‘we need to build new prisons,’ instead of releasing folks that are on life support, or releasing the elderly, or releasing folks that’s there for smaller things. There are so many other things that we can do besides building new prisons. For the amount of money that Alabama Governor Kay Ivey is spending on these new prisons —I think now it’s $3 billion — but for that same amount of money we could hire 80,000 more new teachers. With that same amount of money we could end homelessness in Alabama for 102 years. We can invest in education, not incarceration.

Jenn White: You mentioned Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama. And we should say that this move by Regions Bank hasn’t stopped Alabama’s plan to build these prisons. The governor signed a 30-year lease for these new prisons last week. Lamar, what are you planning to do next?

Lamar Black: Well, our next steps are to inform people of what’s going on — the plans that are being made for our lives and for our dollars. And then see where the next pressure point will be. Regions, they committed to ending their relationship. But, as Cara mentioned, we have another company here that’s going to be building the third prison — BL Harbert. And we need to find out who else is involved in this goal of building private prisons. Where’s the money coming from? And then we need to address that.

Jenn White: Cara and Joshua, what do you hope other states take away from what Black Lives Matter Birmingham and the other folks involved with this movement have done with Alabama prisons? And what do you hope they take away from it and maybe try to replicate?

Joshua Thompson: I hope this leads to states ending contracts with private prisons. President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order that federally they will stop contracts with private prisons. They will not renew any. I hope states follow through with that. I hope the public and private businesses will no longer support what private prisons do. And I hope other states continue to follow that that trend of ending private prisons and ending mass incarceration.

Cara McClure: My answer would be a little simpler. I’m hoping that people will see the power of their voice, the power of their activism, and will take action in their state and make noise. There is power in a small group of people just organizing and sticking to it until they get a result.

Statement from CoreCivic: 

“We have the financing we need to conduct our business and serve our partners. Activists have waged a lies-based campaign against our company that isn’t solving a single problem in our criminal justice system. The reality is our partners continue to work with us because they understand the difference we make. We provide government the flexibility to manage the ups and downs of prison populations and provide better, safer care to inmates. Every day, we help nearly 1,500 inmates learn the life and vocational skills they need to find and keep employment once released. And under a longstanding, zero-tolerance policy, we don’t draft, lobby for or promote legislation that determines the basis or duration of an individual’s incarceration. Anyone serious about this issue knows that we aren’t the driver of mass incarceration – only 8 percent of inmates are cared for in facilities run by private contractors – but we are working hard to be part of the solution.”   Amanda Gilchrist, Director of Public Affairs, CoreCivic

1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.

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