How Alabama activists pushed a major bank to cut ties with a private prison firm

When Cara McClure met with Regions Bank executives on Jan. 26 in Birmingham, she felt inspired to tell them a story illustrating how a bank can contribute to the destruction of Black communities.

She took them back to 1993, when she was stuck at home while pregnant with her son. An extrovert, McClure missed her community of Black men who supported and protected her. She soothed her grief with thoughts about who these men would be to her son. They’ll be like his big brothers and cousins, she thought.

But that didn’t happened after her son was born.

“Lo and behold, a whole community of folks was gone. Everybody was gone – to prison,” McClure told bank executives. “I didn’t realize how folks in Washington could impact my everyday life, but during that time, we had the war on drugs. Now, we have a war on Black people in the form of mass incarceration, institutional racism, over policing and hyper surveillance.”

The point of the meeting at Regions Center in downtown Birmingham was to persuade Alabama’s largest bank to end its relationship CoreCivic, a Nashville-based private prison company whose management of the facilities it operates has been criticized in media headlines and federal audits in other states. McClure, cofounder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham and founder of social justice nonprofit Faith and Works, set up the meeting after teaming up with Alabama Students Against Prisons. Th collective of Alabama college students joined McClure for the meeting along with a faith leader and a social justice attorney.

During the meeting, McClure said one of the executives revealed that Regions’ business relationship with CoreCivic dates back 20 years. McClure reminded them that this would have been around the same time Black men started disappearing from her community, which is not a good look on a bank headquartered in a predominately-Black city.

“I told them, ‘So, you took advantage of a trend — a booming industry of Black suffering,’” McClure said.

Before the meeting ended, McClure warned executives that it was her obligation as a community organizer to let the public know about the bank’s connections to CoreCivic and to ask citizens to remove their money from Regions.

The story did its magic. McClure received an email from Regions a few days after the meeting stating the bank wouldn’t give any additional credit to CoreCivic after Regions’ current contract with the company ends in 2023. This decision continued the trend of financial institutions ceasing relationships with private prison companies.

The success of the meeting highlights grassroots organizations’ ongoing effort to stop prison expansion, which could be a long fight. Gov. Kay Ivey signed two 30-year lease agreements with CoreCivic to build two of the state’s three new prisons that will be leased to the state despite lawmakers’ concerns about cost and transparency.

CoreCivic Spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist told Reckon the company has all the capital it needs to conduct its business and expressed gratefulness for Alabama placing its confidence in the company. She believes activists’ frustrations are misplaced and mentioned the company’s vocational skills program which educates about 1,500 incarcerated individuals.

“Activists have waged a lies-based campaign against our company that isn’t solving a single problem in our criminal justice system” Gilchrist said. “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.”

State and federal audits and investigations have documented CoreCivic’s history of violence, medical concerns and understaffing. In February 2020, a judge ordered the removal of all federal inmates from  CoreCivic’s Silverdale Detention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. due safety concerns, according to Courthouse News. In July, CoreCivic notified Hamilton County leaders it was pulling out of its contract and will no longer operate Silverdale, leaving the aging facility in the hands of the county.

With a Black faith leader, a Black attorney and a Black college student by her side, McClure said the strategy behind several groups attending the meeting was to let executives hear from different community perspectives.

“We told them, ‘You see three people here, but we actually represent thousands,’” McClure said. “To me, there’s nothing more powerful than grassroots — the ones who don’t get paid to do what they do.”

Building the power of student activism

More than 300 college students from across Alabama have jumped on Alabama Students Against Prisons’ for prison reform in recent months. In late December, almost a month before President Joe Biden signed an executive order banning  contracts with private prisons, students from across Alabama  organized for a protest at Regions Center.

Auburn University student Morgan Duckett, a cofounder of ASAP, said one passerby closed their Regions account and placed their funds in a neighboring bank shortly after protesters informed them about Regions’ relationship with CoreCivic. Duckett, who is 25, said students want a say in what happens in Alabama, which is what inspired him to be part of ASAP.

“We are the future leaders of the state, and through that we’re building a lot of power,” Duckett said. “A lot of our power comes from our leaders knowing that we’re leaving. They know that we’re not proud of the state. So, it’s really about building a state that I can be proud of, effecting change in my community and holding my community accountable to these changes is a big driving force for me.”

The Regions protest, the first for the nascent organization, came on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against Alabama over the violent and inhumane nature of its prisons. Duckett said the group learned of about Region’s ties to CoreCivic through an article from the Montgomery, Ala.,-based Equal Justice Initiative.

University of Alabama in Huntsville student Joshua Thompson, 22, noted during the Regions meeting that the bank’s relationship with CoreCivic went against the company’s commitment to racial justice issued by its CEO over the summer. By having this partnership, the bank was financing Thompson’s fear of being a Black man in a state that disproportionally incarcerates Black men. The population of women in incarceration is growing at twice the rate as men.

“I’ve always had this fear that I could be put in prison for anything,” Thompson said. “I guess a way for me to combat that fear is to combat the systemic racism that we have.”

Many organizations have been paying attention to banks’ role in mass incarceration. Immigrant rights groups such as Adelante Alabama and Shut Down Etowah have also protested and petitioned Regions for financing immigrant detention centers while families were being separated at the border in 2019.

While orders from Capitol Hill could have played a role in swaying executives, Duckett said ASAP was building off years-worth of people power.

“I suspect that Biden’s executive order, which came hours after our meeting with Regions, helped in illustrating how bad dealing with private incarceration companies is for business and public perception,” Duckett said. “Toss in the collective efforts of hundreds of Alabamians to call Regions and threaten to take their money elsewhere, and it isn’t so shocking that they decided to distance themselves.”

‘We’re not just blocking prisons’

Criminal justice advocates were concerned after Alabama Gov. Ivey signed the new prison leases, which they say because the state has not addressed the safety and conditions issues outlined in the federal lawsuit; they also note the skyrocketing price tag, so far it could be $500 million more than expected. Final lease costs for both properties will become available upon achieving financial close.

Thompson would rather that money be used on education, jobs and mental health resources. Thompson said Ivey’s plan only exacerbates the state’s problems.

“I feel like she is just filling the bucket with more water and there’s this huge hole at the bottom,” Thompson said.

Now, social justice groups are trying to dismantle Alabama’s prison plan in different ways. BLM Birmingham will soon be setting up billboards in Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile to bring attention to the multiple ways state leaders and businesses are contributing to mass incarceration. One of the billboards states, “BL Harbert gets rich from slave labor.” The Birmingham-based construction company is part of Alabama Prison Transformation Partners, which is currently handling lease negotiations with the governor’s office to build a third prison in Bibb County, Ala.

Addressing mass incarceration in Alabama is an example of how BLM uses the power of community to address racial injustices. It’s BLM’s commitment to raising awareness about systematic racism worldwide led to the organization’s Nobel Peace Prize nomination on Jan. 29. In response to the nomination, BLM Birmingham organizers said the movement has received more support over the years because Black people across the world are realizing the power of their collective presence and how it can catalyze change in their communities from policies concerning policing to criminal justice reform.

“Everyone is amazed at the things that can happen when the power is given to the people, but in reality, people make a society, and people can hold a society accountable to their needs,” BLM Birmingham said in a statement to Reckon. “Maybe as one person, that’s very hard (sometimes impossible), but a community can be what it wants to be.”

“In Birmingham, we face very challenging situations that are systemic,” the statement continues. “But we have to demonstrate that despite the power an institution has, they are in a community that they can and will be accountable to.”

ASAP is turning its attention to the Alabama legislature. The group plans weekly days of action, student education and even provides students with lawmakers’ Twitter handles to tag in posts.

Duckett said students will push to end the state’s “three strikes law,” formally known as the Habitual Felony Offender Act. The law gives repeated offenders longer prison sentence for each offense. According to the ACLU, 500 people are serving life without parole and 3 out of 4 of them are Black.

The bill will prevent HFOA from being used in future cases and reduce the sentences of those who were affected by a law, which is more than 70 years old.

“We’re not just blocking prisons,” Duckett said. “We’re addressing the systemic issues in Alabama, that make it so that prisons are this ubiquitous solution to poverty and, honestly, criminalizing blackness in the state.”

McClure, who is 51, said wants to continue building multi-generation activism with ASAP. After all, it was her millennial son who pushed her to be an activist. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges after fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, McClure’s son told her “Ma, I feel like your generation dropped the ball.”

Whether it’s for voting rights, homelessness, or mass incarceration, McClure doesn’t see herself ever leaving the ministry of activism and she wants young people to be a part of that work.

“I just have a thing for the underdog, the marginalized folks, people who are in the margins, Black folks in general and for young people,” McClure said. “It’s about being there for who Jesus would be there for.”

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