Stopping a For-profit Prison

Thanks to friend Si Kahn for sending the following email, describing in detail what Grassroots Leadership is doing to stop plans for a new for-profit prison for Latinos in Charlotte, NC.


Dear Grassroots Leadership Friends,

No estamos solos. We are not alone.

That was the headline of an editorial last week in Mi Gente (“My People”), a 25,000 circulation Spanish language newspaper published in Charlotte that covers the Carolinas and beyond.

Publisher & Editor Rafael Prieto Zartha called Grassroots Leadership’s current campaign to stop a 1,500-bed combination jail and immigrant detention center from being built in Mecklenburg County “an act of unconditional solidarity with our people.”

“Grassroots Leadership was established more than a quarter of a century ago,” Prieto wrote, “to fight for the most defenseless. The activists at Grassroots Leadership are going to do whatever it takes to stop the construction of the detention center. It is good to know that we are not alone.”

As we approach the New Year, that’s a perfect goal for Grassroots Leadership: that because of us, and the many other social justice organizations who are our partners and allies, the “most defenseless” will always know that they are not alone.

So solidarity is critical. But, alone, it is not enough. And solidarity can’t just be a feeling. It has to be real on the ground.

Many of you have said to me at one time or another something like, “I know Grassroots Leadership does important work. I know you work on critical issues. I know you help people win real victories. But how do you actually do what you do?”

So here’s the nuts and bolts of how Grassroots Leadership is working with people in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, to stop the construction of a for-profit private jail and immigrant detention center that would expand incarceration by one thousand five hundred “beds.

It started this past August 15th. Marianna Dorta, Grassroots Leadership’s Director of Finance and Administration, had just opened the Charlotte Observer, our regional newspaper. Here’s what she read:

Federal immigration officials want to build a 1,500-bed detention facility in Mecklenburg County to house illegal immigrants before they’re deported…The center — the first in the country — could open in less than two years and would be the final stop for illegal immigrants from the South and Mid-Atlantic regions, Mecklenburg Sheriff Jim Pendergraph said…It would be built and owned by a private developer and leased by the county, which would bill the federal government for each inmate who spends the night…”They’re so short on space,” he said, “they would even bring prisoners from as far as New York.”

One way to understand Grassroots Leadership is as a ready-response team to those who are threatened by injustice. From our experience over the last eight years fighting to stop for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers, we know that speed is of the essence. Within a few days, staff members from other states were coming to Charlotte to create the team who would put the campaign together. Mississippi-Tennessee Organizer Gail Tyree, who over the past two years has twice helped communities win major victories over the for-profit private prison corporations, flew in from Memphis. Les Schmidt, who’s been in West Virginia for the past year working with our allies on a statewide prison and criminal justice reform campaign, drove down from Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Working by phone from Grassroots Leadership’s office in Austin, Texas Campaign Coordinator Bob Libal brought to bear the experience that our team there has had fighting both proposed and operating for-profit private immigrant detention centers.

Joining together with our Charlotte-based staff (Alfreda Barringer, Pam Pompey, Tonyia Rawls, Marianna Dorta, Monica Simpson, Sadiya King and myself), the campaign team started spreading out into the community, meeting with everyone from grassroots prison activists to elected officials, and gathering over supper to distill and learn from the day’s information. We started speaking at small group meetings in neighborhoods and at faith institutions. We developed talking points, which we passed out on a flyer under the headline, Do Our City and County Need Another New Jail?

We didn’t try to tell people what to think, but asked the hard questions that would encourage them to think for themselves. We tried to frame the questions so they’d appeal, not just to “progressives,” but to the very broad and diverse cross-section of people who make up this city and county–not just prison and criminal justice activists, but business leaders and “conservatives.” Here’s a few of these questions:

oAccording to the sheriff, the proposed county jail/immigrant detention center would be built by a for-profit private prison corporation, and leased by the county. Typically, leases of this nature are for a period of 30 to 50 years, and can’t be broken without severe financial penalties and expensive legal action–if they can be broken at all. Is locking ourselves into a long term lease with a private prison corporation a good way to plan for our county’s financial future?

oBuilding new jails or prisons never reduces overcrowding-in just expands the number of people who are incaracerated. Painful experience has shown that, within a short time after any new jail is built, it’s as overcrowded as the original jail ever was.

oThe only way that counties in North Carolina and elsewhere have been able to reduce incarceration while protecting public safety is by making policy changes and investing in alternative programs such as drug courts, day report centers, drug, alcohol and anger management programs, electronic monitoring, and restorative justice programs. These proven alternatives to incarceration are far less expensive, in the both short and the long run, than sending people to jail.

oMecklenburg County already has put into place effective, award-winning programs that give people who have committed crimes the treatment they need, and keep them from going back to jail. Rather than building a new jail, wouldn’t it be wiser and much less expensive in both the short and the long run to put additional funds into these proven local alternatives?

oCharlotte-Mecklenburg has put great energy and heart into becoming a world-class community. How would building a brand new 1,500-bed jail/immigrant detention center affect our reputation, including our ability to attract good jobs and to become a major tourist destination for international visitors and business?

oInstead of specializing in importing prisoners across state lines, wouldn’t it be better for Charlotte-Mecklenburg to be seen as a leader in protecting public safety and reducing incarceration, helping people stay with their families, keep their jobs and be tax-paying members of our community-while using the millions of dollars saved for our public schools, libraries, parks, roads, transportation systems and other community needs?

What’s next in terms of our campaign strategies and tactics? We’d love to tell you-but we want them to be a surprise to the people and corporations who are trying to foist this injustice on the people of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. They’ll know soon enough-and, once they do, we’ll let you know, too.

For now, we want you to know that we simply could not do this work, or the ongoing work on our many other campaigns around the country, without your friendship and financial support. On those many days when we wonder how we’re ever going to help justice prevail against the overwhelming odds we so often face, we remember that you’re out there, all over this country, sending us good vibrations and generous donations.

So please take a moment now to send us your year-end tax-deductible contribution, online via our secure server at or by mail to: Grassroots Leadership, P.O. Box 36006, Charlotte NC 28236. For whatever you give, we thank your from the heart. We know you’re there, helping us keep the faith.

And we know this, too: No estamos solos. We are not alone.

For peace and justice,

Si Kahn, Executive Director

P.S. Below is an excerpt from Rafael Prieto Zarfa’s editorial in Mi Gente, translated by Grassroots Leadership’s Director of Finance and Administration Marianna Dorta. The full text in Spanish and English, and a copy of the campaign flyer mentioned above are all available at

We Are Not Alone-Rafael Prieto Zartha
To drive through Charlotte’s streets in the fall is a visual pleasure, and an opportunity to reflect that, despite the critical problems we encounter every day, life is still beautiful. To meander on a Sunday morning down Park Road is a joy. The color of the leaves on the trees lining both sides changes every second, with every turn. The tones are fuchsia, vivid red, golden yellow, emerald green, and a white that turns to amber.

To take Selwyn Avenue, turn onto Providence Road, and stop for a while at La Pannera for a giant cup of cappuccino, with its strong aroma of Colombian coffee, while flipping the pages of the New York Times: this is a sublime experience.

But, for me, it was as splendid as life’s persistent pleasures to find, very close to the Manor Theater, in the midst of this city’s wealthiest neighborhood, an unconditional solidarity with our people.

Around 60 people who oppose the construction of a private, for-profit jail to incarcerate undocumented immigrants, proposed by Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, gathered after the religious service in a room at Myers Park Baptist Church’s Cornwell Center. The main speaker at this meeting was the Jewish activist and songwriter Si Kahn, founder of Grassroots Leadership, an organization created by him more than a quarter of a century ago to fight for the rights of the defenseless.

Kahn, who moved to the South from the North in the Sixties to participate in the civil rights movement for African Americans, sang some of his songs that have a unique stamp of the music from that unforgettable era. Those present–Anglos and African Americans–followed along, clapping their hands and then listening intensely as he pointed out irrefutable arguments regarding the immorality of building a detention center to jail 1,500 detainees.

Do the City of Charlotte and the Mecklenburg County want to be internationally known as a center for mega prisons?

Do the City and County want to be known nationally for the business of importing prisoners from other states?

The issue of prison privatization has been strongly condemned by communities of faith. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. asked for its abolition in an extensive resolution approved in 2002. The southern Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church published a 24-page document titled Eight Pastoral Statements on the Criminal Justice Process and A Gospel Response, rejects the legitimacy of for-profit private prisons.

Since their inception in 1984, private prisons have been a center of controversy. Nevertheless, the tendency to create jails in order to make money has grown like the Hydra’s hair. Not coincidentally, the first private prison was created in 1984 by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to house undocumented immigrants. The first jail opened by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (now the GEO Group) in 1987 was also established to detain “illegal aliens.”

The State Legislature has maintained a smart policy regarding the private prison industry. In 2002, the legislature made it illegal to import prisoners from other states to a for-profit private prison. Before that, in October 2000, the NC Department of Corrections terminated contracts with a private prison corporation to manage two state-owned prisons. The experiment was over.

Despite our state’s clear-cut policy not to profit from human suffering, Sheriff Pendergraph and Congresswoman Sue Myrick have plans to build a private prison for undocumented immigrants. Their plan to earn 60 million dollars a year, by charging the federal government $109 daily for each undocumented person, is morally unacceptable.

Mecklenburg County has contracted with Kimme & Associates/Law Policy Associates to design a master plan for detention that will reduce overcrowding. One hopes that the final report will conclude that constructing more prisons– especially those to house Hispanics–is not the answer.

Kahn says that the activists at Grassroots Leadership are going to do whatever it takes to stop the construction of the detention center. It is good to know that we are not alone.