Reverend William Barber II, president of the North Carolina state chapter of the NAACP, delivered an electrifying speech during the 2017 NNPA Mid-Winter Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Photo By Freddie Allen/AMG/NNPA)

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Following the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place before the 2016 Presidential election, and there were 868 fewer polling places across the country, according to the Poor Peoples Campaign. Rev. Dr. William Barber II believes that everyone has a right to live.

Through his Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. Barber is continuing to build a movement to overcome systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, militarism of the budget and the false moral narrative of white religious nationalism.

In an exclusive telephone conference with the Black Press of America, Dr. Barber and his Poor People’s Campaign Co-Chair, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharris, said America has a moral crisis.

“Democrats run from poverty and Republicans racialize poverty,” Dr. Barber stated during the more than one-hour discussion.

“We have invited both sides of the political fence. We’ve invited the White House to come and talk with us. They’ve refused,” stated Dr. Barber, the founder of Repairers of the Breach, a national leadership collected $92,020 from Centurion and nothing from Corizon.

“This is just plain bi zarre, “ said State Comptroller Justin Wilson. He said creating a stress management program, for example, was a probably a good idea but since it falls outside the contract it couldn’t properly be substituted for things vendors were paid to do but didn’t.

“I’ve been involved in state government for many years and I’ve never seen a contract interpretation like this,” he told the subcommittee.

State auditors found discrepancies in how TDOC reported 8 inmate deaths in the six prisons they investigated. Prison staffers entered “Natural” on TDOC’s Incident Reporting computer screen but the Department of Health said five deaths were accidental overdoses of fentanyl, one was a murder, one was a suicide, and another is still under investigation.

Auditors analyzed a list of 171 inmate deaths from October 1, 2017 to July 31, 2019 and found 38 deaths given questionable causes when matched with certified death certificates.

The TDOC acknowledged some of the audit’s recommendations with a curt “Concur” and said it would modify its operations “to ensure the identified weaknesses are promptly remediated with effective internal controls”.

The auditors found problems in procurement, record-keeping, poor monitoring of offenders released into the community, and a recidivism rate of 47%.

About half of Tennessee’s convicts reoffend within 3 years and are back in prison despite $10.5 million spent on high school and college education for inmates. TDOC does not report recidivism rates for inmates who have gotten diplomas or degrees in prison but research shows they are 43% less likely to return. Auditors recommended TDOC provide lawmakers with those numbers to see if TDOC’s educational programs are paying off.

TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker thanked the Office of the Comptroller for its work and told lawmakers TDOC consistently get high marks in its annual inspections. Prison activists say that’s because TDOC and CoreCivic know when TDOC’s Compliance Division will inspect them. They say extra staff is brought in and prisons are spruced up to score well. They say inspections actually hide the reality of prison operations.

“We maintain that the TDOC operates safe and secure prisons and provides effective community supervision. The majority of the findings can be attributed to technology challenges, delayed reporting, and the staff shortages that our state, like many others, currently experience,” Parker said in a statement.

“The department and CoreCivic, the company that runs private prisons, both institutions are obviously not capable of running the prisons to a standard that any citizen would think acceptable,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville).

Stewart wants to resurrect the Oversight Committee on Corrections that was disbanded in 2011 and he wants to end TDOC’s private prison contracts with CoreCivic.

“These prison guards, parents, prisoners, and others, who have been raising these concerns, have been proven correct. The department is not equipped to solve these problems. We need outside oversight and outside investigations otherwise the federal courts are going to take over the prison system again,” Stewart said.

Tennessee prisons were under federal oversight from 1982 to 1993.

CoreCivic runs prisons in Clifton, Hartsville, Mason, and Whiteville that cost Tennessee taxpayers about $1 billion a year. The company runs 61 jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers in the U.S. that house about 90,000 prisoners.

“This is their business model. They get paid to do stuff and how they make their money is by not doing it,” said Paul Wright, Executive Director of Prison Legal News.

He said prison audits show deficiencies year after year but nothing ever really changes.

He noted that Republicans like private prisons because they have a nonunion workforce. If all of Tennessee’s prisons were operated by the TDOC they would have union contracts and understaffing would be less of a problem.

“Once the state privatizes a portion of its prison system it kind of puts itself over a barrel because then they just lack the capacity. If Tennessee said right now we’re terminating our contracts where are they going to put people?

They still get the contracts and the money keeps flowing to them. For the most part there is bipartisan consensus on using private prisons. It’s not like the Democrats are opposed to it and the Republicans are in favor of it. I mean the reality is that at the end of the day everyone’s down with it,” Wright said. development organization, which expands upon his Moral Monday movement.

“This administration has been virtually silent on the issue of poverty. The president talked about unemployment being down, but underemployment is up. The number of people that have dropped out of the workforce is up,” said Dr. Barber, who, along with Dr. Theoharris, and others launched the Poor People’s Campaign, spearheaded initially by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Campaign conducted what it said was a 50-year audit of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy in the U.S.

They said the findings have already helped to inform and build state and local, nonpartisan fusion movements that are committed to challenging laws and policies that are antithetical to the broad tenets of social justice.

Dr. Barbara and Theoharris, who is a pastor from New York, told the Black Press that the ranks of the Poor People’s Campaign would increase as they broaden their efforts.

They noted figures that show 140 million poor and low-wealth people live in the United States – from every race, creed, sexuality, and place.

“We aim to make sure these individuals are no longer ignored, dismissed, or pushed to the margins of our political and social agenda,” Dr. Theoharris stated.

With 2020 counting as a pivotal election year, Dr. Barber pointed out that voter suppression laws in many states have only contributed to poverty.

The Poor People’s Campaign has noted that, since 2010, 23 states have passed racist voter suppression laws, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting statutes that make it harder to register.

Because of this, early voting days and hours have reduced, officials have purged voter rolls, and there have been more restrictive voter ID laws.

Following the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place before the 2016 Presidential election, and there were 868 fewer polling places across the country, according to the Campaign.

While these laws have disproportionately targeted Black people, at least 17 states saw voter suppression cases targeting American Indian and Alaskan Native voters in 2016, Dr. Barber stated.

“Thirteen states that passed voter suppression laws also opted not to accept expanded Medicaid benefi ts offered under the Affordable Care Act,” he added.

“These attacks follow a broader pattern of restricting and curtailing democratic processes by drawing on legacies of racism to undermine local efforts to organize for better conditions,” Dr. Barber stated.

As of July 2017, 25 states have passed laws that preempt cities from adopting their own local minimum wage laws. Most of these are in response to city councils passing or wanting to pass minimum wage increases.

“We found that people can work a minimum wage job and can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment,” Dr. Barber said. “We found out that there are 2 million people who work every day for less than the living wage. Some of them live in their cars, and they go to work every day.”

Dr. Theoharris spoke of Maria, a woman they met in El Paso, Texas, separated from her family because of immigration issues.

“We waded into the Rio Grande River – the river that separates the U.S. from Mexico – with an action called “Hugs, not Walls.” Maria got to see her son for the first time in 16 years. And for those couple of minutes that Maria had with her husband and her son were the first and only two minutes that she got to see her family members because of unjust immigration policy,” Dr. Theohoarris stated.

The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing the Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, June 20th, during which Dr. Barber said they would rise as “a powerful moral fusion movement to demand the implementation of our moral agenda.”

“The fact that there are 140 million poor and low wealth people in a country this rich is morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent and economically insane,” Dr. Barber added.

During the march, Dr. Barber said some of those living in poverty would attend and speak for themselves. He stated that it was essential to know that poverty comes in “all colors” and that it’s more than just African Americans who are struggling.

He noted that the City of Flint was under emergency management when it decided to switch its water source from the Detroit Water System to the Flint River.

That move poisoned a community of almost 99,000, with a 42 percent poverty rate and in which 56 percent of residents are Black, and 37 percent are White.

Also, Dr. Barber noted that 6.1 million people had been disenfranchised because of felony convictions, including one in 13 Black adults.

During the call, Dr. Barber continued to lash out at the current administration’s controversial immigration policies. The Poor People’s Campaign has found that undocumented immigrants contributed $5 trillion to the U.S. economy over the last ten years.

They paid $13 billion in Social Security in 2010, but only received $1 billion in benefits.

They also pay eight percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the wealthiest one percent pay just 5.4 percent. Yet undocumented immigrants and most lawfully residing immigrants are barred from receiving assistance under the major public welfare programs, causing hardship for many poor immigrant families.

In fact, among the 43.7 million immigrants in the U.S., there are 19.7 million – undocumented and lawfully residing – who cannot vote, Dr. Barber noted.

“So, we have to understand the history of systemic racism. And we have to see how systemic racism is impacting not just people of color, but also white people today,” Dr. Barber stated. “When Reverend Barber says that repressed voter suppression can create and further poverty amongst White people, amongst Black people, amongst Latinos, amongst young people and old people.”