Racial tensions stop prison committee discussion

ST. PAUL -- Black-white and urban-rural tensions filled a Minnesota House committee room Tuesday, with black protesters telling the mostly white Legislature that it should spend more money on social programs and less on prisons.

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Darnella Wade of St. Paul said Tuesday that Minnesota should not lease a private prison in the western part of the state. Money should be spent on things such as child care, she said. Don Davis/Forum News Service

ST. PAUL - Black-white and urban-rural tensions filled a Minnesota House committee room Tuesday, with black protesters telling the mostly white Legislature that it should spend more money on social programs and less on prisons.

Protesters frequently interrupted as western Minnesotans testified in favor of reopening a private prison in Appleton. The interruptions forced the committee chairman to recess the meeting for an hour, and when it was resumed no more pro-prison supporters testified.
Pastor Toya Woodland of Roseville said that lawmakers “think it is OK to build revenue over black and brown bodies. Slavery is not dead. ... No longer are we on large plantations, we are in prisons.”
While the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee meeting technically was about whether the state should lease the closed private prison facility in Appleton, many of about a dozen people who interrupted the meeting said the state sends too many people to prison. Others complained that the state should not pay a private company for prison space.
Darnella Wade of St. Paul spoke for several minutes, drowning out people testifying on behalf of reopening the prison.
During her emotional impromptu speech, Wade blasted the Legislature and committee. “You do not have the right and you do not have the heart to be running this Legislature.”
“Find something else to do with that plot of land,” she told reporters later. “Turn it into a day care.”
Several state troopers and Capitol Security officers joined the House sergeant at arms office in securing the packed meeting room.
The eventually committee voted 10-7, with Republicans approving and Democrats opposing the prison plan. Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, has a similar bill in the Senate.
Leasing the Appleton facility has strong support in the Republican-controlled House, but not as much among the Senate Democratic majority. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton strongly opposes the Appleton plan.
When Chairman Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, recessed the committee, 47 people who boarded a bus in Appleton and Monticello were hustled out of the committee room through a side door.
“We don’t have a truly secure room for them right now and there are some comments that cause concern...” bill sponsor Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said. “They walked away from here afraid.”
The Appleton group went to their bus and headed home.
At one point during the first part of the meeting, Miller stumbled on a black toddler who crawled under his legs. That drew boos from some in the audience, and Miller said he did not want similar problems, so he supported the recess.
Miller and other pro-prison testifiers who talked before the committee recessed said the privately owned prison would bring “high-paying jobs” to western Minnesota, where the economy has not rebounded like in other areas.
“It is a common-sense solution to a growing problem in our state,” Miller said.
Protesters did not like the idea of using a prison to bolster the economy.
“You cannot put my family in jail to save 330 Caucasians in Appleton,” a black woman shouted. “This is abuse.”
Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, told protesters “this isn’t helpful to your cause.”
He opposes the Miller bill, but protesters lumped him with other whites on the committee.
In interviews, protesters said they are not just against the Appleton prison proposal, but also would oppose new prisons being built to solve an overcrowding problem. They said their main concern is that too much state money goes to prisons, and not enough to social programs such as child care and education that could prevent people from going to prison.
Many of the protesters said they have or have had family members in prison.
Several testifiers, as well as lawmakers, referred to the time when the Corrections Corporation of America ran the prison, housing prisoners from Minnesota and other states. It closed in 2010.
While the CCA’s running of the prison was controversial, Miller’s bill would give the company no say in how the prison is operated. The legislation would allow the state to lease the facilities and hire union workers just like at other state prisons.
A theme of those interrupting testimony was that the rural prison would, as one woman said, “benefit a wealthy few.”
“Some have got so desperate that they have sold their soul to the devil,” said Ian Kantoen of New London, campus organizer for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.
Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds said the prison is to help “a small, rural, white town.” She said the area’s 8 percent unemployment is half that among blacks and Native Americans in the Twin Cities.
Roxxanne O’Brien of Minneapolis, who brought two young daughters to the hearing, said committee members do not understand black problems. “You seem to have a lot of opinions on things I don’t think you have experienced.”
Like others in the crowd, she warned lawmakers that they have not seen the last of her. “We are not just going to disappear and let you pass bills like this. ... If you are going to build a prison, you should build a bed for yourselves.”
Wade added: “You get to comfortably go home. ...You do not go to jail for parking tickets. You have a very, very comfortable life. ... You do not deserve to have your golden parachutes and then come here and tell me that I deserve nothing.”
Vanessa Taylor of Minneapolis, a Hastings native, said her hometown has “a lot of drugs. My neighbors run a meth house. We turn to drugs because we have nothing. If you are growing up in Hastings, you have no jobs.”
She told the committee that six people died, mostly of suicide, from her high school class. “And you did nothing for us.”
“If you want to sentence me to death, you better have the dignity to look us in the eyes...” Taylor said. “We are not your cattle. ... That is what you wanted us to be, but that is not the reality anymore.”

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