Local Activist Group Fights for Rights of the Incarcerated

Every Friday evening, members of the Criminal (In)Justice Committee gather outside of the Wells Fargo Bank on Georgia Avenue NW, for a two-hour demonstration calling for a boycott against what they say is the “modern day slave trade.”

The committee, which is a branch of the Occupy DC movement, is a local organization that is part of the fight to transform the criminal justice system. Their boycott of Wells Fargo & Company (WFC), centers on the bank’s investment with GEO, a company that runs private prisons.

“Our feeling is that Wells Fargo should get out of the private prison business,” said Rodney Green, Criminal (In)Justice Committee member and chairman of the Economics Department at Howard University.

The committee says that at one point, Wells Fargo owned $100 million in stocks in GEO. GEO owns and runs Rivers Correctional Institution in Winston, N.C. that, according to the (In)Justice Committee, houses thousands of prisoners from the D.C. area. They say that the majority of the prisoners are Blacks and Latinos who are locked up for minor offenses and thus essentially shut out of the job market because they have a criminal record. The committee demonstrates outside of Wells Fargo branches every week, encouraging all bank members to take their money elsewhere. It is hard to tell exactly how successful their demonstrations are, but Green says as long as they spark at least one’s person’s interest and get them to take home one of their leaflets, that is all they can hope for.

The group recently celebrated what they consider a major victory, as Wells Fargo divested nearly 75 percent of its investment in GEO group. The 75 percent figure has been reduced to about 33 percent on many blogs discussing the issue.

In an emailed statement, Alan Elias, Senior Vice President and Head of Wholesale Banking Communications at Wells Fargo, tried to clear up the issue.

“The 33% figure is closer to reality,” he said. “But, what’s important to understand is that the reduction in holdings was from the normal rebalancing of assets within a portfolio. Like a 401K, the Wells Fargo Advantage Funds are owned by the individuals who invest their money into the funds. Wells Fargo doesn’t own the stock, we manage it.”

In addition, to their Wells Fargo activities, the committee is also actively engaged in helping ex-offenders. They are working to get the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority to change a policy that prohibits them from hiring individuals with a criminal record.

“The biggest issue for returning citizens is the need to find a job,” Green said. “When you have a felony conviction it is very very difficult. A lot of employers won’t hire anyone who has a record.”

The committee is busy trying to galvanize support in the community for ex-offenders.

Reginald Payne who works with OurDC, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that all D.C. residents have good paying jobs, also participates in the Wells Fargo protests with the Criminal (In)Justice Committee. Payne, who is 71, says he was in and out of jail for most of his life, and knows intimately the injustices of the criminal justice system.

“If I had never gone to prison I would never know what I know now,” Payne said. He said that he spent most of his time in prison reading and observing. He said he believes that law enforcement, judges and district attorneys promote crime in order to keep the demand for their jobs high, and that high unemployment rates push people to commit crimes.

Jack Condon, a Fairfax County. teacher, joined the efforts of the Criminal (In)Justice Committee for a different reason. He was in McPherson Square during the Occupy Movement shortly after hearing about the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. It was there he first became aware of the committee and its message about the inequalities in the criminal justice system resonated with him, and he has been involved ever since.

“I’d like to shut them down,” said Condon about private prisons. “Or at least stop them from growing so fast.”