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Belmont University Students, Alumni Demand Break With Private Prisons Ahead Of Presidential Debate

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Stephen Jerkins
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WPLN News

Hundreds of students and alumni of Belmont University are calling for major changes ahead of the presidential debate on the school’s campus this Thursday.

The group Be Better Belmont wants the private university to divest from CoreCivic, a locally based for-profit prison company.

“We believe the only responsible choice is to divest completely from the prison industrial complex,” the group wrote in a letter of demands to university President Bob Fisher. “We demand an open conversation surrounding the various aspects of Belmont’s relationship to CoreCivic. In addition, we call on Belmont to remove Damon Hininger from the Board of Trustees and refuse any present or future funding provided by CoreCivic.”

Be Better Belmont’s primary concern is the university’s close ties with the private prison company, which has been criticized both locally and nationally for having a business model that profits off of incarceration, as well as for reports of subpar conditions within its facilities, including migrant detention centers and prisons.

CoreCivic facilities in Tennessee account for more than half of COVID-19 cases, though they house just about one-third of state prisoners.

“Now is the time for Belmont University to demonstrate Christian leadership by choosing to extricate itself completely from any kind of relationship with the prison industrial complex,” the group wrote.

CoreCivic says it has no formal tie to Belmont, though it says some company leaders have volunteered time in support of the school. CoreCivic says it has also provided money for scholarships as part of its broader effort to promote education.

But the company says activists’ claims are “wrong and politically motivated, resulting in some people reaching misguided conclusions about what we do and how and why we do it.”

“The fact is we play a small but meaningful role in helping the government solve problems in ways it could not do alone,” the company says. “In fact, only 8% of inmates nationwide are cared for in private contractor facilities. Above all, we are driven to help those in our care be prepared to succeed at whatever comes next in their lives.”

According to Be Better Belmont, the interconnected relationship between the company and the school starts with CoreCivic’s co-founder, Thomas W. Beasley. He created a $2 million endowment for the university’s business school in 2018.

“To ensure that future generations are genuinely able to pursue the ‘American Dream,’ we must remain steadfast in our defense of the free enterprise system,” Beasley said at the time. “My family and I are grateful to Belmont University and the Massey College of Business for embracing this sacred responsibility to train tomorrow’s leaders accordingly.”

The business school that houses the program is named for Jack C. Massey, co-founder of HCA Healthcare, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, and one of the original investors in CoreCivic, originally called Corrections Corporation of America.

The group has also raised concerns about CoreCivic’s support of the Republican Party, a relationship that also runs deep.

Individuals associated with CoreCivic have donated tens of thousands of dollars to GOP candidates this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.They include President Donald Trump, Tennessee Senate nominee Bill Hagerty, Congressman Mark Green and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

CoreCivic says it has partnered with both Democrats and Republicans through the years “to creatively and cost-effectively meet their challenges in ways they could not do alone.”

“Any inference that CoreCivic prefers one political party over the other is misleading and portrays our company in a false light,” spokesperson Amanda Westrich says. She adds that CoreCivic does not lobby on any policies or legislation that could impact the length of someone’s incarceration, and that many Democratic candidates have chosen not to accept campaign money from corporations.

Only about 3% of CoreCivic’s donations — about $2,300 — went to Democratic candidates, CPR reports.

CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger likely accounted for a substantial portion of those donations. Records from CRP show he has a long history of contributions to the Republican Party, dating back to at least 2004.

Hininger sits on Belmont’s Board of trust, and many students and alumni want him to step down.

In a letter outlining its list of demands, Be Better Belmont calls on the school to:

  • Commit to anti-racism in its mission and vision and set clear goals for the future
  • Acknowledge the university’s past participation in racism and slavery
  • Define and disclose the university’s investment and endowment practices, including financial holdings of board of members related to for-profit prisons
  • Ask Damon Hininger to resign from the board, as well as any other members with ties to CoreCivic
  • Refuse any future donations from CoreCivic and not fund any new initiatives on campus with money donated by groups that profit off of prisons
  • Prohibit university leaders from investing in for-profit prisons

“We call on Belmont to lead the way as a Christian institution,” Be Better Belmont wrote.
Be Better Belmont plans to hold a demonstration near campus Thursday, before the debate. The group says the university’s president has not responded to a letter of demands and did not attend a virtual town hall earlier this month.

Belmont did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from CoreCivic.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.
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