Social Justice Hero: Gail Tyree

Welcome to our Social Justice Hall of Heroes: once a month we’ll be highlighting someone in the field fighting to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.

On Wednesday, October 10th, Grassroots Leadership and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary will be co-sponsoring a guest lecture by Gail Tyree, a Soros fellow and former organizer for Grassroots Leadership.  In honor of her upcoming visit, Gail will be our first Social Justice Superhero.Gail Tyree with Rev. Neal Presa, Moderator of the PCUSA

As a 2011 Soros Justice Fellow, Gail is creating a network of organizations and individuals in the southeast U.S. who can respond quickly and effectively to stop for-profit prisons, jails, or detention centers from moving into their communities.  Currently, she is a board member of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, and Tyree boasts over 30 years of Labor and Community organizing experience.  

Her experience includes: international representative for the Workers United Labor Union; campaign director and organizer with Grassroots Leadership in Charlotte, North Carolina; board member of Workers Interfaith Network; advisory member of the Presbyterian Child Advocacy Network; campaign director for the Southern Faith Labor and Community Alliance in Memphis, Tennessee; project labor organizer with the Communications Workers of America; organizing instructor for the MidSouth Peace and Justice Center. She was also an AFL-CIO Teaching Fellow and a graduate of Southern Empowerment Project 2005 Advance Leadership Preparation Initiative.  Most recently, Tyree was asked to help form the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network and was elected to the board of the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association.

At the most recent congress of the PCUSA, Tyree represented the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network as a resource person to the Social Justice Committee.  Gail was integral in passing the overture “On Instructing MRTI to Report to GAMC on the Corporate Practices of Publicly Traded Corporations That Operate For-Profit Prisons.”  For Gail, this overture is an extension of the Presbyterian Church’s 2002 condemnation of for-profit prisons; she’s glad to see the denomination finally “putting its money where its mouth is” as it ensures against investment in companies that profit from imprisonment.

Despite her impressive CV as an activist, Tyree maintains that her work and her journey are more personal and spiritual than occupational.  I had an opportunity to talk with Gail on the phone and over email.  Click "Read More" to see my interview with Gail.

 What will you be talking about at your upcoming lecture?
The lecture will include my personal struggles, my past and present work in the South, my journey of love and support from the Presbyterian Church while fighting the for-profit private prison industry and my vision for a future partnership between the church and Grassroots Leadership.

How did you get involved in working against private prisons and mass incarceration?
I got involved in the work in 2002, when Grassroots Leadership staff was in Mississippi working to close a for-profit private prison in Greenwood Mississippi. My best friend Michele McNeil was an organizer on staff at the time and asked me spend the day with her. I spent the day learning the difference between public and private prison and understanding how far the arms of mass incarceration reached.  Michele felt that getting involved with the work that Grassroots Leadership was doing would give me a way of coping with my own personal struggles of having a son incarcerated.

Tell us a little about your work at Grassroots Leadership.
For the past 10 years I have been a member of an amazing family of believers, a family with a vision of what is possible if our government stops using incarceration as our primary solution for dealing with inequality and poverty.  I have worked to raise public consciousness about for-profit private prisons and mass incarceration in the south.  My work has been in some of the poorest communities in Mississippi and Tennessee in an effort to stop the expansion of for-profit private prison.  The For-Profit Private Prison companies often target these communities with offers of good jobs and economic gains if they are allowed to manage current facilities or build new prisons.  It is not easy to look in the faces of families where the communities in which they live offer little to no prospect of new jobs and to tell these families that for-profit private prison jobs are not good jobs. Even with the challenges, I have celebrated successes in stopping the expansion of for profit private prisons in Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida.

What is the Soros Justice Fellowship?  
The Soros Justice Fellowship is an advocacy fellowships that funds outstanding individuals — including lawyers, advocates, grassroots organizers, activist academics, and others with important perspectives — to initiate innovative policy advocacy projects at the local, state, and national levels that will have a measurable impact on one or more of the Open Society Foundations’ U.S. criminal justice priorities. Projects may range from litigation to public education to coalition-building to grassroots mobilization to policy-driven research. Advocacy Fellowships are 18 months in duration.

What is your project?
The for-profit incarceration industry has been remarkably successful at increasing the numbers of for-profit prisons, jails, and detention centers in the South.  While I am not privy to their precise strategy, the components are clear: lobbying for tougher sentencing and against immigration reform; targeting campaign contributions; and proposing facilities in economically vulnerable communities. In addition, the historic racial injustices in the criminal justice system have strong correlations with the private prison growth in the South and Southwest.  These injustices drive tough-on-crime policies, harsh local immigration enforcement, and expanding prison and jail systems. My project will focus on strategies that communities can utilize to both stop privatization of prisons, jails, and detention centers and push back on the policies that are driving prison growth.