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Beth Shelburne on How A Heart Attack and ‘Mugshot Parades’ Changed Her Life

By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

As a television news anchor and journalist for WBRC-TV Fox 6 News in Birmingham for nearly a decade, Beth Shelburne was welcomed across the metro viewing area with open arms. Since retiring and because of her advocacy, however, there’s one place she’s not particularly embraced.

“I’m not really welcome by the [State of Alabama] Department of Corrections. They barely even respond to me anymore, but I do have a network of people inside the prisons that I’m in regular contact with,” she said. “I have been into the prisons on multiple occasions, … [and] it opened up this whole world of more reporting.”

Shelburne, 45, is currently an investigative reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice, which fights to end mass incarceration by addressing reforms in the criminal justice system. She developed a passion for this type of work during her career as a journalist, but she really put her heart into it in the spring of 2018—literally.

After suffering a heart attack in 2018, Shelburne decided it was time to do what God had called her to do: raise awareness about prison reform and problems within the criminal justice system.

“That [heart attack] was the catalyst for me to transition to the work I’m doing now,” she said. “I decided that was where my heart was and where I wanted to put my time, energy, and talent by exploring [criminal justice] issues and elevating voices of people that are caught up in the system in a way that I think traditional media really struggles with.”

Shelburne acknowledged the challenges she faces on the rare occasions she can get inside the prisons.

“It’s a very controlled experience,” she explained. “[Prison administrators] don’t really want you to see anything that is unflattering to the administration or the system. Incarcerated people are not allowed to talk to you; [prison officials] even tell you to not make eye contact and not speak to them.”

Shelburne said she never set out to become a prison advocate: “I didn’t really think about it that much. … It was like people commit crime and cause harm, but there was nothing beyond that in my thinking until I covered the [Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama] and the men’s prisons and got to know the people who are caught up in these extreme sentences.”

“I’ve learned that there are a lot of really good people who have done some bad things. A lot of people in prison are like that.”

Shelburne believes her heart attack was part of God’s plan for her “to shine a light in these dark places that have been really terrible for far too long in our state.”

“[He] put this in front of me for a reason,” she added. “I’m a big girl, I’m safe and loved, and I’m willing to take [the challenge] in order to lift up some of these voices that people otherwise wouldn’t hear from.

“Through the reporting I had done throughout my career, particularly here in Alabama on our prison crisis, I became deeply immersed in issues surrounding our criminal justice system. Night after night, reading these stories that I called the ‘Mugshot Parade,’ I realized that these were stories of people who had been arrested but not convicted. … We saw them in the worst moments of their lives, told the audience the worst things they were accused of doing, and just moved on. There was very little follow-through, and it started to really bother me. … I felt like I was complicit in something that wasn’t telling a truth that was there and needed to be sought.”

“Underlying Blessing”

Shelburne vividly remembers the symptoms she experienced on April 2, 2018. While in the downtown Publix supermarket picking up some items for her family after a 13-hour workday, she felt tightness and pressure in her throat and chest. She went through the checkout line and drove herself home, while her symptoms worsened. When she got home, she carried her groceries inside, ran a bath, went into the medicine cabinet, and took two aspirin.

The next morning, she and her husband went to the emergency room at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Hospital and everything was normal—at first. Doctors diagnosed a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, which caused her heart attack. She stayed in the hospital for three days, and doctors discovered she had a congenital heart defect.

“It had nothing to do with my heart attack, but it was causing other problems for me, so that was an underlying blessing in this,” said Shelburne, who went on medical leave from her position at WBRC for almost six months and underwent surgery for coronary fistula in July 2018 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

She remained with the television station for another year before leaving in July 2019 to accept a position as an investigative reporter with the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

Homewood Native

Shelburne is a Birmingham-area native, who grew up in Homewood with her parents and older brother. She had a very traditional upbringing, attending Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church and Homewood High School, where she was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, including being on the dance line and playing soccer.

“I did well in school and didn’t have a life with a lot of hardship,” she said. “I’ve been able to see that more with my reporting on people who are in the criminal justice system. … It makes you aware of your own privilege.”

After graduating from high school in 1992, Shelburne attended Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, where she majored in mass communications and journalism.

“Though I had a double major, I wasn’t really focused on what I wanted to do with my life besides being a good person and contributing something positive to society,” she said. “Still, I was very ambitious. … During my senior year, I landed an internship in New York City, moved there for six months, and ended up staying there for my first year out of college.”

After stops in New York, Mississippi, Florida, California, and Massachusetts, Shelburne returned home to Birmingham in 2010, when she took a job as a digital and investigative reporter and primary anchor with WBRC.

“It felt good to come to a station that appreciated that I was from here,” she said. “I had a history in Birmingham and could bring that to my reporting. [Plus], my husband and I realized that if we were ever going to be closer to our immediate family, this was the best opportunity that would present itself.”

Shelburne, who worked for WBRC from 2010 to 2019 said, “It was cool that I started and ended my television news career up on Red Mountain, in my hometown. It is really a gift to be able to report on the news and cover stories in your hometown. It was by far my best professional experience anywhere. I grew so much during my time at WBRC. I got to know the city and this region that I’m from in a way that I never knew it. … I’m so grateful for all of that.”

Telling the Full Story

During her tenure at WBRC, Shelburne filed over a half dozen investigative stories about sexual abuse at Tutwiler Prison. She broke the story in May 2012 when a federal complaint was filed on behalf of 50 women, alleging widespread sexual abuse of inmates by prison staff.

Two years later, the Justice Department would release findings that showed that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) failed to protect prisoners from sexual abuse and sexual harassment at the facility.

In May 2014, Shelburne was one of a handful of journalists invited to tour Tutwiler prison by ADOC. This followed a two-year effort by WBRC to go inside the prison, in which all requests were denied by authorities. “They tried to . . . block our access to the women,” she said, adding that investigative reporting provides an outlook that’s not often seen.

“I’m going about this issue from the perspective of people who are in the system. That is not to take away from the harm they may have caused and whatever crime they committed, but I think our system is causing so much harm that it would be irresponsible to not tell the full story and show the true picture. Mass incarceration is part of everyone’s story, and I truly think it is the human rights disaster of our time. I learned that while covering Alabama’s prison crisis for WBRC in 2012.”

Recently, Shelburne has spent time on cases related to two men from Birmingham on Alabama’s death row: Toforest Johnson and Nathaniel Woods, who was executed in March.

“I don’t typically cover wrongful convictions, but these two stories taught me a lot about how the system uses certain people,” she said. “Both Woods and Johnson came from the streets of Birmingham without a lot of means, and I think the system tends to railroad young men like them. They are viewed as expendable, and I just don’t believe that.”

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