In the US, big banks are divesting from private prisons, thanks to anti-ICE activism

Protesters march past a federal court during a demonstration calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York on 29 June 2018. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

Major private prison firms CoreCivic and GEO Group stand to lose 72 percent — about US$1.9 billion — of their private financing as major banks commit to divesting from the private prison industry under pressure from activists, according to a new analysis by the Center for Popular Democracy and other groups.

Activists have been pushing banks, pension funds, colleges, and city and state governments to divest from the private prison industry for years. However, the movement’s momentum has recently grown: public outrage over US president Donald Trump’s policies at the southern border has put mounting pressure on Wall Street to drop financial support for private companies that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to service and run a vast network of immigration jails and detention centres.

The National Immigrant Justice Center reports that about 71 per cent of people in ICE custody were held at private facilities in 2017, although that number may be higher now that the Trump administration’s punitive border policies have caused populations of incarcerated migrants and asylum seekers to swell in notoriously overcrowded jails and detention pens. CoreCivic and GEO Group, the nation’s two largest private prison firms, are among ICE’s top private contractors for incarcerating and transporting immigrants. In contrast, only 8.5 per cent of state and federal prisoners are held in private jails and prisons.

Private prison firms profit from human suffering and are known to cut corners in order to save money, practices that have created a long list of controversies at immigration jails as well as state and federal prisons, including lawsuits alleging labour trafficking of immigration detainees. Private prison firms are also beholden to investors and financiers, creating an array of public targets for activists.

As Trump has escalated his anti-immigrant policies, the prison divestment movement has become a broad coalition, connecting immigrant rights groups with the movement to end mass incarceration in the United States, which has long been driven by activists working at the intersection of human rights and racial justice.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the progressive action network MomsRising and a member of the Families Belong Together Corporate Accountability Committee, says that more than 100 grassroots groups came together over the past few months to put pressure on the banks with petitions, protests and sit-ins, building on years of organising by prison divestment activists.

“What we’re seeing is a wave of mass outrage being turned into a wave of mass action, and we’re seeing people discovering that they have power to make corporate change and legislative change and cultural change to change the narrative,” says Rowe-Finkbeiner.

No new finance

So far this year, six major banks — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, SunTrust, BNP Paribas, and Fifth Third Bancorp — have made broad public commitments to no longer provide new financing to the private prison industry after current financial agreements expire. This divestment is expected to have a considerable impact on GEO Group and CoreCivic, which rely on loans and lines of credit to expand and stay afloat.

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Both companies are set up as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) that are exempt from corporate income taxes, an arrangement that has allowed the private prison industry to expand rapidly over the past two decades. However, REITs are required by law to pass large portions of their incomes back to investors, limiting the amount of cash they have on hand. So, in order to expand their operations while sustaining the business model based on the REIT tax loophole, companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group must rely on short-term loans and lines of credit, making Wall Street financing for private prison firms a crucial choke point of activists.

“Wall Street severing ties with private prisons doesn’t just tarnish the public reputation of these companies,” said Maggie Corser, a Center for Popular Democracy analyst, in a statement. “It stands to materially hurt the bottom line of for-profit prison companies for years to come.”

Several banks facing pressure to divest from private prison companies, including PNC Bank, Barclays and US Bank, have not committed publicly to divesting, according to the Center’s analysis. Moreover, those that have publicly said they would no longer finance private prison firms are not keeping their commitments equally. For example, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase have already cancelled credit lines for GEO Group, while Bank of America extended an additional US$90 million revolving credit line to the company shortly before announcing that it would no longer offer new financing to the industry.

“It’s part of a bigger system that is divesting resources from communities and pushing those resources into prisons and detention.”

It’s also unclear what portions of the sprawling private prison industry the banks will no longer finance. Bank of America officials made its divestment announcement after touring the Homestead Center, a privately-run migrant ‘influx center’ in Miami that human rights groups say is really a detention centre where children are held for long periods of time in gruelling conditions and are unable to leave. Caliburn, the private company behind Homestead, does not expect to be impacted by Bank of America’s decision because it is not technically a private prison, according to reports.

GEO Group has also attempted to distance itself from the controversies surrounding the separation of families and detention of migrant children, telling media outlets that it does not manage facilities that house unaccompanied minors or those under control of the Border Patrol.

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The criminalisation of migration

Even if the banks were to divest entirely from companies that run private prisons, that wouldn’t necessarily mean no more profiting from incarceration. The nation’s sprawling system of incarceration is full of for-profit companies, including within public prisons: contractors may provide everything from medical care to food and phone calls home.

Moreover, as Truthout’s Kelly Hayes recently pointed out, the core problem is not that children are being caged in privately-run detention facilities. The problem is that children are being caged at all, thanks to the criminalisation of people of all ages for migrating. Migrants are swept into the country’s system of mass incarceration, which disproportionately cages people of colour, whether they are immigrants or not.

“On the one end, seeing immigrant detention as an extension of mass incarceration is super important …it’s not just a Latino issue, but a Black issue, and also an issue impacting other communities as well,” says Daniel Carrillo, executive director of Freedom to Thrive, a racial justice group with a longstanding prison divestment campaign. “It’s part of a bigger system that is divesting resources from communities and pushing those resources into prisons and detention, so we should be thinking about how we should reallocate and push for reinvestment and demand that from private and public actors.”

Carrillo says activists should make demands beyond divestment from prison profiteers and remember that it’s not enough to simply call for an ICE or Border Patrol detention facility to be shut down. GEO Group and other companies are heavily invested in ‘alternatives’ to incarceration like ankle monitors and facial recognition technology that can extend the system of control and incarceration beyond the walls of a jail or detention centre.

“The profit motive continues and the motive of control of communities continues as well,” Carrillo says.

The prison divestment movement has certainly benefited from the outrage over the mass incarceration of immigrants, and if financial institutions stick to their commitments, the private prison industry could face big problems in the long run. This will not put an end to mass incarceration in the US, or the abuse that migrants face under the Trump administration. Legislation and systemic shifts in the legal system are needed for that. But it is proof that activists can hold financial institutions accountable for investing in human rights abuses, and those who profit from misery can be hit where it hurts – in the wallet.

This article was originally published by Truthout.

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