Taking on the Private Prison Industry’s Corporate Backers

Activists are trying to combat both the accelerated tracking and detaining of immigrants and the use of for-profit prisons to hold them by targeting the big banks that prop up for-profit prison companies.

Taking On the Private Prison Industry's Corporate Backers

Make the Road New York protest in front of JPMorgan Chase headquarters in New York on Aug. 2, 2017. (Photo by Make the Road New York)

This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



In the months since President Trump took office we’ve heard a lot about crackdowns on undocumented immigrants and the return of law and order. In fact, as The Atlantic recently reported, the administration is scaling up use of high-tech methods of tracking down what it deems the criminal immigrant class. In addition, the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has walked back an Obama-era vow to step down use of private prisons, and his “four-sentence memo rescinding Justice Department guidance to reduce the use of private prisons sent stock soaring for the two companies that dominate the industry, Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America).”

It was in the early 1980s that Corrections Corporation of America first broached the concept of for-profit prisons. Now the company’s offspring has seen its share price rise and anticipates an uptick in federal use of its services. Sarah Jaffe spoke with two activists who are trying to combat both the accelerated tracking of immigration and the use of for-profit prisons about an action they held in New York City on Wednesday. Their targets are not the prison companies themselves, but the big banks that prop them up. José Lopez is one of the co-organizing directors at Make the Road New York and Daniel Altschuler is the organization’s director of civic engagement and research.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking before an action that you at Make the Road are part of — a national day of action Wednesday, Aug. 2, around the involvement of particular big banks in the private prison and immigrant detention industry. Can you tell us a little bit about the campaign?

José Lopez: We launched a website and a campaign a couple of months ago called Corporate Backers of Hate. It is an attempt to name and shame a bunch of corporations like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo for being complicit and supportive of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Support could come in the form of JPMorgan donating $500,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee. It could come in the form of the CEO Jamie Dimon sitting on the Trump business council, but our action is focused on JPMorgan Chase financing the debt of private prison and immigrant detention centers under the corporations GEO Group and CoreCivic. What we want to highlight is that this administration and this White House cannot carry out its anti-immigrant policies on its own. There was a shareholder meeting where hundreds of people marched and a couple went in to confront Jamie Dimon. We just want to continue the drumbeat. [CEO Jamie Diamond has said he will look into investors’ concerns about funding private prisons.]

SJ: Tell us about the GEO Group and CoreCivic and JPMorgan’s connections to them.

JL: Right now, some of the financing for the expansion of GEO Group and CoreCivic is coming from JPMorgan Chase. GEO Group and CoreCivic currently are the country’s largest private prison and immigrant detention companies.

SJ: Tell us about the research that you have been doing around immigrant detention and private prisons and their connections to the Trump administration.

Daniel Altschuler: Make the Road, the Center for Popular Democracy and our partners are looking into the companies that were most complicit, particularly financially, in both private prisons and immigrant detention. The way that that happens is that JPMorgan finances the debt of these companies, so it enables these companies to sustain their operations and to expand. What we are saying to JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo is, “You cannot be in the business of financing, or being in any way financially entangled, with these morally odious companies.”

SJ: Private prisons are a relatively small portion of the overall prison system, but they play a really big role in immigrant detention. How have these companies profited off of Trump’s increased deportation regime?

DA: Companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic take government contracts. It is very clear that Donald Trump and his administration, the Department of Homeland Security and ICE below him, as they try to ramp up their dragnet of immigrants in this country, are relying on an expansion. One of the things that happens congressionally is there is something called a “bed mandate.” Congress has passed a law so that there need to be 34,000 people filling beds in immigrant detention facilities. We know that the Trump administration wants to ramp that up considerably. These companies are getting contracts to help them achieve that goal and then make more money and help them meet their bottom line.

SJ: Is the Trump administration ramping up the amount of time people are staying in detention? Are they trying to deport people faster?

DA: We are seeing a focus from the Trump administration in increasing arrests. We have seen an increase in ICE arrests, nearly 40 percent in the early months of this year. We have also seen an effort from the Trump administration to expedite certain removals.

SJ: Tell us more about the action and the coalition that is coming together around it.

JL: The action is labelled “Taken From Us,” and what we hope to powerfully demonstrate is the pain that immigrant communities around the country are feeling as loved ones are taken and families are separated. Part of our messaging and symbolism is putting hundreds of pairs of empty shoes on display in front of the JPMorgan headquarters. Each of the community members who are holding a pair of shoes represents someone who has been detained, someone who has been deported. Speakers will share personal stories about how immigrant detention centers and private prisons separated and hurt their families. We are working with groups like SumOfUs and the Center for Popular Democracy to ask community members across the country to replicate the action.

SJ: Talk a little bit about how Trump’s agenda has been affecting the communities that Make the Road organizes in.

JL: A lot of what we have been doing is trying to play defense when it comes to the national landscape. But also, we are creating defense committees. One of the big things that we have been doing organizationally is making sure that community members are equipped to build safety networks on their local blocks and in their local communities to have immediate forms of communication if it is perceived that ICE is in the area attempting to conduct a raid.

SJ: How can people get involved in this campaign, in the defense committees, in work to defend immigrant communities wherever they are?

JL: I think wherever they are, folks should definitely look for grassroots organizing groups that are doing strong work either at the local, state or national level. Folks should provide support to those organizations, go meet with those organizations, go talk to those organizations. In New York, we have offices in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and on Long Island. People should definitely visit our website: Visit the Backers of Hate website as well.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her book, Necessary Trouble: America's New Radicals, was published by Nation Books in August 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.