Banking on profitable prisons

February 8, 2012

Washington, D.C. activists are speaking up about the for-profit prison industry--and the big bankers who back them. Emily Brooks explains.

SOME 100 activists gathered in Tivoli Square in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., across from a Wells Fargo branch on January 24 to oppose the bank's investments in the GEO Group, the nation's second-largest private prison company. The action brought out supporters of immigrant rights, as well as those who oppose the devastating effects of mass incarceration on the African American community.

Participants spoke out against the role of the GEO Group in lobbying for anti-immigrant legislation and harsh criminal policies, as well as the gross mistreatment of prisoners that occurs in GEO-run prisons and detention centers. Protesters emphasized the power of the community to stand up against Wells Fargo, which profits from the incarceration, detention, and deportation of the poor, workers, minorities and immigrants--while simultaneously soliciting business from them.

Several demonstrators spoke about their own experiences at immigration detention centers and Rivers Correctional Institution, a GEO-operated prison in North Carolina where many Washington, D.C., prisoners are sent. Signs stated that "Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow," asked passersby "Are you banking on a world of prisons?" and called on people to "Boycott Wells Fargo."

Occupy D.C. protests outside a Wells Fargo branch
Occupy D.C. protests outside a Wells Fargo branch

Tuesday's action was a collaboration between two organizations that have been leading distinct but similar campaigns against Wells Fargo's investments in private prisons: Enlace, a coalition for organizing the working poor, and the Criminal (In)Justice Committee of Occupy D.C.

The January 24 action was originally planned by Enlace, which coordinated a January 24 day of action, with protests in 15 cities across the U.S., to demand that Wells Fargo and FMR/Fidelity Investments abandon their ties to the for-profit immigrant detention system.

The Criminal (In)Justice Committee of Occupy D.C., which joined Enlace in organizing the action in Washington, launched its campaign against Wells Fargo two months ago, encouraging D.C. residents to boycott Wells Fargo because of its complicity in the expansion of the private prison industry and mass incarceration. The committee's campaign kicked off in early December with an action against Wells Fargo in D.C.'s historic African American neighborhood of Shaw, and it has continued with leafleting and other activities every Friday.

As Emily Tucker of the Detention Watch Network, who helped organize the January 24 action, put it:

The policies that have caused the explosion in incarceration, immigration detention and deportations over the last 30 years are all part of a unified politics of fear that shores up power among a few elites by convincing communities on the ground that they need to be protected from one another. We need to expose this lie and make common cause to fight back against the strategic exploitation of the 99 percent by the 1 percent.

That's what Tuesday's rally was really about--challenging the corporations that make money off of locking people up, but also challenging ourselves to break down the artificial barriers between our different identity groups so that we can start to activate our latent collective power.

The protest illustrated the momentum locally and nationally around issues of mass incarceration, private prisons and detention for profit. Politicians and corporations have been working together for years to expand mass incarceration and mass deportation at the expense of the 99 percent--now is the time for activists to collaborate in opposition to their policies.

THE GEO Group and Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) are the two largest private prison companies in the world. According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, in 2010, the combined revenue between the two was over $2.9 billion.

These companies use this some of this money--accumulated by housing prisoners in inhumane conditions and paying guards lower salaries then they receive at government-run facilities--to lobby for harsh criminal sanctions for nonviolent crimes in order to keep their prisons full and profitable. The CCA's 2010 annual report included the following observation:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices, or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

In other words, CCA and GEO recognize the threat that criminal justice reform presents to their revenue streams, and thus they have both lobbied heavily for harsher criminal justice and immigration policies.

Much of this lobbying is accomplished through an intimate relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a membership organization that includes state legislators and corporations. According to National Public Radio, ALEC conferences are opportunities for corporations to present state legislators with model legislation that they can then introduce. ALEC has championed mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, "truth in sentencing" policies, and "three strikes" legislation.

CCA and GEO have been profiting greatly off of an increase in immigrant detention that followed the 1996 passage of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act--and the even bigger detention boom after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Private prison companies have been forthright in profiting off tragedy. As the then-chairman of Cornell Companies, which later merged into CCA, said to investors following 9/11:

It can only be good...with the focus on people that are illegal and also from Middle Eastern descent...In the U.S., there are over 900,000 undocumented individuals from Middle Eastern descent...That's half of our entire [U.S.] prison population...The Federal business is the best business for us...and the events of September 11 [are] increasing that level of business.

ALEC has been active as well in pressing for the kind of anti-immigrant legislation that aids CCA and GEO. For example, Arizona's notorious racial profiling law SB 1070--which sanctioned law enforcement officers demanding proof of immigration status during traffic stops if there was "reasonable suspicion" that the person entered the country illegally--was sponsored by then-state Sen. Russell Pearce, a longtime ALEC member. ALEC has encouraged the introduction of copycat legislation in other states.

IN ADDITION to trying to get more people sent to prison, private prison operators also treat inmates worse while they are incarcerated.

According to the ACLU, several studies suggest prisoners held in private facilities face heightened levels of violence and safety threats, including rape and sexual assault at the hands of guards.

The two explanations for this phenomenon put forward by the ACLU are both related to the nature of for-profit prisons: First, private jails pay their employees less and have higher turnovers rates, which means guards can receive insufficient training or screening; and second, while state-run facilities may have incentives to reduce recidivism, private prison corporations have the opposite economic incentive.

In a New Yorker article called "The Caging of America," Adam Gopnik aptly described these companies as "capitalist enterprise[s] that feed on the misery of man, trying as hard as [they] can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery."

Being an executive at CCA and GEO is lucrative--the ACLU reports that executive compensation for CCA's president and CEO was more than $3.2 million in 2010, while GEO's CEO and chair raked in over $3.5 million.

The January 24 demonstration was aimed at pointing out these abhorrent practices--and raising awareness about them in a city that has felt the disproportionate effects of mass incarceration and the damaging marriage between politicians and for-profit prisons.

As Kwasi Seitu, a member of the Occupy D.C. Criminal (In)justice Committee, put it, by investing in GEO, Wells Fargo is "trading in human bodies and lives for profit...The sad thing is that they are doing this with the money of many of the same people who are targeted for the cages they build."

Awareness about these issues is growing, and not only in Washington. People across the country are standing up in opposition to mass incarceration--and the private prison corporations that seek to increase and profit from it.

Further Reading

From the archives