Resistance to Private Prison Industry Mounts Amid Debate Over Trump’s Immigration Detention Policies

By Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Counsel for the Justice Program at The Brennan Center for Justice.First published on Common Dreams

The private prison industry is under renewed scrutiny, and things are not going well for it. Prison companies were already under fire, accused of putting profits above the well-being of incarcerated individuals and staff at the dozens of federal and state prisons and local jails they run around the country. Currently, about 8 percent of state and federal prisoners are held in privately operated facilities across 27 states and the federal system.

But these companies aren’t only in the business of housing people convicted of crimes. As of July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had almost 53,000 people in its custody, and private prison firms are responsible for detaining more than 70 percent of them. Now the industry is getting more attention because of President Trump’s immigration detention policies, such as separating children from their parents, and because of the terrible conditions in many detention facilities, many of which are run by the government and not private firms.

Ironically, because of the Trump administration’s focus on building a border wall and keeping immigrants out, a Republican administration thought to be a boon to the private prison sector has proved one of its biggest problems. As resistance to current immigration policies mount, here is a roundup of some of the high-profile actors targeting the industry.

Presidential election politics

At least 11 Democrats running for president want to eliminate private prisons. Sen. Kamala Harris of California recently tweeted, “One of my first acts of business as president will be to begin phasing out detention centers and private prisons.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts issued a sweeping plan to eviscerate the industry by attempting to phase out federal contracts for private prisons and by reducing states’ reliance on the industry through cutting federal funding to states that contract with these companies. Other candidates have expressed support for immediately canceling all federal contracts with the industry and phasing out the government’s reliance on private prisons.


One surprising development in 2019 has been the banking industry’s withdrawal of financial support for two of the largest private prison firms, Geo Group and CoreCivic. These two firms restructured in 2013 to become Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), allowing them to benefit from a lower tax rate. But as I’ve written about in Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, REIT status requires the companies to distribute a minimum of 90 percent of their profits to shareholders. This leaves them with little cash on hand to cover costs, which is why they rely on financial lenders to raise cash to operate.

So what happened?

The big banks started to distance themselves from a sector that received a lot of negative attention amidst an outcry over the Trump administration’s detention policies. It’s the latest example of big banks cutting ties with companies in response to activism, which we also saw when Bank of America and Citigroup announced they would limit business with gunmakers.

In January, Wells Fargo announced that it would roll back its relationship with the private prison industry. Two months later, JPMorgan Chase made headlines with its announcement that it would move away from financing private prison firms. The news came days after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who sits on the House Financial Services Committee, said that she wanted to hold banks “accountable” for their connections to companies that operate immigrant detention facilities.

JPMorgan Chase’s announcement was consequential because it was one of the first Wall Street banks to take a public stance on private prisons. As of March, the move was considered mostly symbolic, or at least until other lenders or investors in prison companies followed suit.

But that’s exactly what happened, and a domino effect ensued. In June, Bank of America announced that it would stop lending to the industry. A few weeks later, SunTrust became the fourth major bank to stop financing private prison firms. And on July 12, France's BNP Paribas became the first foreign bank to announce that it would no longer finance U.S. private prison firms.

Nevertheless, ties between banks and the private prison industry are not completely severed, as there are still outstanding loans to the companies (in the form of revolving credit that provides them with cashflow) that won’t be paid off for years.

State and federal legislation

Both federal and state policymakers have tried to rein in private prison industry this past year. In Congress, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) re-introduced a bill in June that would stop private prisons from qualifying as REITs and receiving tax subsidies unavailable to other corporations. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, recently opened an investigation into the accreditation process for private detention facility operators.

Currently, only three states legislatively ban private firms from operating state prisons: Illinois, New York, and Iowa. Illinois passed its ban in 1990. This year, the state went one step further by enacting a law that prohibits state and local agencies from entering into an agreement for the detention of individuals in a facility owned, managed, or operated by a private firm. The new law makes it difficult for private firms to build an immigrant detention facility in the state. The reason is that while ICE can still contract with private firms to manage facilities, these contracts tend to rely on local governments to serve as an intermediary between ICE and the corporations, especially if firms want to build a new facility.

New York state law prohibits private prison firms from operating state correctional institutions. The state legislature passed the law in 2007, partly out of concern about training and wages offered to private guards, and about how privatization would function at times of “crisis.” This year, state legislators focused their attention on banks funding the industry by attempting to prohibit New York-chartered banks from investing in or providing financing to private prisons. The state Senate passed legislation, but it failed in the Assembly.

Looking ahead

Despite the proposals to curb our government’s reliance on private prisons, the banks running for the hills, and legislators passing laws to make it challenging for the industry to operate, its future appears to be a mixed bag.

Geo Group and CoreCivic can still use their revolving credit for the next four or five years to build more facilities. And if a Democrat takes the White House, it’s even possible that banks reverse their position once the furor over Trump’s immigration policies die down.

Either way, shrinking the size of both our prison and immigration detention populations is the most effective and humane way to ensure that fewer people remain behind bars in America. That can only be done by changing state and federal policy.

Wayfair Corporate Boston Workers Walkout In Protest Of Sales To Texas Detention Camps

Image via   The Daily Beast

Image via The Daily Beast

As promised, employees at Wayfair’s corporate headquarters in Boston staged a walkout Wednesday over the company’s sale of about $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture to the global nonprofit BCFS (Baptist Children and Family Services), headquartered in San Antonio.

About 550 employees out of about 6000 working at the Boston offices signed a protest letter sent to the company’s leadership team last week, asking them to abort the sale The furniture is destined for a detention camp in Carrizo Springs, Texas that is expected to have capacity for 3,000 children writes The Daily Beast.

The employees took issue with a 2018 New York Times report that BCFS “has received at least $179 million in federal contracts since 2015 under the government’s so-called unaccompanied alien children program, designed to handle migrant youths who arrive in the country without a parent or other family member.”

Another facility operated by BCFS, in Tornillo, Texas, open from June 2018 to January 2019, housing nearly 3,000 migrant children. The facility became the focus of protests, detailed in The Texas Tribune.

Moving forward, employees have asked Wayfair to establish a code of ethics that "empowers Wayfair and its employees to act in accordance with our core values."

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via   @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via   @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via @wayfairwalkout

"The United States government and its contractors are responsible for the detention and mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in our country — we want that to end," the employees said in the letter. "We also want to be sure that Wayfair has no part in enabling, supporting, or profiting from this practice."

The Wayfair leadership team responded saying: "As a retailer, it is standard practice to fulfill orders for all customers and we believe it is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate," then adding “This does not indicate support for the opinions or actions of the groups or individuals who purchase from us."

Corporate employees set up a Twitter account @wayfairwalkout, pledging “no aid to juvenile incarceration”. One worker communicated to CNN in advance of Wednesday’s action that the walkout is "not meant as a censure on Wayfair," but as a way to show workers' continued concern.

Employees asked Wayfair to donate all profits made on the sale to BCFS — estimated about $86.000 — to RAICES, probably the most prominent and active nonprofit reuniting families at the border. Leadership refused but has announced donating $100,000 to the Red Cross.

Wayfair employees acknowledged the $100,000 donation to the Red Cross, but insist that the corporation also support RAICES Texas, for specifically pushing back on the U.S. migrant detention policy, writes Boston Magazine. “I think it’s a good start,” says Kayla Smith, who says she’s been at the company for a year, “but we can do more.”

Non-employees and associates from Square, a mobile payment company, also turned out to greet the workers when they arrived at Copley. “We cannot allow people to suffer in concentration camps that are for profit. It’s inhumane” says Eli Albert, who showed up carrying a cardboard sign reading, “End Business with Concentration Camps.” Boston Magazine cited some protesters bringing their children with them to participate. “My mom told me about concentration camps,” says Ezra Beck, 7. “Kids shouldn’t be held in them.”

Photo of Ezra Beck by Alyssa Vaughn.

Photo of Ezra Beck by Alyssa Vaughn.

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via   @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via @wayfairwalkout

The walkout drew widespread media attention, giving Wayfair employees a wide range to express themselves. Engineer Tom Brown expressed gratitude that “the outcry of support from everyone, from people to politicians to organizations has been overwhelming.” He continued: “We hire the best people. We’re looking for the best and the brightest, and those just so happen to be the people that care the most. These are the people that we know will fight for what’s right even if it’s a difficult conversation right now.”

Wayfair product manager Madeline Howard led an hour-long rally that included speeches by union members, ACLU advocates and immigrants’ rights groups. The Daily Beast quotes an unnamed consultant from India working at Wayfair for five years who fears reprisals but said: “It only seems ethical not to support these detention camps,” he said. “We don’t want the detention camps in any way and endorsing them is against our values.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, called the walkout "what solidarity looks like."

Baptist Children and Family Services responded to the walkout with a statement that said: “We believe youth should sleep in beds with mattresses.”

The New York Times weighed in Wednesday night, saying that Wayfair isn’t the focus of a national boycott at this point, unlike Bank of America, After being targeted for providing financing to Caliburn International, the parent company of the Homestead facility for minors in Florida as “the only big bank profiting from family separation”, Bank America announced Wednesday that it would sever its relationship with all private prison companies.

“The private sector is attempting to respond to public policy and government needs and demands in the absence of longstanding and widely recognized reforms needed in criminal justice and immigration policies,” Jessica Oppenheim, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, said in an email to The New York Times. “We have been discussing this topic for some time.”

Two other banks, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan, said they would end their relationships with the private prison industry in March.

“As we’re learning more about the horrific conditions in the Trump-era detention centers, things are ratcheting up, and people are looking for more ways to express that frustration,” said Shannon Coulter, a founder of the #GrabYourWallet campaign.

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via   @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via   @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via   @wayfairwalkout

Wayfair walkout Wednesday, June 26 at Boston’s Copley Plaza via @wayfairwalkout