Earlier this month, in Portland, Oregon, a coalition led by immigrants and refugees, successfully campaigned to see the city cut its ties with prison profiteer Wells Fargo. At the same time, in Los Angeles, Black students moved California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) to divest from private prisons and reinvest in services for Black students.
These victories follow on the heels of the divestment by a $25M endowment fund from the University of California and Columbia University’s decision to divest fully from prisons.
These victories demonstrate the sweeping effect that committed and targeted activism can have. Dismantling the prison industrial complex requires paradigmatic shifts, brave thinking, millions of small + incremental fixes as well as massive, infrastructural disassemblage. These divestment victories are such disassemblage, and they show that committed individuals can pressure institutions and civic authorities to enact transparency and moral judgement when it comes to invested monies, endowments and assets.
These victories feel like, if you will, a bright spot on the yard. Moments of illumination.
I’ve watched with great admiration as the divestment movement has grown in the past few years. A lion’s share of the good work has been done by Enlace, an alliance of low-wage workers, unions, and community organizations in Mexico and the U.S. Enlace’s interest began with the growth of privatized immigrant detention facilities (Under the rubric of homeland security, Federal laws have changed, and the detention of people without papers has grown exponentially.)
But of course, the capitalism and social fear that gives rise to ICE prisons, has the same roots as that which gave rise to the tumorous growth of state and federal prisons over the past four decades. Of all the factors that drive the growth of the prison industrial complex, money is the most pernicious and, perhaps, the most invisible. Enlace targets the cycle, intends to interrupt the flow of finance and influence.
Photo: Pete Shaw
Currently Enlace has offices in Portland, OR; New York, NY; and Los Angeles, CA. The organization has identified key targets within the cycle of exchanged goods, ideas and policy. From the Enlace website:
Two publicly-traded companies dominate the private prison market in the U.S.: Corrections Corp of America (CCA) and GEO Group (GEO). CCA and GEO are notorious for abusing inmates, understaffing, and committing fraud at their for-profit prisons and detention centers. Both lobby the government for contracts and for policies that promote mass incarceration and immigration enforcement. In 2012 alone, they netted $3 billion of our taxes and spent over $1.8 million on lobbying and campaign contributions.
Million Shares Club
33 major investors own nearly all CCA and GEO stock. Each of these 33 investors owns over 1 million shares of private prison stock, so they have a huge stake in the growth and success of the prison industrial complex. With the financial and political support of the Million Shares Club, CCA and GEO are able to successfully lobby for policies that increase government demand for private prison, like “tough on crime” laws and criminalizing immigrants. We must sever the financial ties that allow shareholders to cash in on the incarceration of immigrants and people of color.
Most of us are invested in private prisons–our universities, cities and faith institutions are invested with the Million Shares Club, which has no portfolio screen preventing the investment of our money in for-profit prisons. Some states, universities, cities and pension funds are even directly invested in CCA and GEO. It is unconscionable that our local institutions are using their investments–our money–to profit from and promote mass incarceration and immigration enforcement. We call on our local institutions to divest!
Federal politicians have the power to stop private prisons. Members of the Budget and Appropriations committees have the most power to cut off funding for wasteful contracts with CCA and GEO, and for inhumane immigration enforcement policies. Unfortunately, many politicians take lobbying and campaign contributions from GEO and CCA. Others have assets in the Million Shares Club. Many politicians have both. We’re working to make private prisons a toxic liability, financially and politically.
Activism to stymie the ease with which corporations and politicians can exploit economically and socially disadvantaged communities is thrilling.