private prisons

Banking on Freedom

Brian A. Jackson / Shutterstock

Brian A. Jackson / Shutterstock 

LAST JUNE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY sold all of its shares in the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation in the country, and in G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. In doing so, Columbia became the first U.S. university to completely divest from the $74 billion prison industry.

Though the total amount Columbia divested, roughly $10 million, was not a major financial loss for either company, it was an important win for the students who had been pressuring the university to divest since 2013. “We work in the context of a bigger movement that seeks to break down the notion that prisons and police can solve our problems,” said Asha Rosa, a student organizer with Columbia Prison Divest, part of Students Against Mass Incarceration at the university. “We aim to create a world where people understand that investing in something like a prison is a socially toxic investment.”

Other universities and nonprofits followed suit: In December 2015, the California Endowment—a private, statewide foundation that focuses on health and justice for all Californians—announced it will no longer make direct investments in companies profiting from for-profit prisons, jails, and detention centers. A few weeks later, the University of California divested $25 million. And similar student-led divestment campaigns are underway at universities around the country, including UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, and the City University of New York.

For many organizations, the decision to divest from the prison industry is rooted in the organization’s own mission. Divesting is about not wanting to invest “in anything that hurts the people we are trying to support,” explained Maria Jobin-Leeds, a board member of the Schott Foundation and the Access Strategies Fund, two foundations committed to improving the lives of underserved communities, including communities of color. And given the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has on people of color—in a 2015 speech, President Obama cited a “growing body of research” that shows people of color are more likely than whites to be arrested and more likely to be sentenced for similar crimes—both foundations decided to divest. “Companies that profit from prisons make money off the poorest and are supported by a deeply racist system,” said Jobin-Leeds. “We do not want to make money off this system.”

Profiteers and private prisons

But despite this conviction that divesting was the right move, Jobin-Leeds and her fellow board members realized it wasn’t easy to determine which investments were connected to the prison industry. One reason this was difficult was because of the overall lack of transparency within the prison industry. So while an investor could reasonably deduce that the Corrections Corporation of America manages prisons, she wouldn’t necessarily know that the CCA—like many private prison management companies—has a financial incentive to keep more people in prisons. Which it does: According to a 2013 report, 65 percent of private prison contracts with state prisons regularly stipulate occupancy quotas requiring the state to make payments for empty cells—a de-facto “low-crime tax.”

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WATCH: Would Putting Me in Prison Serve the Common Good?

Screenshot from Beyond Bars' Common Good Video

Screenshot from Beyond Bars' Common Good Video

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — about 1.6 million people in 2010. Mass incarceration in our country is a problem, one that too often serves to line the pockets of for-profit prisons while tearing families apart and targeting people of color disproportionately. 

Beyond Bars — a project to curb mass incarceration in the U.S. — produced the following video that puts faces to that problem. Watch the moving video below, and ask yourself the question: would putting them in prison serve the common good?

Private Prison Companies Pressure Against Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Investigative reporter Lee Fang looks at how private prison corporations are making money off of criminalizing immigration status infractions and how they are protecting their profit margins by lobbying against pathways to citizenship and for increased "border security" when none is needed.

On the one hand, a pathway to citizenship and legal reforms sought by advocates could reduce the number of immigrants detained by CCA and its competitors in the private prison industry. “Private prison corporations have an enormous stake in immigration reform,” says Bob Libal, a prison reform advocate with Grassroots Leadership. “A reform that provides a timely pathway to citizenship without further criminalizing migration would be a huge hit to the industry,” he says.

On the other hand, Libal observed that a bill with increased security measures “could be very profitable” for the industry. Legislators and the Obama administration could adopt a plan that mirrors Republican proposals for an “enforcement first” approach, which include increased police powers, new mandatory detention and sentencing laws, further militarization of the border and proposals for more prisons and detention officers.

See more at How Private Prisons Game The Immigration System

Shackles, Operation Streamline, and Spokes in the Wheel

Handcuffs and money, Siarhei Fedarenka /Shutterstock.com

Handcuffs and money, Siarhei Fedarenka /Shutterstock.com

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. — Hebrews 13:3

Where are defendants, who have committed no atrocious crimes, denied due process, shackled en masse before a judge, and sentenced during a trial of assembly-line justice? The answer: the daily proceedings in the federal courthouses of Tucson, Ariz., and a few other border locations. But anti-immigrant masterminds in Arizona did not think up this “zero tolerance” program. It is the result of powerful lobbying by private prison companies and our political willingness to harshly criminalize unauthorized migration.

Operation Streamline began in 2005 in Texas and 2008 in Arizona as part of the deterrence strategy of border enforcement. Instead of the typical civil violation, it charges people who cross the border without authorization with criminal misdemeanors (punishable by up to six months in federal prison) and then felonies (punishable 20 years) to those who return after a past deportation. Sen. John McCain, (R - Ariz.) has proposed an expansion of the program as part of immigration reform. 

But according to a recent report, the federal government already has spent an estimated $5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system for unauthorized entry and re-entry since 2005. Unauthorized entry/re-entry have recently become the two most prosecuted crimes in the entire federal judicial system. Consequently, Latinos now represent more than 50 percent of all those sentenced to federal prison despite making up only 16 percent of the U.S. population.

Will Alabama’s Governor Listen to the Faith Community?

Photo: Siarhei Fedarenka / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Siarhei Fedarenka / Shutterstock.com

Over the past few weeks, Christians have written Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley asking him to stop the immoral practices that plague the state’s criminal justice institutions. This incredible outcry from the faith community demonstrates their outrage at stories of people in poverty spending days, weeks, and months in jail over their inability to pay fees and fines to private companies contracted to administer parts of Alabama’s system. 

When contacted by Sojourners for a response to the thousands of messages received from people of faith about this issue,  Jeremy King, spokesman for Gov. Bentley’s office responded, "We can review this issue and move forward from there."

How Private Prisons are Profiting From Immigrants

As reported by The Associated Press last week:

Locking up illegal immigrants has grown profoundly lucrative for the private prisons industry, a reliable pot of revenue that helped keep some of the biggest companies in business.

And while nearly half of the 400,000 immigrants held annually are housed in private facilities, the federal government — which spends $2 billion a year on keeping those people in custody — says it isn't necessarily cheaper to outsource the work, a central argument used for privatization in the first place.

The Associated Press, seeking to tally the scope of the private facilities, add up their cost and the amounts the companies spend on lobbying and campaign donations, reviewed more than 10 years' worth of federal and state records. It found a complex, mutually beneficial and evidently legal relationship between those who make corrections and immigration policy and a few prison companies. Some of those companies were struggling to survive before toughened immigrant detention laws took effect.

Read more here

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