Love was in the air this Valentine’s Day, but not for Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase. These major Wall Street banks have become the subject of increasing public scrutiny for their funding of the private-prison industry and immigration detention centers. Numerous organizations and individuals—from the worlds of grassroots community organizing to social investing—joined together to expose the true money story behind these banks.
In partnership with Daily Kos, Jasmine Rashid at social investing firm Candide Group conducted interviews with key organizers and leaders across the country, in order to get a glimpse into the work of change-makers who are pushing the needle when it comes to exposing the companies profiting most from private prisons and immigrant detention.
But first, what exactly are Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase’s connections to private prisons and immigrant detention centers? The banks are major funders of GEO Group and CoreCivic, the biggest operators of both private prisons and immigrant detention centers in the United States. These two corporations control nearly 75 percent of the private prison industry, and earn over $2.7 billion in taxpayer dollars per year—all to keep people behind bars. A major driving force behind the mass incarceration and detention of black and brown people is a simple one: It makes a lot of money.
How exactly does it work? GEO Group and CoreCivic collectively hold nearly $4 billion in debt, so they rely on debt financing from major banks as they tighten and strengthen their control over the prison and immigrant detention systems. Without funding from major banks, it would be impossible for GEO Group and CoreCivic to carry out their day-to-day operations and keep the lights on in the facilities where black and brown people are detained and abused by the hundreds of thousands. In other words, without funding from JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, with the complicity of their shareholders, the private prison industry would suffer.
In the past six months, there has been a surge of national action to fight against banks’ toxic relationships with prisons and detention centers. On the ground, MomsRising, an organization working for the economic security of all moms, women, and families, along with Candide Group, led the #FamiliesBelongTogether corporate accountability committee, with over 80 organizations—representing over a million members across the country who are horrified by the separation and incarceration of immigrant children and families.
Last September, MomsRising held a rally in San Francisco, where they delivered a letter with 400,000 petition signatures to Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase, requesting that they stop financing the private prisons used in family detention. Our very own Daily Kos Community members made up a significant number of the petition signers who helped make the rally a success. The coalition agreed to use Valentine’s Day as a National Day of Action to support an initiative by Real Money Moves: If Wells Fargo and Chase didn’t break up with the private prison industry by Feb. 14, then customers would commit to breaking up with their banks.
On Valentine’s Day, immigrant families, activists, and allies showed up at Wells Fargo branches all across the country to deliver hundreds of thousands of petitions, including the voices of more than 150,000 people who pledged to switch from their banks unless they ended their relationships with private prisons.
Organizers and families held ”playdate protests” around the country to complement the petition deliveries. At these protests held outside of Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase banks, kids played with their families, and led songs and chants with their parents. It gave children a role, and allowed for parents to show the next generation that they too are rising up against hate, and in support of what is right.
“We are doing this to bring thousands of moms and caregivers to the overall movement ecosystem in a powerful way, to build circles of organizing in local communities that can include ongoing protests, but also other forms of mutual aid, and support for people in detention or deportation proceedings,” said Ilana Berger, organizing director at Hand in Hand, a national network of domestic employers. Hand in Hand has been part of protests against ICE and DHS, but they also believe it is important to go after what they refer to as “the corporate backers of hate.”
“As mothers and caregivers, so many of us were appalled by the administration's brutal policy of separating families and detaining children, and we knew that this was an atrocity we could not let continue,” Berger added. “We want them to inherit not just a better society, but also the knowledge that they have the power—and the responsibility—to make a better world for all of us.”
In New York City, members of Make the Road New York (MRNY), an organization that builds the social, economic, and political power of Latinx and working-class communities, spent the morning at their local #ShowLove action with a serenade. They arrived with a mariachi band that sang breakup songs outside of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s doorstep.
“Punctuated by songs of heartbreak and loss, our members called on Dimon to once and for all break up with the private prison companies,” said Mateo Guerrero, lead organizer at MRNY. “The crowd chanted and sang beautifully, before continuing on to deliver more than 100,000 petition signatures to the bank headquarters, urging the bank to show love to their communities by ceasing to bankroll oppression.”
Since the launch of the campaign back in September 2018, organizers have seen major shifts in the positions of the banks. In the beginning, Wells Fargo’s public position on private prisons was that overcrowding in the state prison system made them necessary. However, in December 2018, it issued a statement to shareholders, shifting its position: It stated that private prisons posed an escalated investment risk that ran counter to its human rights policy. It would no longer seek business from the industry.
“Wells Fargo was the first bank to respond in this way, and their statement was an important first step,” said Matt Nelson, executive director of Presente.org, the largest online advocacy group for Latin American immigrants in the United States. “However, it’s still not good enough. The bank still has tens of millions of dollars in existing funding supporting the private prison industry, and they haven’t presented any long-term strategy for even how they would gradually leave.”
Although there is still a long way to go, Wells Fargo’s shift in its public position is a testament to the power of grassroots organizing and large-scale mobilization. Last year and early 2019 have seen incredible mass efforts and victories against the corporate atrocities of banks and tech giants. The No Tech for ICE campaign highlighted the role of tech companies in aiding ICE, and called for corporations like Microsoft and Salesforce to cancel their contracts. Amazon also saw major public scrutiny for its contracts with ICE and marketing of dangerous facial recognition software. On Valentine’s Day, at the same time the playdate protests were happening, New York City successfully broke up with that monopoly when Amazon officials announced their decision to cancel their second headquarters in Queens—after facing consistent community organizing and outrage in the months since they first announced their decision.
Because of the continued coordinated national actions and press coverage, the stories coming out of private detention facilities have become more and more visible. “With the deaths of children and trans people and the daily torture of families within these facilities, the issue has reached beyond human rights communities to a point of widespread moral outrage,” Presente’s Nelson said. “This has become a moral issue that has put banks in a situation where supporting this industry means supporting the brutal, and often deadly, immigration policies of our current administration.”
“Every time the public gets more engaged, it visibilizes the real world challenges and pain that so many migrants are going through because of the policies of the Trump administration, as well as the obscene profit motivation for family detention within the private prison industry,” Nelson added.
Since the national actions, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has joined in to make a public commitment to hold banks accountable. “We’re going to hold oversight hearings to make these banks accountable for investing in and making money off of the detention of immigrants,” she said at an event held by Make the Road last week in Queens. “Because it’s wrong.”
Berger, from Hand in Hand, remains hopeful for the changes to come. “We hope it will inspire many others to take action in their own communities, so that it will grow the movement of people organizing in solidarity with immigrants and asylum seekers in our country. We hope this will lead to a movement where any private entity sees that investing in private prison corporations will be bad for their brand and for their business.”
Special thanks to Jasmine Rashid who conducted the interviews for this article. This article was published with the Daily Kos Liberation League.