Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2018

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EDITORIAL:

Upset over immigration crackdown? Join detention center divestment effort

The Trump administration’s order to separate families detained at the U.S.-Mexico border is now an ugly memory, but its cancelation didn’t spell the end of humanitarian concerns over the White House’s immigration crackdown.

In recent months, the federal government has quietly entered into several contracts with private prison companies to build and operate facilities designed for mass incarceration of detainees. Given the track record of the private prison industry, which includes years of lawsuits on human rights violations, it’s an alarming situation.

But as was the case with the separation order, there’s a way for Las Vegas residents to take action.

This time, relief won’t come in the form of contributions for legal aid or to charitable organizations providing aid for families.

It comes with a grass-roots movement to divest from the private prison companies that operate the facilities.

The campaign targets major corporate prison contractors CoreCivic and GEO Group Inc. through their primary creditors, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan. More than 70 organizations have joined a coalition supporting the effort, including the ACLU, the American Federation of Teachers, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Education Association, the Presbyterian Church and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Locally, members of the Nevada Immigrant Coalition are on board with the movement.

It’s a just cause.

The problems with prison privatization have been well established. Although proponents argue that it saves the government money, the companies’ focus is on profitability, which can result in cutting corners on inmate care and security measures. To meet their bottom line, private prisons often operate with fewer staff members than public facilities, pay those staff members less and give them less training.

It’s little wonder that a Justice Department study from 2016 revealed that there were twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults at private prisons and 28 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults.

Meanwhile, the jury’s out on whether privatization actually saves taxpayers money, as some studies have shown that it costs more. For example, private prisons generally resist taking in inmates with severe medical problems or mental illnesses, as those individuals cost more to house. The result is that government-run facilities end up with a higher percentage of those inmates, with taxpayers footing the bill.

Like any business, private prisons also perform better financially when they increase their customer base, which in this case means detainees. Accordingly, there are numerous reports of the industry indirectly supporting stiffer sentencing guidelines and other policy changes to increase the flow of prisoners coming to private facilities and keep them locked up longer.

Those indirect efforts include donating to politicians who support policies favorable to the industry — like Trump.

Both GEO Group Inc. and CoreCivic have financial ties to Trump, including a $225,000 donation from GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., to the pro-Trump political action committee Rebuilding America Now. The companies also contributed $250,000 each to Trump’s inauguration, and GEO relocated its national convention to a Trump-owned resort in Boca Raton, Fla.

Don’t think those donations weren’t considered investments.

The Obama administration had ordered the Justice Department to phase out use of private prisons, and Hillary Clinton had called for an end to privatization during her campaign.

But Trump gave his donors what they wanted when Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama order in 2017, opening the door for the contracts for immigrant detention centers.

Now comes the divestment campaign, however, which offers organizations and individuals a chance to push back.

“By financing these for-profit prison corporations, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase are complicit in the Trump administration’s human rights abuses in the name of immigration enforcement,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising, which has joined the effort. “Millions of moms and families all over the country are outraged by the horror and abuse happening at these detention centers, and they will not stand for companies that further enable the separation of families.”

For its part, Wells Fargo issued a statement saying the company “respects the seriousness of our country’s ongoing debate about the immigration and criminal justice system, and we encourage people to reach out to elected officials and let them know their feelings.”

“However, we do not as a corporation take positions on public policy issues that do not directly affect our company’s ability to serve customers and support team members,” it said.

Information on divestment effort can be found at prisondivest.com, which includes an online form allowing visitors to sign a petition aimed at the financial institutions.