WHEN DONALD TRUMP was elected on November 8, the country’s two largest private prison operators had reason to break out the champagne.
CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group saw their stock prices soar in the 24 hours following the vote. Fortune magazine went so far as to call CoreCivic “the biggest winner of the election,” noting that the company’s stock shot up more than 40 percent overnight (GEO’s rose by roughly 21 percent).
It made sense: Trump’s headed to the Oval Office on a promise to deport millions of immigrants, and the two companies operate detention centers that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will increasingly rely on if his dodgy assurances come to pass.
But if the election bolstered for-profit prison corporations, it also made the target on their backs all the brighter. And if local advocates have their way, Portland will be at the forefront of a new movement to snuff them out.
On Wednesday, November 30, the city council will take up a recommendation to place nine new names on the city’s “Do Not Buy” list—a ledger of corporations that Portland refuses to purchase bonds from., no matter how lucrative the potential returns.
Among the companies that the city’s Socially Responsible Investments Committee (SRIC) wants blacklisted are Amazon, Nestlé, and Walmart (which is already listed, but has to be re-listed by the year’s end to remain).
More controversial is the inclusion of banks that prison corporations like CoreCivic and GEO Group rely on to operate and expand. Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, and Bank of New York Mellon are all among the SRIC’s recommendations, and have all been tied in some way to aiding for-profit prisons.
Now, in its first-ever report to council, the two-year-old SRIC has taken an interesting step. Since the city doesn’t invest directly in private prison operators, the committee wants Portland to sever ties with banks that help finance them.
Looming largest is Wells Fargo. The bank offers “contracted services for and financing of the private prison industry that has been the subject of multiple lawsuits over egregious basic human rights violations,” says a September 30 report urging council to end city investments in Wells Fargo (roughly $57.6 million as of October 31).
The bank, of course, has other blemishes on its record—including forcing fraudulent accounts on unsuspecting customers—but severing ties on the basis of its clients would put Portland in largely uncharted waters. While two universities and the city of Berkeley, California, recently pulled direct investments in prison corporations, virtually no one’s stopped supporting banks that finance them—yet.
“It would be the first time that a city chooses to divest from one of these prison profiteers,” says Amanda Aguilar Shank, of the Portland-based nonprofit Enlace, which pushes prison divestment nationwide. “Our goal is to set a precedent.”
Not everyone agrees that’s the right move—and it’s not remotely clear Portland’s city council will approve. In response to the divestment recommendations, City Treasurer Jennifer Cooperman issued a memo [PDF] in October urging caution.
“It is a slippery slope to reach beyond a specific company/industry on the [Do Not Buy] List to the banks that provide their financing,” Cooperman wrote. “It is not clear that Council intended the SRIC to reach this far.”
As part of her analysis, Cooperman offered a sort of worst-case scenario of what divesting from Wells Fargo could cost. It suggested Portland could lose out on between $600,000 and $766,667 a year if it discontinued its investments. Those numbers, though, assume the city would instead be placing its money in US Treasury bonds and not a more lucrative investment, which isn’t necessarily the case. The estimate also wasn’t based on the actual investment Portland currently has in Wells Fargo, but the maximum potential investment it’s allowed to place into any one corporation.
Oregon has no privately run prisons, but a certain segment of Portlanders have plenty of experience with them. Advocates say many immigrants detained by ICE agents locally are sent to the Northwest Detention Center, a controversial, 1,575-bed facility in Tacoma, Washington, run by GEO Group.
Inmates at the detention center staged a series of highly publicized hunger strikes in 2014, shining light on a host of grievances ranging from bad food to poor treatment by guards. The action led US Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) to call conditions at the facility “shocking.”
The controversy goes deeper than that. The US Department of Justice announced in August it would phase out its use of private facilities, saying they weren’t as safe or secure as federally run facilities. And Hillary Clinton, had she won the presidency, made clear she’d support ending private prisons at the state level.
None of that affected ICE, which uses private facilities for about two-thirds of its detention beds.
Portland uses those beds a lot. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, the ICE holding facility in Portland detained 1,058 people from October 2014 to September 2015. It sent 981 of them elsewhere, a number that ranks Portland ahead of 81 percent of ICE facilities nationwide.
Divestment campaigns like the ones Enlace and others are urging are sometimes seen as merely symbolic, but Aguilar Shank argues they can have real impact. If more cities that invest in Wells Fargo put pressure on the bank to stop lending money to prison companies, she says, it might eventually balk. She cites a new report from the research group In the Public Interest, which analyzed lending to for-profit prison corporations, and concluded that convincing banks to stop that lending “would significantly disrupt their operations and growth.”
Plenty of local outfits agree. The Portland chapter of the National Lawyers Guild sent the city council a letter on October 31 saying the city “should heed its values and divert the funds it currently invests in Wells Fargo into strengthening our local communities reinvesting in communities directly and negatively impacted by mass incarceration and disproportionate enforcement of existing laws.”
City council might well agree with Cooperman that opting out of bank investments because of whom they finance would be going too far (a vote on the recommendation is scheduled in December), but a move against immigrant detention facilities would also be consistent.
Portland’s already positioning itself as something of a thorn in Trump’s anti-immigrant ambitions, with incoming Mayor Ted Wheeler vowing to maintain our status as a “sanctuary city” that doesn’t help federal agents arrest immigrants—even if federal funding is pulled because of it.
But Wheeler, steeped in investment policy as the state’s treasurer, might be skeptical of the divestment proposal.
“Mayor-elect Wheeler’s approach to policy decisions has always centered around first, what will achieve tangible results, and second, what is responsible financially,” Wheeler spokesman Michael Cox tells the Mercury. “Divestment strategies are not typically center-of-target.”