Manuel Madrid

Manuel Madrid is a writing fellow at The American Prospect

Recent Articles

New Report Examines How Country’s Largest Banks Finance the Private Prison Industry

When Donald Trump won and private prison stocks surged, an unexpected cheer came from downtown Manhattan. It’s a great time to be in the jail business.

A new report by the progressive advocacy group In the Public Interest reveals the troubling ties between Wall Street and the private prison industry, including hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and revolving credit. Shares of the private prison industry’s two biggest companies, CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group, rocketed after Trump’s win. Bondholders on Wall Street, who raked in tens of millions in interest payments from CoreCivic and GEO Group in 2015, seem confident that Trump will make good on his campaign promises of mass incarceration and deportation.

Last year, the industry’s two biggest companies, CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group, reported $1.79 billion and $1.84 billion in revenue, respectively. Of the many Wall Street banks involved in financing the growth and expansion of private prisons, ITPI noted that six represent the majority of those investments: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, U.S. Bancorp, and Wells Fargo.  

According to the report, the banks underwrote bonds for CoreCivic and GEO Group and helped finance them through a combination of term loans and hundred of millions of dollars in revolving credit. This financing allowed the companies to expand and gave the banks a sweet return on their initial investments.

GEO Group and CoreCivic have long since been reading the writing on the wall for private prisons. They figured the “tough on crime” mindset was on its way out and spent years expanding into “community services” like halfway homes and electronic monitoring devices, thanks to their Wall Street financing. To stem the growth of the private prison industry, ITPI wants to see shareholders and other clients of these banks like universities, municipalities, and states pressure bank officials to stop extending revolving credit, awarding term loans, and underwriting bonds to these private prison companies—if bank officials do not move to do so themselves.

Meanwhile, prison divestment campaigns around the country have dug in their heels. “We can’t rely on the federal government,” says Enlace deputy director Amanda Aguilar Shank, who helped organize Portland, Oregon’s Prison Divestment Campaign. “We need to have local elected officials stepping up with the community and taking protective measures. Portland could be the first city in the country to completely divest from banks like Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase

In the face of a likely resurgence of interest in the industry, prison divestment advocates are also turning their attention to local institutions. Last year, Columbia University became the first university in the country to divest from private prisons, selling all of its CoreCivic shares in response to a student activist campaign. A few months later, the University of California followed its lead. #ForgoWells is a budding coalition of divestment advocates who have condemned Wells Fargo’s “destructive and extractive” investments in for-profit prison companies. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Trump voter or a Clinton voter,” says Jeff Ordower, who works with the #ForgoWells campaign “This is a bipartisan movement to hold the banks accountable for what they’re doing.”

Private prisons, which account for 6 percent of state and 16 percent prisoners in the country, have been lambasted by critics for their understaffing and poor medical care as well as their high rates of recidivism. Yet, the future of private prisons was at risk not too long ago. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would begin phasing out the use of private prisons. However, this decision could be easily rolled back by the incoming Trump administration. In addition to deporting undocumented immigrants, Trump, who ran as a “tough on crime” candidate, has promised to reduce “surging crime, drugs and violence” and boost funding for police and federal law enforcement agencies. 

The ‘Ban-the-Box’ Paradox

For the 70 million-plus Americans living with criminal records, finding a job can be a Sisyphean task. Ex-offenders return to their communities in search of work only to find that many employers are reluctant to hire anyone with a rap sheet. Because they can’t find a job, many will end up back in prison. To break this cycle and reintegrate ex-offenders into the workforce, states have passed “ban-the-box” laws, which prohibit employers from asking job candidates about criminal records until the final stages of the hiring process. Hawaii passed the first ban-the-box regulations in 1998. Today more than 150 counties and cities, 24 states, and the federal government have some type of ban-the-box measure in place.

The laws, named for the checkbox on a job employment applications requesting disclosure of criminal history, give an applicant the opportunity to explain why he or she is a good fit for a position and why his or her criminal record should not be a barrier to employment.  But a new study by Jennifer Doleac, a University of Virginia assistant professor of public policy and economics, and Benjamin Hansen, a University of Oregon associate professor of economics, suggests that banning the box comes with unintended consequences. Doleac and Hansen measured the laws’ effects and found that they exacerbated certain racial disparities in employment.

The study found that between 2002 and 2014 in states where ban-the-box reforms have been implemented, total employment for young African American and Hispanic men declined by 5.1 and 2.9 percent, respectively. The researchers hypothesized that due to popular stereotypes of young minority men as ex-offenders, some employers screen out candidates based on age, race, and ethnicity early in the hiring process if they do not have information about a person’s criminal history.

Doleac and Hansen’s conclusions about a widening racial employment gap in employment are consistent with other recent studies. The reforms have worked, but not for recently released ex-offenders who have the most difficulty in finding employment. Certain groups including college-educated black women and low-skilled, older black men did better in the job market after ban-the-box reforms were implemented.

“Ban-the-box reforms were never intended as a panacea for the severe employment barriers facing people with records, and certainly not for the entrenched employment challenges of young men of color locked out of the job market,” National Employment Law Project program director Maurice Emsellem and Ford Foundation fellow Beth Avery argued in a recent policy brief.

Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and age is hard to detect and even harder to prosecute. However, criminal justice reform advocates continue to view ban the box as a step forward in promoting a wider range of reform strategies that include record-sealing and other “clean slate” measures.

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