The following article is a written adaptation of a recent episode of What Next, Slate’s new daily news podcast. Listen to What Next for free every day via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn, Stitcher, Overcast, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at 1185 Park Avenue. It’s the kind of apartment building that’s actually more like a castle. It’s got these huge Gothic arches, and there’s a big interior courtyard you can drive right into. It’s the kind of place you move because you value quiet, privacy.
But over the past year, protesters have decided this building is a good place to be loud. They’ve showed up outside his house, chanting things like “Jamie Dimon, listen to us. We are in this fight.”
Washington Post reporter Tracy Jan has been writing about these protesters. I asked her to share her work with me on a recent episode of What Next, the daily news podcast I host for Slate. She says that just last month, a group of these activists showed up at Dimon’s apartment and tried to serenade him.
“They had a mariachi band there,” Jan says. “And then some of them actually eventually went to JPMorgan later that morning to deliver yet another petition, asking the bank to divest from private prisons.”
These protesters are immigration rights activists. They know they can’t control the Trump administration’s approach to border security, so they’re trying to control something else—the people who fund it. Last year, private prisons that detained migrants along the border got nearly $2 billion from America’s biggest banks.
“A lot of their corporate leaders [and] CEOs have actually spoken out against Trump’s immigration policies, most vehemently against his Muslim ban and also repealing DACA, as well as the separation of children from their families last summer at the border,” Jan says.
While these CEOs are speaking out, they’re still making money off the Trump administration’s policies, Jan says: “That’s the hypocrisy that these advocates are trying to call attention to.”
And last week, these protests seemed to pay off. JPMorgan released a statement saying they would no longer lend money to the private prison industry.
“In this case, the fact that a bank actually did something is unusual, and interesting,” says Jan. “And it’s not just one bank, but three banks that have publicly said they were divesting. Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank did it very under the radar. With U.S. Bank, there was no publicity about theirs, until I called them—they didn’t announce anything. They just responded to my questions and told me that they were in the process of extricating themselves from this investment. Wells Fargo did it. They mentioned it in a really broad corporate report that came out in January. So the fact that JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, is doing this is pretty significant, especially when other competitors are making similar moves.”
There are no good statistics on just how big the private-prison and detention-center industry is. Jan estimates that anywhere from 50 percent to up to three-quarters of immigrants that are held behind bars are kept in private prisons. The two largest private-prison corporations are Geo Group and CoreCivic.
“They’re controversial because immigrants have been harmed—I think they’ve even died,” Jan says.
President Barack Obama was known by some activists as the “deporter in chief” for his policies on immigration—his administration deported and detained many immigrants, and though the Federal Bureau of Prisons moved away from private entities toward the end of his administration, such facilities were still used to hold immigrants. President Donald Trump brought back the broad use of private prisons when he came into office, and, Jan says, “their stock soared at the beginning of his administration.”*
She continues: “[Private prison] stocks go up and down depending on political whims, so that’s another reason that these corporations have chosen to divest from them, because while they might not go as far as to say, We are divesting from private prisons because we don’t agree with President Trump’s policies, there is no doubt a financial risk in investing in them, because their stocks change depending on whether it’s a popular vehicle for containing immigrants at that time.”
In a sense, JPMorgan and other banks can take credit for no longer investing in these private prisons, but in reality, this might just be a smart business move for them. And Jan agrees.
“Frankly, they wouldn’t be doing this if they were going to be making a ton of money from this,” she says. “The banks have told me private prisons are a very small part of their portfolio anyway.”
Some people view this as a step forward. But both critics and advocates say that removing three banks from the system won’t make much of a difference. Bank of America and other financial institutions are still invested in private prisons.
“These advocates and these activists are saying that they’re closely watching to make sure that, one, these banks that say they’re divesting actually are, and then two, they say they’re going to put equal pressure on whoever steps in to fill the void, assuming someone does,” Jan says.
And it’s not just the banks—there are other enablers. Namely, big tech.
“They have much more financial incentive to stay in the game,” Jan says. “A lot of them have built their businesses on government contracting. There’s a history of tech and government defense industry contracting going hand in hand.”
Amazon has gotten a great deal of attention for its connection to controversial immigration issues. The MIT Technology Review even called the company “the invisible backbone behind ICE’s immigration crackdown.”
“A lot of attention was drawn to Amazon last year when it came out that they were actively marketing to ICE their very controversial facial recognition software called Rekognition,” Jan says. “And there are questions of civil liberties related to that, and also of racial bias in terms of how accurately they can identify folks. And as a result of that, there was, like, a whole resurgence of public pressure around Amazon’s work with ICE.”
When an Amazon spokesman got in front of the New York City Council and defended the company’s right to sell facial recognition technology to ICE, he was booed by protesters. But this kind of activism doesn’t seem to be having the same impact on big tech—not yet. Jan says that’s because it’s harder to know where to draw a line.
“Tech companies like to present themselves as the equalizing force for democracy, and even Microsoft, which holds itself out to be the moral force of tech, they were criticized heavily during the height of the protest against family separation, because one of their leaders had written in a blog post earlier in the year—[it was] very under the radar—talking about how proud they were to get this ICE contract,” Jan says. “That prompted the Microsoft CEO to clarify things, saying that their contracts with ICE have to do with emails and just basic software issues, not directly tied to family separation. But then, for activists, there’s a fine line: How much are you enabling an agency to do its work just by providing them the basics of computing?”
The big banks are no longer funding these prisons, but the tech industry doesn’t seem to feel the heat in the same way. And the government isn’t changing anytime soon. So is this really a victory?
“It could be a symbolic victory, but a hollow one if more companies don’t follow suit,” Jan says. “We’ll see what Bank of America decides to do. With just JPMorgan, it could easily just be a symbolic victory. But the fact that Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank have also made the same decision and now there’s going to be pressure on Bank of America and other banks—I think SunTrust is another bank that finances private prisons. I did reach out to them and they declined to comment. The pressure will continue to be on these tech companies. It’s just a matter of whether they bow to it, and they have less of a financial incentive to do so.”
Correction, March 19, 2019: This piece originally misstated that the Obama administration stopped using private prisons to detain immigrants during its later years. In reality, the administration directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to phase out the use of private facilities, but it did not direct ICE to do so.