Customers of PNC Bank who found themselves in Midtown Manhattan and in need of banking services on Wednesday, July 10th, would have been flat out of luck. The branch on 8th Avenue? Closed. The one at Penn Plaza? Closed. On Madison? You guessed it: Closed.
All three PNC branches had been shuttered for the day not because of some widespread technical issue, but in anticipation of a demonstration beginning in nearby Bryant Park. There, dozens of anti-Immigration and Customs Enforcement activists had gathered before planning to march on one of the three PNC locations, though they had not disclosed which one in particular. Ostensibly fearing any disruption the activists might cause, PNC instead chose to close all three branches. The bank would not comment on the closures beyond stating that they were "in the best interest of our employees and our customers."
The demonstration in New York was just one in a series of actions nationwide meant to draw attention to the financial institutions benefiting from immigrant detention. Specifically, activists hope to pressure banks like PNC to cease financing for-profit prisons, such as CoreCivic, which house immigrant detainees for ICE, and which experts estimate PNC finances with over $100 million of revolving credit.
The Migration Policy Institute, which researches immigration worldwide, estimates that nearly three-quarters of the average daily immigrant detainee population is held in facilities operated by for-profit prison companies—a figure that ICE disputes. The agency claims that, of its 198 authorized adult detention facilities, only 11 are owned by private companies, which house only 18 percent of its adult detainees. But this claim obscures the fact that 66 percent of adult detainees are held in facilities that are ostensibly owned by other government bodies, yet in reality may be managed by for-profit prison companies. For example, 17 percent of adult detainees are housed by U.S. Marshal Services, but USMS also contracts the management of its facilities to private companies.
Regardless of the specifics, ICE generally acknowledges its reliance on for-profit prisons. "Ensuring there are sufficient beds available to meet the current demand for detention space is crucial to the success of ICE's overall mission," says Britney Walker, a member of ICE's national press team, in a statement to Pacific Standard. "Accordingly, the agency is continually reviewing its detention requirements and exploring options that will afford ICE the operational flexibility needed to house the full range of detainees in the agency's custody."
One of the for-profit prisons that ICE works with is CoreCivic. Founded in 1983 as the Corrections Corporation of America, the company rebranded in 2016 after facing intense scrutiny for mistreating inmates while lobbying for policies increasing incarceration rates. CoreCivic's first immigrant detention facility opened in 1984, and it operates at least seven ICE detention facilities today. The company's revenue grew 10 percent in the first quarter of 2019 over the previous year, which CoreCivic itself attributes primarily to contracts with ICE and USMS.
While CoreCivic refused to share how many detainees it houses for ICE or how much money it receives per detainee (according to the MPI report cited above, it's $126 per person per day), its director of public affairs, Amanda Gilchrist, lambasted the lack of "open and honest dialogue" in political discussion regarding immigration. In a statement to Pacific Standard, Gilchrist also acknowledged CoreCivic's relationship with PNC.
According to The Center for Popular Democracy, a non-profit that promotes community organizing around immigrants and other marginalized or working class groups, PNC is one of CoreCivic's leading financiers, financing the company with $112 million in revolving credit and $28 million in loans.
The bank's director of corporate public relations, Marcey Zwiebel, describes the relationship as limited:
PNC's exposure to the private prison space is extremely small. Our lending to companies in this industry represents a nominal proportion of our overall loan portfolio and a very small percentage of these companies' financing.
That said, we understand there are a wide variety of views on the industry, and so, we are continuing to study the asset class and are committed to making thoughtful decisions that take into account the interests of all of our stakeholders.
Activists would disagree with Zwiebel's characterization of PNC's role in for-profit prisons.
"Due to its relationship with CoreCivic, PNC is one of the largest funders of private prisons and the migrant detention industry," says Bailey Shelene, an organizer with the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, which led the demonstration against PNC in New York.
MACC took its cue to target PNC from the Olympia Assembly, a radical community organization in Washington State. Mid-June, Olympia Assembly announced its intention to hold a week of action, from July 8th to 12th, to shut down "ICE profiteers" and invited activists everywhere to help. CoreCivic, along with the for-profit prison company Geo Group, were selected as targets due to their roles in detaining immigrants, and banks like PNC, Bank of the West, Bank of America, and SunTrust were targeted due to their financing of CoreCivic and Geo Group. (Bank of the West, Bank of America, and SunTrust have all since announced that they will be divesting from for-profit prisons.) The call-out asked supporters to shut down bank branches through picketing, chanting, leafleting, and "phone zaps," or mass call-ins meant to tie up phone lines.
On July 10th, more than three dozen activists met in Bryant Park, then marched to one of the nearby PNC branches, where they held up signs and banners, handed out leaflets to passersby, and chanted slogans, aiming to educate would-be PNC customers about the bank's connections to ICE. The location had been shut down prior to their arrival, but the activists took it as a sign of victory.
"PNC shuttered all three of its Midtown branches ahead of the action—a majority of its Manhattan branch locations," Shelene says. "It is more than reasonable to believe the irregular closing of the Midtown branches was a direct result of MACC answering the Olympia Assembly's call to action."
PNC has yet to respond to any of the actions pressuring it to sever ties with CoreCivic, including a two-day phone zap on the Thursday and Friday following MACC's demonstration. But activists are up for the fight, which they see as extending beyond immigrant detention and into mass incarceration more broadly.
"Immigrant detention and the private prison industry are two forms of incarceration that are mutually reinforcing," Shelene says. "CoreCivic profits off the misery of both traditionally incarcerated people and detained immigrants, as the for-profit nature of their ventures incentivizes keeping beds filled and services low."
"We are abolitionists who believe in community justice, not mass incarceration," she says. "MACC is committed long-term to the fight for abolitionism."