Calling on Lehman Brothers to “invest in freedom” this Passover, a grassroots Jewish group is taking on the powerful investment banking firm for backing a private company that builds prisons.
Chanting “dayenu,” sporting frog masks to recall the plagues on Egypt, and sporting an oversized “Pharaoh” puppet, members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice asserted that Lehman Brothers should pull out of a deal to refinance the $1 billion debt held by the nation’s largest private prison concern, the Corrections Corp. of America. Some two dozen JFREJ members made their plea last week outside the Lehman Brothers office on Seventh Avenue.
The private prison industry, which flourished during the 1990s, has been hard hit by lawsuits and allegations of abuse. According to a recent article in the journal American Prospect, “not a single state was soliciting new private prison contracts last year, and many existing contracts were rolled back or rescinded. The companies’ stock prices went through the floor.”
JFREJ believes in spending more government money on education and less on prisons, and that a majority of inmates are nonviolent nonwhites who have received disproportionate sentences. It also believes private prisons, which receive government funding, put profit ahead of rehabilitation.
“We are appalled that 2 million men and women — most of them young people of color convicted of nonviolent offenses — are locked up in our country,” Rabbi Valerie Lieber of JFREJ said in a statement. “As Jews it is incumbent upon us to oppose oppression at any time of year, but at Passover we are particularly compelled to speak out.”
Literature distributed by JFREJ and another group, Not With Our Money, a student organization opposed to what it calls prisons-for-profit, claimed that Lehman Brothers is “the No. 1 deal-maker for the private prison industry,” having helped another company, Cornell Corrections, raise $214 million in 2001.
“When you invest in private prison companies, they have an incentive to push for more prisons being built,” said Sarah Eisenstein, a community organizer for JFREJ. She says corporations like Corrections Corp. of America lobby for tougher sentencing laws, like the so-called “three-strikes and you’re out” law, which mandates lengthy sentences for repeat offenders.
“It is in their interests to fill prisons,” said Eisenstein.
According to its Web site, the Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA was formed in 1983 and now houses and cares for more than 55,000 inmates for federal, state and local government in 64 facilities in 21 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That makes CCA the sixth largest corrections system in the country, behind large states such as New York, California and Texas.
The site says the corporation helps lower the inmate population under state and federal auspices while providing “more services to inmates at a lower cost to government.”
A CCA spokesman, Steve Owen, said the company “is not involved with lobbying or the determination of public policy with regard to sentencing laws or other justice policies.”
Lehman Brothers spokesman Bill Ahearn stressed that neither his firm nor its client had the jurisdiction to incarcerate criminals.
JFREJ “ought to be protesting the criminal justice system,” he said, adding that Lehman Brothers was “seven or eight levels removed from the issue.”
Ahearn said his firm “doesn’t have a specific business plan to look for underwriting prison companies.”
Eisenstein said JFREJ was engaged in the issue “on multiple fronts” and was also planning protests in Albany against the Rockefeller Laws, which mandate lengthy sentences for drug-related crimes such as possession.
The protesters cited research suggesting that private prisons are more violent, have fewer rehabilitative programs and are as expensive as public prisons.
One flier targeted Henry Kaufman, a noted Wall Street strategist and member of the Lehman Brothers board of directors. JFREJ, calling on Kaufman to end Lehman’s involvement in “the for-profit prison industry,” noted that he is “a prominent member of the Jewish community” and that “Jews were once strangers and slaves in Egypt.”
Reached by phone, Kaufman said he had just returned from Zurich and was not familiar with the protest and that he had no immediate comment.