Morgan Simon (SLAPPed for Disrupting the Private Prisons Profiting from Family Separation)

Morgan Simon is a Founding Partner at Candide Group, a Registered Investment Advisor that directs capital away from an extractive global economy towards investments dedicated to social justice and sustainability. In March of 2020 a private prison company CoreCivic sued the Candide Group, and Morgan Simon as an individual, for “defamation.” In November 2020 a judge ruled in Candide and Simon’s favor. CoreCivic, however, has appealed such that this is still an active lawsuit. 

Answers edited for length and clarity. Sharon spoke with Valentina Stackl, PTP member and Senior Communications Specialist at Greenpeace.

“Behind every social challenge is the nefarious hand of money causing pain, but also, the opportunity to subvert the harms of capitalism by investing in real solutions.”

Morgan Simon

How did all this begin for you? Why was this so important? 

I am an impact investor, which means I help families, foundations, athletes and other influencers who want their money working for justice. Over 8 years, my company Candide Group has helped bring $125M to over 90 companies and funds, the majority of which are led by women and people of color. They range from solar energy on the Navajo Nation, to a coop led by formerly incarcerated women providing healthy meals to schools. And yet while we try to show that money and investments can help, rather than harm, people and the planet we have to also address the real pain money is causing in the economy right now even as we try to build a new one. Hence as Candide Group we try to support activists in learning the tools of finance and social justice, and started a fiscally sponsored, non-profit called Real Money Moves for our educational work. Its in this context my colleague Jasmine Rashid and I, alongside great movement leaders like Moms Rising,, Make the Road NY and more became co-leaders of the Families Belong Together Corporation Accountability Committee, and dove deeply into the question of private prisons and immigrant detention.

The Trump Administration’s family separation policy was morally reprehensible for two reasons. The first, and more visible reason, is that it ripped children from their parent’s arms, an unimaginable horror. The second, and perhaps less well-known reason, is that people made and continue to make money off of this horror. Private facilities housing children earned as much as $750 per migrant per night, in camps that you may remember were a far cry from the Ritz Carlton, despite the similar price tag. Private prisons in general made hundreds of dollars a night for housing adult migrants as well. The US government has used private prisons since 1984 in the dystopian federal prison system, and this past decade scaled our reliance on private companies to lock up immigrants via contracts with ICE. This meant that, whether housing children or adults, private prison companies (that now house over 80% of immigrants in detention) not only participate in, but profit from instances of family separation as a part of their fundamentally exploitative business model. 

Why did you decide to speak out against this? 

As the family separation crisis was erupting in 2018, grassroots activists across the country, united under the banner #FamiliesBelongTogether, realized they didn’t need to wait on the government to take action. The vast majority of immigrant detention centers are privately-owned, publicly traded, and financed by mainstream banks. We followed the money behind the private prison industry profiting from family separation, and learned that these banks provide billions of dollars of credit to help prison companies thrive. This meant that if you had even just $100 at a big bank like Bank of America or JPMorgan Chase, your money could’ve been part of financing family separation.

Since the summer of 2018, over 500,000 activists across the country took action to try and stop this dirty chain and saw real change in real time.

We at Candide Group were among these activists, and our non-profit partner, Real Money Moves.Part of our mission is to give our best shot at changing the culture of money — helping people understand that behind every social challenge is the nefarious hand of money causing pain, but also, the opportunity to subvert the harms of capitalism by investing in real solutions.

As part of our advocacy to end family separation, I also leveraged my Senior Contributor to, and wrote extensively about the link between banks, private prisons and immigrant detention. Unable to face the truth of their actions, the world’s first, and second largest, private prison company CoreCivic sued us at Candide Group, and me as an individual, for “defamation.” CoreCivic claimed we lied about the nature of their work and used these articles to drum up business for ourselves, when in reality we were unabashedly encouraging investors to stay away from their business — to stop funding private prisons and immigrant detention centers through their portfolios.

From the start, we believed this lawsuit was a baseless, expensive attempt to distract and silence us. It didn’t work. On November 19th, a judge dismissed this suit, affirming what we knew all along: CoreCivic participated in family separation.

How has this impacted you and your community?

 I think in general my community sees this lawsuit as further evidence that the work we did mattered. There’s a quote from American labor leader Nicholas Klein, often wrongly attributed to Gandhi that says, “ “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” And that’s basically what happened here.

What was it like when you found out that you were being sued? Did you deal with the company’s representatives (question getting at the bullying tactics)

Receiving this lawsuit at the height of COVID was really upsetting, as it just further showed the true colors of private prisons who care more about money than human beings. They couldn’t even serve me properly because of distancing rules (which was too bad–I graduated the year that dance movie You Got Served came out, and as a street dancer myself was hoping to reenact it with my dance crew in response)…

At the same time, jails, prisons and detention centers were getting decimated by COVID. Conditions were so bad in CoreCivic’s Adelanto facility, where staff weren’t wearing masks, that detainees protested and got tear gassed. You can afford to pay fancy lawyers tens–or by this point, presumably hundreds–of thousands of dollars to sue an activist for something as dumb as saying prisons separate families, but you can’t spend a dollar per inmate on masks??? At first I thought the lawsuit was just stupid–but when COVID hit hard at CoreCivic’s prisons, then I became mad and resentful. I just felt their behavior was shameful, and reaffirmed why we had campaigned against them in the first place.   

Free speech question, something like: Have you ever been involved in Free Speech activity in the past? What does speaking up mean to you? How has your voice mean… What is your history with speaking up? Did this experience change how you think about free speech? 

First, it’s worth stating that fundamental to democracy is the right to have divergent opinions. Our opinion, apparently shared by hundreds of thousands of people, is that private prisons straight up shouldn’t exist, and that our current criminal and immigration “justice” systems are embedded with profit incentives that don’t deserve our dollars. The fact that our message and activism was effective doesn’t make it defamatory, or otherwise lawsuit-worthy.

Second, what the lawsuit said to us is that CoreCivic clearly doesn’t understand social movements. Our work built on thousands of grassroots activists over literal decades before us, and was conducted shoulder to shoulder with thousands more over the past few years. It’s simply impossible to claim one person or organization was responsible for the mass movement of money out of the industry. And even if that was the case — speaking the truth, whether us or anyone else, is by no means illegal. We believe the only party responsible for the market outcomes of its morally reprehensible actions is: CoreCivic.

Why didn’t you give up? Was quitting ever an option? This massive company came after you, you could have walked away, but you didn’t. Why? 

As hundreds of thousands of people were reading our articles and learning more about the connections between their bank accounts, private prisons and family separation, what CoreCivic saw, in our opinion, was the writing on the wall for their industry. We can imagine why CoreCivic was frustrated by our collective success raising awareness about these issues, and the fact that major banks chose to cut ties. Lashing out and filing a lawsuit against us, they claimed that we lied by saying that private prisons separated families and lobbied for harsher policies. They claimed that these lies are what caused the banks to pull out.

“Throughout this process we’ve been disgusted to learn how, time and time again, corporations have used frivolous lawsuits to punish critics and detract from shareholder value in the process.”

Morgan Simon

Throughout this process we’ve been disgusted to learn how, time and time again, corporations have used frivolous lawsuits to punish critics and detract from shareholder value in the process. Journalists and activists, from “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver, to global environmental organization Greenpeace, deal with these suits all the time and don’t let it slow down their important work.

Corporations are slowly but surely learning that these frivolous lawsuits are costly to them, and by extension, to shareholders in the long run. While CoreCivic has appealed this ruling, we are keenly interested to see just how many dollars they are willing to waste on legal fees to keep this going, neglecting what should be their core responsibility at this moment: protecting those in their care from COVID-19.

What would you say to someone facing a similar threat? 

Corporations cannot continue to intimidate critics without it landing on the historical record. We wanted to make sure to share in detail the story of this activism, and this lawsuit, to continue educating and engaging the public on actions we can all take to stop industries that make money off of human suffering; from prisons to fossil fuels to sweatshop labor and beyond.

There’s no special sauce or trickery to share here about why we won (with all due respect to our talented lawyers). Simply put, the truth set us free. Through the emotional ups and downs of the lawsuit, that’s what ultimately kept us centered and confident, and what I would advise others to do–just focus on the truth.

Featured photo taken by Jennifer Leahy

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