Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The End of the For-Profit Prison Era?

Early this year, the United Methodist Church Board of Pension and Health Benefits voted to withdraw nearly $1 million in stocks from two private prison companies, the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

The decision by the largest faith-based pension fund in the United States came in response to concerns expressed last May by the church’s immigration task force and a group of national activists.

“Our board simply felt that it did not want to profit from the business of incarcerating others,” said Colette Nies, managing director of communications for the board.

“Our concern was not with how the companies manage or operate their business, but with the service that the companies offer,” Nies added. “We believe that profiting from incarceration is contrary to church values.”

It was an important success for a slew of activists across the country who are pushing investors and institutions to divest from the private prison industry.

The National Prison Divestment Campaign, launched last spring, includes a broad coalition of immigrant rights, criminal justice and other organizations targeting private prison companies like CCA and the GEO Group, the two largest private prison corporations in the United States.

Affecting companies’ bottom lines is just one of the campaigners’ aims. Their larger goal is to raise public awareness about an industry they claim not only profits from incarceration, but also drives local and national immigration and criminal justice policy.

“Divestment is a way to engage people where they are,” said Bob Libal, an organizer with Grassroots Leadership, a team of community organizers based in North Carolina and a member of the campaign. “You might not have a private prison in your community, but I bet you have a Wells Fargo, or another institution that is invested in and buying stock in these corporations.”

“These are publicly traded corporations,” he added. “And they should be held accountable.”