American Friends Calls for Private Prison Company Divestment


The American Friends Service Committee is the latest group to call for investors to move their money away from private prison companies, saying it’s unethical to profit from prisoners.

As part of a new campaign, the AFSC tracks dozens of companies that run facilities or provide services and supplies to such facilities, including private juvenile detention centers. The group recommends divestment from six: Avalon Correction Services, Corrections Corporation of America, G4S PLC, Providence Services Corporation, Sodexo SA and the GEO Group.

Dalit Baum, director of economic activism at AFSC

Dalit Baum, director of economic activism at AFSC, said the Quaker organization researched the industry broadly because it feels the problem goes beyond one or two high-profile names.

“The problem is not just one corporation. The problem is an entire industry,” she said. Private prisons held 8 percent of the total U.S. prison population in 2013, according to the federal Department of Justice.

Their website lists reports of abuse and mistreatment by companies, as well as discusses the ethical concerns about a for-profit prison model. They based recommendations for divestment on three criteria: if a company owns  for-profit prison facilities, has private prisons as their primary business or has proven to be unresponsive to public or investor pressure.

[Related: New Jersey Laws Could Pave Way for More Reforms]

For companies not on that divestment list, investors may be able to pressure them to change their practices, Baum said. She urged other faith and community groups to consider similar criteria to guide their efforts.

hub_arrow_2-01Other groups have been vocal critics of the for-profit prison industry as well. The United Methodist Church divested from certain private prison companies starting in 2012. After pressure from students, Columbia University decided in the summer to divest from private prison companies.

Steven Owen, a spokesman for CCA, blasted divestment campaigns in a statement, saying they are less about affecting companies’ bottom lines and more about creating publicity for activists.

“Frankly, we’re delighted to have a greater share of investors who are thoughtful about our business, can tell the difference between rhetoric and reality, and agree that the free market is a great creator of innovation and economic opportunity,” he said.

Sonia Kowal, President of Zevin Asset Management
Sonia Kowal, president of Zevin Asset Management

The president of Zevin Asset Management, Sonia Kowal, calls the AFSC website tool a boon to investor advocacy. The tool allows investors to enter lists of companies to determine if any appear on AFSC’s divestment lists.

“It’s a lot of work to figure out who’s profiting from criminalization,” she said. “I think it will be a seminal tool.”

Kowal said greater attention to the causes and effects of mass incarceration — and how investment can play a role — is necessary.

“We need a bigger groundswell and that will only happen if clients ask for it,” she said. Zevin encourages and helps clients divest from companies that contribute to mass incarceration, including for-profit companies.

Successful divestment campaigns usually are more about the debate they cause than the financial repercussions they have on a company, said David Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California-Irvine who studies social movements.

“Divestment is a tactic that opens a space for debate and conversation,” he said.

The conversation can be particularly powerful when it takes place in a public space, such as a university’s board of trustees or a city council, rather than only on an individual level, he said.

Divestment campaigns should be wary of how the debate unfolds because a call to action can be lost among financial jargon, Meyer said.

“If the conversation shifts to investment and investment returns, you lose. If the conversation stays on the morality of private prisons, then you win,” he said.

The AFSC online guide looks at areas including facility management, youth detention and treatment, medical and mental health, community corrections, supervisions and surveillance equipment, transportation, phones, food and commissary, video visitation and probation. The group plans additional research on prisoner banking, facility construction, information technology and prison labor.

AFSC has a history of economic activism connected to civil rights, anti-apartheid and farm worker movements. The group also supports boycott, sanctions and divestment work focused on Israel and Palestine, specifically companies they say profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

(This article has been updated.)

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Is Juvenile Justice the Missing Link in Georgia Corrections Reform?

Mike KleinGolfers love being on the leader board. Corrections officials, not so much as there is nothing to celebrate about Georgia being the national leader with the highest percentage of its adults under corrections system supervision. The ratio is 1-in-13 and it is the worst in the country.

Not only does it cost lots of money -– more than $1 billion per year in state dollars to run prisons -– but lofty incarceration, probation and parole statistics send the wrong message nationally and internationally when Georgia tries to market itself as a leading edge economy and destination.

Over the next several months you will hear extensive discussion about adult corrections system reform. A commission created by the 2011 General Assembly was told to develop proposals to streamline Georgia corrections without an adverse impact on public safety. The report is due to Gov. Nathan Deal in seven weeks, with legislation possible next year.

Not much of the process is being conducted in public -– there have been just three public meetings -– and the process does not include a juvenile justice system review. That is an unfortunate and perhaps costly oversight.  Doesn’t it make sense that a high percentage of adults who commit felonies and fill our prisons began their criminal careers as troubled youths?

“It seems to me that if we were to concentrate a lot of our efforts more in the juvenile justice arena then we might have greater success later in terms of reducing the crime rate,” said Judge Cynthia Wright, chief judge of the Fulton County Superior Court. Wright appeared on a public safety panel hosted by Women in Leadership last week at The Commerce Club in Atlanta.

“I know that our (Fulton County) juvenile court judges have said that we don’t really have a lot of options where to send violent kids,” Wright said. “The amount of time that they can spend in any sort of detention facility has been reduced down to almost nothing. These kids go through the juvenile court and they are right back out on the street again.”

Crime is a repeat and often a family business.

”I keep seeing the same people I sent off before (and) generationally, see their family members,” said Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs who serves on the Waycross Judicial Circuit in southeast Georgia. Boggs is also a corrections reform commission member, and he appeared alongside Wright on the Commerce Club panel.

Georgia adult corrections system numbers are ugly:  56,000 at least in prison and 160,000 on parole or probation. Georgia has the ninth largest state population but overall, the fourth largest corrections system. Totals do not include adults locked up in county or municipal jails.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice serves 60,000 juveniles per year.  Three-fourths are male.  On any given day 2,000 youths are detained in secure facilities and 20,000 are assigned to less restrictive community based settings. State juvenile justice system funding is going backward; down from just under $322 million in fiscal 2008 to about $286 million in Fiscal 2012.

Recidivism – the percentage rate at which a former inmate is back behind bars -– is nearly identical in the state’s adult corrections and juvenile systems. This year The Pew Center for the States reported 34.8 percent of Georgia adults released starting in 2004 were back behind bars within three years.  Comparable statewide juvenile data was 40 percent within 12 months during the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, the latest numbers available.

Why this happens and how to enact reform that does not impact public safety is why we have a commission.   One impetus is clearly financial – adult corrections costs are the fastest growing line item after Medicaid state dollars.  More important, Georgia cannot become the state that it aspires to be so long as crime and corrections dominate at least some of the media message.

The final thoughts here are from Waycross Superior Court Judge Boggs: “I sit around with some very conservative folks having a cup of coffee and they’ll say, lock ‘em up. But do you know that it will cost $80 million to build one 1,500-bed prison in this state? That’s not including the cost of the land and it will cost $25 million a year to operate that prison.

“We’re going to give the Legislature a lot to choose from and then they’re going to decide what is politically palatable and what they turn into legislation,” Boggs said. “It’s not one size fits all and it’s certainly not a magic pill. This is going to be a lengthy process. It will not be fixed by whatever bill comes out of the recommendation that comes out of this committee.”

This piece originally appeared on the website of the Georgia Policy Foundation.