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.

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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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Should 24-Year-Old Offenders be Considered Juveniles?

LAS VEGAS -- When the National Partnership for Juvenile Services annual symposium opened, Jason Bowser, a youth service director from Columbus, Ind., told an executive committee that one of the standing committees was focusing on the question of “What is a juvenile?”

It might seem an odd question for a gathering of folks who specialize in working with youth in the juvenile justice system, but really the question, even when not spoken, would be present in training sessions across the three-day symposium held here this week. Nor is it just a hypothetical question because nearly 250,000 young people under the age of 18 end up in the adult criminal justice system every year, according to the National Institute of Corrections report, “You’re an Adult Now: Youth in Adult Criminal Justice Systems.”

Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice -- in a session reflecting the “Adult Now” theme -- reminded everyone that New York and North Carolina still consider juveniles to be adults at the ages of 16 or 17 in criminal proceedings, whereas in the rest of the states it’s 18. Ryan said a new report shows that each year 100,000 young people get sent to an adult facility and on any given day approximately 10,000 of them are in an adult facility.

Michael Dempsey

Once there, the correction system managers do have rules that treat the juvenile differently from the mainstream adult population. At times that means putting the kids into isolation. Elissa Rumsey, compliance monitor coordinator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), said, “Isolation means that there is no outside time, you are seriously locked down for 24/7. Some get out three hours in a week and are in a cage on the grounds by themselves. Truly no human contact, food through the door, no contact with staff, no services, no other people. That’s isolation.”

Ryan said they might be isolated because of a teenage behavior issue, be a true danger or for their own protection from the adult prisoners.

No matter the reason Rumsey says, “When they are put in isolation that increases the behavioral issues because it tends to drive one crazy when you are locked down for 24/7 without any sunlight. So they would act out with even worse behaviors.”

Michael Dempsey, who works with the Indiana Department of Correction and who has been advocating for juvenile treatment for a 14-year-old who was found guilty of murder as a 12-year-old and given an adult sentence, says, “There are many of us who believe anyone up to the age of

Cindy Thacker

23 or 24 could still be considered a juvenile, it depends on where they are at developmentally. But in the eyes of most laws anyone over the age of 18 is considered an adult.”

New research demonstrates that the brain is not fully developed until about the age of 25, according to experts. Margaret Davis, who co-taught a training seminar on the latest developments in brain research, says, “When you ask a lot of people what is a juvenile, they think it has shifted today to be a later age and it really can be anybody up to the age of 25.”

Furthermore, her co-presenter Cindy Thacker said staff working with young people need tounderstand the ways kids’ brains work, and that extends to staff who work with kids in adult facilities.

Davis said, “They cannot and should not be treating those kids the same way they are treating the adult offenders. They need more programming, they need more structure. These 16-year-olds cannot make the decisions for themselves the way a 30-year-old offender makes those decisions.”

Margaret Davis

Dempsey, from the Indiana Department of Corrections, said unfortunately that is not the case for kids when they end up in the adult system. They have to deal with staff who are trained to work with adults and not trained to be adolescence development specialists, he said.

As we deal with the question: What is a juvenile and how to best treat youth in the juvenile justice system, Dempsey says we must identify the best approaches and piece-by-piece build a best practice model that can be duplicated nationally.

“I think we will get there. It is a slow process,” he said.

Photos by Leonard Witt |