MANHATTAN (CN) — Beginning an unprecedented public-sector backlash against for-profit incarceration, New York City’s pension funds trustees announced on Thursday that they have liquidated $48 million in stocks and bonds from the private-prison industry.
“Today, we’re here to talk about fairness, about folly, and about our criminal justice system,” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer told reporters at an afternoon press conference.
“For decades, we built bigger jails instead of building better schools,” he continued. “We as a society used mass incarceration as an economic-development tool that came at the expense of communities of color. We thought that we were being tough on crime, when in reality we were creating an unrelenting cycle of crime and poverty.”
According to the most recent study, the United States held roughly 126,000 people in 130 private prisons across 30 states in 2015.
Though President Barack Obama tried last year to phase out federal private-prison contracts —a move that would have affected 12 percent of the population, an estimated 22,000 men and women — the new administration reversed that decision in late February, relying on immigration prisons to enforce a nativist agenda.
“If this president gets his way, private prisons are going to be used to hold those awaiting deportation,” Stringer said of Donald Trump.
In a report titled “Fatal Neglect,” the American Civil Liberties Union found that the deaths of eight people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement between 2010 and 2012 were largely attributable to “egregious violations” of medical care standards.
Another eight people have died in private immigration detention centers so far this year.
Multiple for-profit immigration prisons — including CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, and Geo Group — now face class-action lawsuits accusing them of conscripting inmates into forced labor.
New York City’s pensions previously had been invested in both of these companies.
Beyond the ethical concerns, New York City’s public advocate Letitia James said, political upheaval and civil liability make private-prison stocks an unsafe bet for hundreds of thousands of the city’s retirees.
“This is not just because we may be morally opposed, and I am morally opposed to the maltreatment and the monetization of our inmates,” she said. “But these companies are facing real risk.”
Geo Group’s spokesman Pablo Paez called the criticism of the company “baseless” and the city’s decision “misguided.”
“We’re proud of our longstanding record providing high quality services, while treating the men and women in our care with the respect and dignity they deserve with a steadfast belief that as a company, we are at our best when helping them reenter society as productive and employable citizens,” Paez said in a statement.
Thursday’s announcement has been brewing since Sept. 8, when New York City Employees’ Retirement System announced a resolution to study the effects of divestment.
“Once these studies were complete, it was abundantly clear that our investments in private prisons were simply unstable and unacceptable,” James said.
Henry Garrido, the executive director of district council 37 of AFSCME, the city’s largest public employee union, denounced the fact that some private prisons impose inmate quotas on municipalities, with penalties laid out in their contracts for underperformance.
“That is just criminal,” Garrido thundered.
Make the Road New York, a local immigration-advocacy group, applauded New York City’s pension shift.
“With this action, our city’s pension funds are demonstrating their refusal to be complicit in mass criminalization of people of color and the tearing apart of immigrant families,” Javier H. Valdes, co-executive director of the group, said in a statement.
Make the Road members crashed a shareholders meeting of JPMorgan last week, urging CEO Jamie Dimon to divest. Valdes quoted the banking chief as saying he would consider the matter.
“We continue to demand that financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase disassociate themselves from Trump and change their business practices,” Valdes added.
The presidents of all five New York City boroughs and Mayor Bill de Blasio joined in today’s divestment decision.
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