By Sarah Barr
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, 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.
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.
Other 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.
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.
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