If you’re paying attention to criminal justice policy in the US, you’ve been bombarded with daunting statistics. One in one hundred adult Americans is behind bars. The US has the largest prison population per capita in the world (12 times Japan’s, 17 times Iceland’s). While there are signs that politicians are coming to terms with some aspects of this problem, there is still a paralyzing fear of being portrayed as “soft on crime” that makes ambitious policy change challenging.
Layered on top of that is a disturbing new development: injecting a profit motive into the prison industry. Powerful corporations are lobbying to keep more people in prison longer, and even “liberal” politicians are throwing money at them.
These challenges make a new victory in taking on the private prison industry even more exciting. Grassroots organization Color of Change has successfully pressured three investment groups to divest from the private prison industry:
Scopia Capital, DSM, and Amica Mutual Insurance have all pledged to remove their collective investments of about $60,000,000 from the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group — the two prison companies that own75 percent of the nation’s private prisons. The decision to divest comes on the heels of pressure from Color Of Change, a racial and economic justice advocacy group that ran a campaign asking a total 150 companies to stop investing in the private prison industry.
“In accordance with the principles of the UN Global Compact, with respect to the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights, the pension fund has divested from the for-profit prison industry,” DSM President Hugh Welsh said in a Color of Change statement. “Investment in private prisons and support for the industry is financially unsound, and divestment was the right thing to do for our clients, shareholders, and the country as a whole. DSM is committed to good corporate citizenship and operating in a way that contributes to a better world.”
Think Progress points out the potential significance of this first step:
“We’ve started to turn the corner on mass incarceration and if that’s something that makes private prisons a bad investment, that’s important,” Takei added. He said that if investment firms chose to divest for ethical reasons, it is “an important first step,” but that “the financial reasons justification would be huge.”
Studies have found that private prisons spend millions on lobbying to send more people to jail for longer periods of time. The facilities are often rife with abuse and neglect, too; accusations against the companies range from wrongful death to bad sanitation and even forcing a woman to give birth in a toilet. They do no favors for states that support them, either; Idaho was one of the places that ended its contract with CCA after the company handed over a $1 million settlement for falsifying staff hours and leaving mandatory monitoring spots unattended.
This kind of creative organizing is critical to raising the stakes for supporting this unjust system and raising awareness about the mass incarceration epidemic. This ray of light is encouraging, and I hope it is indeed a sign that we are turning that corner.