CA Teachers & Lawmaker Lead Private Prison Divestment Campaign

In the wake of CalSTRS, the California teachers’ pension fund, voting this fall to divest $12-million from private for-profit prisons, Assembly member Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) — the son of farm labor organizers who grew up in a trailer yards from Cesar Chavez’s home — has introduced AB 33 to bar the state’s largest retirement funds CalSTRS and CalPERS from investing in for-profit prisons.

Two corporations that dominate the $4-billion for-profit prison industry are GEO and Core Civic, which operate immigrant detention centers, such as Adelanto and Mesa Verde, throughout California, where they have been the subject of law suits and a hunger strike over miserable living conditions — horrible food, lack of clean water — and a dearth of medical services.

Assembly Member Rob Bonta (D-Oakland)

While Bonta’s bill sits in the hopper, members of Educators for Migrant Justice, buoyed by their victory before the CalSTRS Board, will take their case to CalPERS, California’s public employee pension fund valued at $326-billion with an estimated $22 million invested in private for-profit prisons. On facebook, activists are inviting divestment supporters to join them Monday, December 17th, from 9am-3 pm, when they testify before the CalPERS board in Sacramento.

With enough activist pressure and support, Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom — who rose to the national spotlight when as San Francisco Mayor he boldly instructed the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to gay couples –-may side with Bonta and California’s public school teachers — signing legislation and cheering divestment activists — when he takes office in 2019. Then again, Newsom has disappointed immigrant rights activists before. In March, 2009, the San Francisco Democratic Party passed a resolution criticizing Newsom for ignoring the city’s sanctuary city’s law by turning over undocumented youth charged but not convicted of felonies to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

How did California’s teachers convince CalSTRS, the second largest US pension fund with a $229-billion portfolio, to follow the example of other retirement funds — Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — and divest from the for-profit prison industry? It’s a story that unfolds as a relatively small group of committed activists connect on line.

Teachers, primarily from Berkeley, organized with Educators for Migrant Justice, after the organization’s leader Emily Claire Goldman tweeted about pension fund connections with migrant abuse companies. Goldman’s tweet was picked up by Angela Coppola, a Berkeley High School teacher, who began sharing the information widely with her colleagues, including fellow Berkeley High teachers Josh Austin, and Masha Albrecht. Thus began a grassroots effort to circulate a petition from fellow educators and testify before the CalSTRS Board. On November 7, 2018, after being presented with the petition signed by 300 CalSTRS members and after an emotional debate that shed tears, the 11-member Board voted 6–5 in favor of divestment. Those voting in favor of divestment included: Dillon, Keiley, Chiang, Yamamoto (Bosler), Vargas, Wong-Hernandez (Bosler); those voting against divestment included:Paquin (Yee); Zumot (Torlakson); Hendricks; Higa, Rosenstiel.

GEO and CoreCivic claim they are being unfairly targeted because they do not detain children separated from their immigrant parents — but Goldman, a business and human rights consultant and the founder and director of Educators for Migrant Justice, argues that companies like GEO and CoreCivic are providing some of the very resources the Trump administration depends on to incarcerate an estimated 40,000 undocumented immigrants and to carry out “egregious human rights abuses that arguably qualify as crimes against humanity under international law.”

Goldman charges the continued crackdown on legal immigration — those seeking asylum or awaiting citizenship — has left thousands of migrants detained in for-profit prison facilities notorious for their use of forced labor, medical neglect, and even fatal physical and psychological abuse documented in class action lawsuits, as well as reports from human rights organizations and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) which referenced inmate deaths at Adelanto Detention Center in the high desert of San Bernadino County.

Goldman, along with Nancy Mancias of Code Pink and dozens of teachers, appeared before the CalSTRS Board, to support the divestment campaign.

In opposing divestment, some argued the teacher pension fund could exercise greater influence over conditions in private prisons if it remained an investor. State Controller Betty Yee, whose CalSTRS Board proxy cast a no vote, told the press, “In order to ensure the pension funds can continue to hold up their responsibilities to pay retiree benefits and improve CalSTRS’ 64 percent funded status, I believe engagement is much more effective than divestment.

If we divest, we walk away from the opportunity to bring about change and make these companies more efficient and profitable, which should be the goal of every long-term investor and fiduciary.”

In response, supporters of divestment argue that for-profit prisons are driven by a financial incentive to incarcerate as many people as possible as cheaply as possible in order to maximize profit. No amount of investor leverage or CalSTRS oversight of private for-profit prisons can change such a business model, they say

“CalSTRS has been engaging with for-profit prison companies CoreCivic and GEO group for years, with little to no evidence of results,” says Goldman. “No amount of corporate engagement can force a company to change its business model and since CalSTRS started this engagement process, the Office of the Inspector General has released two scathing reports on both companies’ facilities and at least four lawsuits have been filed against CoreCivic and four against GEO Group, one of which was filed by the State Attorney General for Washington.”

Ultimately, the CalSTRS debate, as well as the upcoming debate before CalPERS and Bonta’s prison divestment bill, begs the questions: Should retirees profit from incarcerating undocumented immigrants, many of whom are fleeing Central American countries destabilized by years of US-supported military coups and right-wing death squads? Is it right to make money off the imprisonment of poor families seeking a better life — one not marred by persecution or poverty?

In Bonta’s words, “This is inhumane and not in line with California’s values.

In California, we put our money where our values are and I applaud CalSTRS for its recent decision to divest from for-profit, private prisons.”

Author Marcy Winograd is the great granddaughter of a Russian immigrant who, according to family lore, left Russia to escape anti-Semitism and travelled by steerage — the cheapest ship fare — crammed into the lower deck with hundreds of others –to arrive at Ellis Island in 1890.



Co-Founder, Progressive Caucus, California Democratic Party; blogger at LA Progressive

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Marcy Winograd

Co-Founder, Progressive Caucus, California Democratic Party; blogger at LA Progressive