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Retirement Board Puts Off Decision On Private Prison Divestment

Aug 17, 2020
Originally published on August 17, 2020 6:07 pm

An effort to get public money out of private ICE detention in New Mexico saw a partial victory this week. A coalition of educators and immigrants rights advocates have been urging the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board to drop investments in CoreCivic and GEO Group, corporations that own or manage three-quarters of migrant detention facilities in the U.S and are accused of a range of civil and human rights abuses. Between the two, they also imprison hundreds of state and federal inmates in four New Mexico counties.

In a retirement board meeting Friday, members pushed off a decision to divest until later this fall. But the stock market decided for them in one case: CoreCivic is being dropped from the fund’s portfolio this week due to poor financial returns. 

At a protest on Aug. 7th at the University of New Mexico, activists rallied against the warehousing of people for profit. They chanted “Education, not deportation!” and “Care, not cages!”

Activists have been out week after week since April in #FreeThemAll Friday actions demanding the release of prisoners during the pandemic. This time, along with signs and banners, they set up a table and a laptop so people could write the NMERB ahead of the board meeting on Aug. 14.

Sarah Knopp, a PhD student at UNM and a prison abolitionist, spoke about people incarcerated in Cibola County, where CoreCivic runs a compound that’s a federal prison, a county jail and ICE detention all in one.

“We need to shut down Cibola Correctional Center now,” said Knopp. “None of the asylum-seekers who are there belong there. They’ve committed no crime. We don’t need a prison next to Navajo Nation on stolen land, where it’s infecting people on Navajo Nation.”

There’s been a huge COVID outbreak among federal detainees in Cibola County in the past few weeks – 314 cases as of Friday, Aug. 14. The NM Political Report reported that spurred a protest about conditions there during the pandemic by people being detained  on Aug. 5. There are 44 cases among federal prisoners at the CoreCivic site in Torrance County. And 900 more in Otero County, where a different private prison company holds the keys. 

The pandemic has added urgency to a divestment fight that the Santa Fe Dreamers Project and others started over a year ago. Joined by teachers unions, university faculty, the Española and Santa Fe school boards, financial advisors, and artists, the coalition collected 1,400 signatures of educators who don’t want their pension funds going to private prisons and migrant detention.

Dair Obenshain, a co-founder of Teachers Against Child Detention and a music teacher in Albuquerque, said the retirement board has been resistant to their members’ demands. “They claim that it’s fiscal responsibility that forces them to continue investing in private prisons, but before the COVID pandemic, those stocks in Geo Group and CoreCivic were losing a lot of money,” said Obenshain. “So it’s not only morally reprehensible, but fiscally irresponsible.”

GEO Group and CoreCivic account for less than a million dollars of the $13 billion dollar fund. 

Obenshain led a sing-along, covering a Linda Rondstadt tune for the twenty people gathered: “It’s so easy to divest now,” they sang.

But at their Friday meeting, the eight-member board heard from their legal and financial advisors that it wasn’t going to be so easy. 

For one thing, the Trump administration’s Department of Labor has proposed rules that discourage investment decisions based on social and environmental factors.

“You may conclude that a particular aspect of a company may be a social bad,” attorney David Powell of the Groom Group explained, “but you cannot make a decision to invest in it or sell it unless you can make the decision that it is in the financial interest of the fund to do so, and you are not permitted to sacrifice return for those decisions.”

The real sticking point, though, was the way decision-making is set up. NMERB Chief Investment Officer Bob Jacksha said paying someone to manage individual stocks day-to-day wasn’t cost effective in the past. Instead he said board policy is to invest in index funds -- including everything in the S&P 400. “The policy does not give the staff discretion to vary from that,” said Jacksha. “We simply follow what Standard and Poors is doing with the index.” 

CoreCivic has been underperforming, so Jacksha said S&P is dropping it from the 400 index. That means the NMERB is out of the ICE detention business in New Mexico, effective Monday - a win for the coalition. But GEO Group is still on the list.

The board did not allow time for oral public comments, but that didn’t stop people from chiming in at several points.

“I would just like to take this opportunity to highlight the majority White-led ERB board voting on…” someone started. NMERB general counsel Susanne Roughbideau spoke over them, saying “Oral public comment is not on the agenda.”

“Slavery is not a retirement plan!” the person finished. “I yield my time.”  

In the end, state treasurer Tim Eichenberg proposed that staff write up a policy change that would make a path to divestment. “I just want the opportunity every once in a while to say -- whether it’s climate change or whatever that comes before us through an S&P investment -- that we get to say, wait a minute, our policy allows us to say we don’t want to do that anymore,” said Eichenberg.

The motion passed unanimously. The board could review those policy recommendations as soon as their next meeting in mid-October. 

All the bureaucratic back and forth was disappointing to coalition members.

Szu-Han Ho, a UNM professor, artist and activist, said all the talk of policy hurdles didn’t match up with what NMERB staff and board members had said before. “There were some members of the board who supported it -- like, yes or no, can we divest right now,” Ho told KUNM after Friday’s meeting. “Based on all of our information, we understood that it was possible.”

Ho works with the fronteristxs artists’ collective. You might have seen photos on social media recently of their work at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe: giant white banners with Free Them All written in bright pink, by a statue of kids playing tug of war in front of the Capitol. “There was a cage installed over the boys in the statue,” explained Ho, “so it looks like the girls are pulling them out of the cage.”

Ho and other activists are frustrated with slow action by the board when they say there’s a human rights crisis at the border. “We do think that CoreCivic and GEO Group are violating the constitution,” she said. “We also believe the administration is violating the constitution with warehousing migrants on the border, separating families, housing youth in shelters and not allowing them to go to their sponsors. The fundamental problem is that these companies have a profit incentive to warehouse humans. So they’re actually always going to want more bodies.” 

The nationwide movement to divest, though, is growing. 

Since the #FamiliesBelongTogether campaign started organizing after Trump’s family separation policy hit the news in 2018, most major banks have cut ties with GEO Group and Core Civic.

Ho said she got an indication of the movement’s impact when a representative from GEO Group wrote the NMERB this month in direct response to an op-ed by a coalition member that was published in the Santa Fe New Mexican. “So the fact that GEO Group feels the need to respond to this very small pension fund investment, relatively, I think that means that the divestment movement is a lot of traction nationally and globally," said Ho. 

She hopes if New Mexico can go through with divestment this fall, that will encourage other pension boards in other states to do the same.  

Disclosure: The reporter is an employee of the University of New Mexico, so money is extracted from her paychecks and put into the NMERB every month.

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This story originally aired in the Sunday, Aug. 16 episode of our show No More Normal: Human Rights On ICE.

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