These are awesome questions, and they're ones I ask and get asked often in my work as a financial planner, coach, and educator committed to economic justice.
"Does your retirement plan have funds in for-profit private-prisons?"
The answer is most likely: yes. The most recent statistics I've for some of the largest investment fund companies is that 10-14% of their stock holdings are in private prison companies. In addition to the companies actually building and running the private prisons, there's also an entire network (the "prison industrial complex") that lends money to the prison companies and provides food services, health services, clothing, telecommunications, security, etc. I got this data from an incredible org called Worth Rises
(formerly the Corrections Accountability Project
). They released a report titled "The Prison Industrial Complex: Mapping Private Sector Players." From their website: "This report exposes over 3,900 corporations across twelve sectors that profit from the devastating mass incarceration of our nation’s marginalized communities. It aggregates critical information about these corporations to help advocates, litigators, journalists, investors, and the public fight the commercialization of justice." It's available for free on their website here: https://worthrises.org/picreport2019.
"What actions are people taking (or could take) to prevent unwittingly investing in companies that benefit from private prisons? Thoughts? Actions? Next steps?" I'll provide some ideas and tools here, and to be clear, this is not an exhaustive list. I hope others in the ACES community can add on!
-- Online screening tools: There are online screening tools where you can enter the name of mutual/index funds you are invested in to see if there are stocks of specific companies in that fund. There are screening tools to check for gun stocks, fossil-fuel companies, etc. A new screening tool to screen for private prison stocks is now available from the American Friends Service Committee in partnership with Worth Rises. Here is the link: http://investigate.afsc.org/
-- If a fund you are invested in is invested in private prisons: You can contact the fund representative or fund manager and let them know that you want the private prison stock removed from this fund. There are both moral and business arguments you can make. In addition to the Worth Rises report above, here are references you can send them:
Also, here is template language you can use and adapt to share with the fund manager: "Hello, I have money invested in (fund name) and am appalled and angered to know that I am invested in the incarceration of people. I am requesting that your fund divest itself from any ownership of private prison company stock. Aside from the clear moral wrongs of investing in companies that profit from caging people, including children, owning their stock is bad business and risky. Pensions funds, national banks, and wealth managers across the country have led a wave of divestment from these companies. Here are articles where you can read more on that: (link to articles here). I hope your fund will follow suit. I look forward to your response." If anyone wants to share template emails that they find or write, please feel free to share on this thread.
-- Selling your investments: This is also called "divesting" or "divestment." You can also sell the investments you have that have ownership in private prisons and purchase funds that do not. If you're doing this in a taxable brokerage account, there might be tax consequences - in other words, you might owe money on any investment gains come tax return time. But if it's a retirement account like an employer 401(k) or 403(b) plan, or IRA (Individual Retirement Account), where you're selling the investments, then there wouldn't be a tax issue because retirement accounts get special tax treatment. As a side note, your workplace retirement account might have limited investment options. If there's no private-prison free fund in the menu of options for your workplace retirement account, then you can contact your retirement account administrator to ask that they add better options. Feel free to adapt the template language above.
-- Look into where you bank as well: Banks also fund the private prison industry. For example, banks provide loans that pay the huge upfront cost of constructing the prisons themselves. Thanks to abolitionists and advocates, lots of big banks have promised to no longer do business with private prisons. Here's an article on that: https://www.forbes.com/sites/morgansimon/2019/07/15/french-bank-fifth-to-pull-out-of-the-private-prison-industry/#6f934c007b61
. Even so, some like Bank of America have only promised to not make any NEW loans but are honoring loans that they've already made. The loans that banks make are based on the amount of savings their customers have entrusted them with. So the more savings these banks are holding, the more they can loan to private prison companies to build prison infrastructure and incarcerate more of our people. Moving your checking and savings accounts to credit unions is a way to get your money out of these banks - and even better, contact them to let them know why you're moving your money!
-- Choose a wealth manager who specializes in social justice investing: This suggestion is for those who have money available to invest outside of workplace retirement accounts. But this is a tricky one because most financial advisors/wealth managers will work with clients who have a minimum level of assets they can transfer to them to invest. If you choose to go the do-it-yourself route, be aware that sometimes investment funds may use a SRI ("socially responsible investing") label while including fossil fuel, prison, gun, etc. stocks. A great book to check out on this area is Real Impact by Morgan Simon.
I hope this list is helpful, and that we can continue sharing ideas on this thread. Please feel free to get in touch with me -- I love questions about aligning your money with your values because sharing what I've learned so far deepens my knowledge too. Thanks for starting the conversation, Karen.