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New York Teachers Fight for Divestment From Prison Industry

A new campaign is working to divest $8 million in retirement holdings from the for-profit prison system.

Members of Teachers Against Student Exploitation pose for a photo.

Teachers in Rochester, New York, recently discovered, to their horror, that their pensions are invested in the private prison and immigrant detention industry. After learning this from Basma Eid, an organizer with the group Freedom to Thrive, one teacher, Michelle Sapere, spearheaded the formation of a rank-and-file organization in her union called Teachers Against Student Exploitation (TASE).

The organization has launched a campaign to get the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System (NYSTRS), the independent fund that manages their pensions, to divest their $8 million holdings in the for-profit prison system.

“I was shocked to hear that my pension was invested in this system,” Sapere said. “Since then, I started researching and found out more and more. Then I started telling teachers and students in my school, and none of them knew about it, and they, too, were shocked and disgusted by it. Especially retiring teachers.”

TASE is joining a national movement to target prison profiteers. “We launched the campaign to break the lobbying power of the private prison industry,” Eid said. Still, such divestment activists know that they are up against big businesses fully backed by the federal government.

TASE in particular, however, has attracted interest from hundreds of teachers, students and community members in Rochester who know the terrible reality of the Children’s Defense Fund called the cradle-to-prison pipeline.

“Every day, we teach kids whose parents are at risk of being deported; kids who live in fear of the racist police; and kids who have family members in prison, usually as a result of some nonviolent crime like drug possession,” Sapere told Truthout.

Even worse, she discovered that New York State schools have contracts with the public prison system: Its prisoners make desks and chairs for sweatshop wages of less than a dollar an hour. “It’s gross to think,” Sapere said, “that prisoners who could have been your former students are now making furniture for students currently in your classroom.”

She and several other teachers in TASE attended New York State United Teachers’ statewide meeting in Albany, New York, in early May to push for divestment. United Teachers had passed a resolution promising this in 2015, but it was nonbinding, and NYSTRS never acted on it.

At the meeting, TASE attracted interest from teachers across the state, who, like those in Rochester, had no idea that their pensions were invested in the private prison and detention industry and almost unanimously supported divestment. But the president of NYSTRS and retired teacher, David Keefe, still dismissed the idea.

He told Sapere that NYSTRS had a fiduciary responsibility to retirees that trumped any commitment to socially responsible investment. “He made three main points,” she explained. “One, it’s not that much money invested in prisons, so it’s not a big deal. Two, all pensions are going to be tied into things you don’t like. And three, it was too much work to figure out divestment.”

In contrast, rank-and-file teachers and union delegates supported TASE and Freedom to Thrive. “We met a lot of teachers from Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester,” explained Sapere, “that want to be a part of this effort and don’t think any of our money should help keep the school-to-prison pipeline functioning.”

Eid agreed, stating, “It was amazing to be in Albany. Teachers from all over New York were saying that they needed to start their own groups like TASE. We need organization of activists in the teachers’ unions to get [United Teachers] to force [NYSTRS] to divest just like [the Chicago Teachers Union] did.”

TASE and Freedom to Thrive want the United Teachers, which represents over 600,000 teachers in American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association locals across the state, to follow the lead of unions across the country and get NYSTRS to divest.

The Turn to Mass Incarceration

Both political parties built the prison-industrial complex over the last few decades and dramatically expanded it after 9/11 with a new system of mass detention and deportation. This effort was a key component of their neoliberal project to overcome economic crisis in the 1970s and restore growth and profits to the capitalist system.

They aimed to drive down wages, bust unions, cut and privatize social services, and use racism and immigrant bashing to divide and conquer any resistance to that agenda. The two parties shifted state investment out of needed programs and services to police and the incarceration of victims of their attacks.

While all of this started under President Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan dramatically escalated it with his so-called war on drugs in the 1980s, and then President Bill Clinton expanded it through his infamous 1994 crime bill. The result was the mass incarceration of working-class people for petty drug offenses, a disproportionate percentage of whom are Black and Brown people.

This racist system, which Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow,” jails 2.3 million people in the U.S., a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world, including Russia and China. This gulag is comprised of 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile jails, 3,163 local jails and 80 Indian Country jails.

The two parties also launched a massive war on immigrants, especially those from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, who fled their countries to escape conditions imposed on them by U.S. “structural adjustment programs” and trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement. More than 10 million found their way into the U.S., many becoming cheap labor on farms, in industries like meatpacking, and in services like housekeeping in hotels.

Both parties turned on these immigrant workers, scapegoating them for U.S. capitalism’s failures. They built a vast system of detention and deportation, whose goal was not to end immigrant labor, which is essential to U.S. capitalism, but to keep it criminalized, low paid and non-unionized.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which rules over this system, annually jails over 350,000 people, and fewer than half of those have even been convicted of any crime. They also deport astronomical numbers of people, which peaked under President Barack Obama — dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” — who expelled over 2.7 million people during his two terms in office.

Both parties helped spawn the offspring of mass incarceration — the private, for-profit prison and detention system. The two largest corporations in this grotesque industry, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group, have more than $2 billion in annual contracts with ICE.

These corporations and others have expanded their jails and prisons by 125 percent since 2000 and now imprison 9 percent of state and federal prisoners and a shocking 73 percent of detained immigrants.

The U.S. state has thrown all these people out of the frying pan of public jails, which are renowned for their own abusive conditions, into the fire of these private institutions. Since they are run to make profit, they employ fewer guards, overcrowd their cells, skimp on services, and as a result, have much higher rates of neglect and abuse.

The Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements have targeted this carceral capitalism over the last decade. In a significant breakthrough, they forced the Obama administration to issue a directive discontinuing the federal government’s use of private prisons and detention jails.

Terrified that they might lose their profit stream, the industry backed Donald Trump in the 2016 election to restore their contracts. Overjoyed by his victory, GEO Group and CoreCivic each donated $250,000 to his inauguration festivities.

Trump reversed Obama’s directive on private prisons, nixed Obama’s so-called “catch-and-release” policy for arrested undocumented immigrants, and implemented a new one, “zero tolerance,” that requires those arrested to be detained until hearings.

That policy went so far as to separate children from their parents until popular protest and a national court injunction forced him to abandon that part of the policy. The vast majority of those detained have ended up in private jails.

With their jails again filled to capacity, CoreCivic and GEO Group have seen their profits and stock prices skyrocket. Newsweek reports that “In its first-quarter financial results, GEO Group reported net income of $40.7 million, up from $35 million in the first quarter of 2018. Revenues grew year over year as well, with first-quarter 2019 revenues surpassing $610 million versus nearly $565 million in 2018.”

Escalating the Struggle for Divestment

In response, activists have doubled down on their national campaign against the prison profiteers. They discovered the key weakness of these businesses; they are highly dependent on debt financing from big banks, as well as investments from socially conscious unions and organizations.

Their national campaign for prison divestment has accumulated some key union allies and scored a growing number of victories. The AFT, which influences over $1 trillion in public teacher pension plans, issued a report, “Private Prisons, Immigrant Detention, and Investment Risks,” and called on all their locals to divest.

AFT president Randi Weingarten warned that, “Private prison operators are now officially on notice. Teachers and trustees of their pension system will question whether their retirement savings are invested in morally abhorrent detentions centers that are a stain on our nation and a risky financial bet.”

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) set the example. CTU president Jesse Sharkey declared, “Our union members serve tens of thousands of immigrant students in our schools, and we’re committed to taking any and all steps to protect their families from disruption or repression. That includes our refusal to support corporations that seek to profit from the national attack on immigrants — the same corporations that continue to profit from the mass incarceration of Black people and the harm that continues to visit the families of our Black students.”

Union activists also won divestment in the California State Teacher Retirement System, the New Jersey Pension Fund, the New York City Employees Retirement System and the New York State Common Retirement Fund.

The movement also forced JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank to announce a moratorium on new financing for the prison industry. In the wake of that announcement, GEO Group’s stock plummeted by 16 percent.

TASE and Freedom to Thrive will be mobilizing more teachers to New York State United Teachers’ next statewide meeting in Saratoga, New York, this fall. They want divestment now.

But their aspirations are larger than just getting rid of the private prison and detention system. They are not satisfied with throwing people out of that fire back into public jails. Instead they want prison abolition.

They argue that the $1 trillion wasted annually on jailing people would be better spent on programs that provide jobs, education, and solutions to social and economic inequality in our society.

As Eid said, “Divestment is one piece of the huge struggle to create a world where our communities have what they need to thrive.”

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