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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Unholy Profits: Why the UMC Must Divest from Private Prisons

"I will not revoke the punishment because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals - they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth." (Amos 2:6-7)
In his book, "The Expanding Prison," David Cayley writes, "The Bible...is a virtual catalog of crimes" and thus, the story of God's mission to his world is to heal those victimized by crime, and to restore those responsible into right relationship with those they have hurt. Sadly, the United Methodist Church currently is not joining in God's mission of restoration, but is, instead, profiting from the mass incarceration of people, particularly people of color.

The United Methodist Church owns stock in two private prisons companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. Private prisons is one of the fastest growing industries in the country today. They represent fast rising stocks so the investment is a smart one if your sole basis for making investment decisions is economic benefit. As the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) reports, these two companies combined for a 2.9 billion dollar profit in 2010. But they were not the only ones to profit - their stockholders did as well. And among those who own stock in CCA and GEO Group is the United Methodist Church, which has earned roughly $250,000. 250 grand will certainly buy a boat load of stained glass windows and youth trips to Six Flags.

Now, CCA and GEO Group are assuredly not any different from other companies making such huge profits. They are determined to make even more money from incarcerating people through passing legislation that continues to incarcerate mass numbers of people in the U.S. prison system. A prison system that has now ballooned to over 2.3 million people. This means paid lobbyists. JPI reports that both CCA and GEO Group and other private prison companies have lobbied for and even in some cases, actually helped draft such legislation called "three strikes and you're out" and "truth in sentencing." Both of these policies have been part of the "tough on crime" approach to criminal justice that has become so politically popular. Such policies, along with the War on Drugs, are the reasons why the prison population has exploded.

I will discuss in future posts other reasons for divestment, but the reason why their lobbying work of state and federal legislatures is so important is that once you "win" a contract to house inmates, you then must advocate for policies which will help you fill up that prison. This means mass incarceration. The effect is that though the United States represents only 5% of the world's population, we house 25% of the world's incarcerated population.

The intimacy between lobbying and horrendous legislation is seen in the state of Arizona where Governor Brewer's closest aids were former lobbyists with CCA as she signed SB 1070 into law, which has had devastating impacts on immigrant families and their communities. So, though CCA has spent $900,000 each year on federal legislation since 2003, their return (combining with GEO Group in 2011 for a 2.9 billion profit) is quite worth it.

Another example is in Florida, where Governor Scott has pushed hard for privatization in many areas of the administration of social services. In just the first three months of 2011, GEO Group spent between $120,000 and $200,000 on lobbying efforts. The prize for their "hard work?" The Florida state legislature voted to privatize each one of it's prisons in South Florida - about one-fifth the total size of the state's prison population.

The last example comes from National Public Radio who tells the story of the largest juvenile detention facility in the country built in Walnut Grove, Mississippi by GEO Group. It was so big that they had a hard time filling it up with "clients." So, because they were losing money, their lobbyists advocated the Mississippi state legislature for the top age of youths being housed in this detention facility to be raised from 18 to 22. Housing children aged 13 (the age of my oldest son, Eli) with men 22 years old has had devastating impacts on the children, though it has been quite profitable for GEO Group, raking in more than 3.4 million dollars since the age was raised.

But raising the age has resulted in physical and sexual assaults against the younger and more vulnerable inmates. Further, in the lust for greater profits, even while the population at Walnut Grove increased, the number of guards were decreased to a ratio of 1 for every 60 inmates. If the youth weren't damaged before they arrived at Walnut Grove, they certainly will be once they leave. Thankfully, Walnut Grove is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, but it has not yet been shut down. And GEO Group profits from this - as does the United Methodist Church.

Growing profits in the private prison industry have made the market the determiner for effective criminal justice policy. Healing for victims of crime, and appropriate accountability and restoration for the accused are no longer parts of any equation in creating criminal justice policy. For corporations determined to increase their profits, concepts like healing, accountability, and restoration are fantasies. They are irrelevant church words, since the church is not having any transformative effect on this business. What is being transformed however, is the church through it's unholy investment in such an industry. For when the market drives policies; when more people in prison means more money; when people are so disposable and warehoused, it is the market that determines our morality and not the other way around. Having the Church profit from such sin is antithetical to the very essence of the counter-cultural gospel which Jesus incarnated in his life and ministry. And it is what he calls us to incarnate in our lives as well.

What we as United Methodists have to ask ourselves, is do we want to profit from such an industry? Do we want to make money from the abuse of children? Do we want to make money from incarcerating people for incredibly long periods of time and under often-times horrendous conditions? As followers of Jesus we should be advocating for a criminal justice system that brings healing to the victims of crime, and appropriate accountability and restoration to those accused. It is clear that this is not consistent with the aims or practices of such corporations as CCA and GEO Group. Therefore, we have no reason to delay one single minute longer. We should divest now and take that $250,000 we have made and give it to ministries aiding those who are leaving prison.

If you agree and are as outraged as I am about this United Methodist investment, then I encourage you to sign the petition that calls for immediate divestment. I also encourage you to share this with as many people - as many United Methodists especially - as you can. For the sake of righteousness and justice, we much immediately divest now or risk losing who we are and who and what we are called to be and do. Make your voice heard!!

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the information. I was not aware of the UMC investment/ownership of prison companies. I agree - we need to get out of this business.

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  2. I had no idea that as a United Methodist Church we had such an investment of any kind in the penal system. Someone must have been asleep at the wheel on this one. Can you share what part of the penal system exactly we invested in?

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  3. Thanks Karyn, I couldn't agree more. And Anonymous, we are invested in private prison companies.

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  4. $250,000 would be a beginning of GRACE for helping the Orphan and Vunerable: 210 million orphans globally and 14 million United Methodists equates to needs of more than $250k but what a start for God's Mercy on Christians in the United Methodist Church family.
    Unbelievable we who call ourselves Methodist Christians invest in such profit-making! Mercy.

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  5. Great scripture reference--Amos 2:6-7. I hope the UMC gets out of investing in private prisons who use humans for profit.

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  6. Thanks Anonymous - please be sure and share the petition around! Email it, post it on facebook and twitter - let's get as many signatures as possible!!

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  7. HI Bill--great post! Do you know if there is legislation going into the next General Conference in April? Blessings on your work!
    Ann

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  8. Thanks Ann! There actually isn't legislation for General Conference. We didn't learn we were invested in these two companies until after the cut-off date. I am really hoping that with enough public pressure the UMC will decide to do the right thing with or without General Conference legislation. So make sure you sign the petition and get everyone you know to sign it too!!

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  9. I would like to know ALL the investments of the UMC. I have inquired at "ListServe." But is there a list on a website somewhere? Thanks SO much for this information.

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  10. I am a member of the United Methodist Kairos Response organization seeking to divest from three companies who profit from the unjust Occupation of Palestine. I have been seeking ordination, but I am starting to believe the UMC really doesn't share my values. Who are these people on the Board of Pensions and how have they so quickly forgotten Mr. Wesley's first rule?

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  11. Hi Mary Alice, here is the link to the investments by the Board of Pensions. : http://www.gbophb.org/UserFiles/file/sri/holdings/fund20.pdf.

    Hi Llama Lady, I resonate with your frustration. I think this is outrageous and so that is why we must make sure we sign the petition and tirelessly share it with your friends.

    That's the only way I know to bring about change.

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