Investor Activism and the Prison Industrial Complex

In January 2012, the United Methodist Church took a stand against private profits generated from imprisoning American citizens. The UMC board of trustees that oversee the investment of company employees in the churches’ pension fund voted to discontinue any investment in companies that generate or derive profit from the management and operation of prison facilities. Recognizing the perverse incentives attendant in profiting from mass incarceration, the United Methodist Church decided to “vote with its feet (or $$)” by moving its money.

According to the UMC website and author Heather Hahn: “Private prison companies are big business. But, is it moral for United Methodists to make a profit from the incarceration of people? The United Methodist Church’s pension agency has pondered that question since May [2011]. The Board of Pension and Health Benefits announced Jan. 3 [, 2012] its decision to prohibit investments in companies that derive more than 10 percent of their revenue from the management and operation of prison facilities.

‘It came down to that profiting from the incarceration of others was just not consistent with our view of what the (denomination’s) Social Principles ask for,’ said David Zellner, the board’s chief investment officer. . . . The week after Christmas, the board sold about $1 million in stock in two companies that fell under the new screen — Corrections Corporation of America, more commonly called CCA, and the GEO Group.”

The United Methodist pension fund is the largest church directed pension fund in the world with nearly $17 billion in assets. More than 74,000 clergy and personnel participate in the UMC pension fund and benefits programs.

Is Investor Activism one potential avenue to address the perverse incentives perpetuated by private prisons and those corporations that profit on the basis of increasing prisoner population around the nation and world?