The Philadelphia Board of Pensions and Retirement voted Thursday to withdraw its investments in the for-profit prison industry, which has been dogged for years by health and safety problems.
Francis Bielli, the board’s executive director, said the board voted 6-1 in favor of liquidating the $1.2 million worth of stock it held in three companies: the GEO Group, CoreCivic, and G4S.
The funds will be routed to other investments over several months.
In August, the Inquirer and Daily News published a report on the perils of the for-profit prison industry, which has been paid billions by the federal government since 1997 to house more than 34,000 inmates every year.
A multi-year study by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General found that for-profit prisons had higher rates of violence and lockdowns, and provided poorer access to medical care, than government-run prisons.
“This decision is about doing what is right and just,” said City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. “I am proud that the board has taken this tangible step to ensure that the city will no longer invest its pension dollars into an industry with an exhaustive track record of civil rights abuses.”
The industry has deep ties to the Philadelphia area. The GEO Group, a leading private prison company, was founded decades ago by George Wackenhut, a former FBI agent from Upper Darby.
GEO manages more than 20 facilities in Pennsylvania, including the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton, Delaware County, where 12 inmates died between 2002 and 2008.
At least 184 inmates are housed in Hoffman Hall, a GEO-run facility in Juniata Park.
Matthew Stitt, City Council’s chief financial officer, described the board’s move as a “commitment to reforming our criminal justice system and, more significantly, transforming lives and communities.”
Last month, City Controller Alan Butkovitz called it hypocritical “with a capital H” for the city to divest in for-profit prisons while it still had inmates in facilities run by GEO.
Philadelphia isn’t alone in moving its money out of private prisons. In June, New York City’s pension fund divested $48 million it had invested in GEO and CoreCivic.
The industry seemed to be headed toward a downturn in August 2016, when then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo that instructed the Bureau of Prisons to phase out its use of for-profit prisons. That order was reversed in February by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Two of Sessions’ former legislative aides work as lobbyists for the GEO Group; the company donated $170,000 last year to a political action committee connected to President Trump, and $250,000 to his inaugural celebration.
GEO has signed $774 million worth of federal contracts since Trump has taken office.
A GEO spokesman this year told the Inquirer and Daily News that its facilities are just as safe as federally run prisons, and argued that critics have portrayed the for-profit industry in a distorted light.