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Retirement, Brought to You by Prisons, Inc.

Future pensioners of the world, unite!

American workers support private prisons through their retirement funds. Your reward for a lifetime of nonstop work is made possible by companies that are meat grinders of our nation’s most vulnerable. That is, of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a retirement plan at all.

I found the connection between retirement plans and mass incarceration by slogging through mutual fund disclosures and looking for the two largest private prison firms, CoreCivic and GEO Group. There, amid all the legalese and jargon, were laudatory statements from mutual fund executives who believe private prison companies are sound investments, given their forever-contracts. Banking on the safe bet that mass incarceration is going nowhere anytime soon, mutual funds are tying individuals to the prison industry, even beyond their tax dollars.

Of course, not all mutual funds invest in stocks, and not all that do invest in private prisons. But it’s up to the individual worker to wade through several layers of bureaucratic catches and mystification to figure it out. 

The underlying mutual funds’ names don’t herald what they’re made up of. The fund that owns the most private prison stock is innocuously called the Vanguard REIT Index Fund. As of the end of May it owned 7.5 percent of CoreCivic’s market value and 7.4 percent of GEO Group’s, according to the researcher Morningstar. The stock itself can be hard to unearth in the reams of prospectuses mutual funds send investors. It can be listed as a real estate holding, a stock, or even as “financial services.” On top of that, the roster of stocks within a mutual fund can change at any time, as can the stable of mutual funds within a retirement plan.

Unlike tobacco, booze, or porn, private prisons are not usually blacklisted by mutual funds.

All this serves to hide the central con. The zero-sum game of American capitalism hinges one person’s ability to retire on someone else’s subjugation—mostly that of black men, who as of 2014 were nearly six times as likely to go to prison as white men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. To couple private prisons with mutual funds—products that prey on workers’ fear that they may not have enough money to retire—is especially craven.

Now a worker can refuse to participate in the 401(k) and try to save for retirement herself. But in some cases, an employer will match the amount of money the employee puts into the plan. A DIY approach gives that up—a “major loss,” said Meg Voorhes, director of research at US SIF, a sustainable investing nonprofit.

The arrangement boils down to an ugly decision. Pay into a retirement plan that protects you but harms your fellow man. Or opt out and harm yourself. And while some funds don’t put money in certain types of investments, in order to exploit the moral and religious preferences of investors, the investment industry doesn’t often consider private prison stock something to avoid. Unlike tobacco, booze, or porn, private prisons are not usually blacklisted.

Private prison stocks shot upward after Donald Trump became president. The biggest company, CoreCivic, saw its stock jump from around $14 per share on election day to more than $18 on November 9. As of July 12, it was more than $27. What a reversal of fortunes for a firm that only last year changed its name in an attempt to rebrand after the Obama administration said it would phase out private prisons! (The firm’s previous name, “Corrections Corporation of America,” didn’t have quite the same aura of community spirit.)

And certain mutual funds think that’s great. A look at financial statements for first quarter of 2017 shows executives explicitly saying those increases were Trump’s doing and that they translated to gains for the mutual funds. “Prior to the election, investors were worried about pending federal contract renewals,” said executives at Nuveen, which, like all firms that sell mutual funds, makes its money off people trying to save for retirement. “However, after Donald Trump’s victory, investors bid up CoreCivic’s stock price.”

A deal CoreCivic struck with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Texas may likewise never end.

The Buffalo Funds said in June that gains in part of its portfolio were largely driven by CoreCivic, which “had declined due to certain policies implemented by the prior president and which were endorsed by his party’s candidate but when she lost the U.S. presidential election, the market’s perception of the new president’s policies was much improved and more favorable to CoreCivic.”

In its quarterly report, CoreCivic said that its new contract with Ohio to house an extra 996 people “continues through June 2032 with unlimited renewal options.” A deal CoreCivic struck with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Texas, which was extended to next year, may likewise never end. “The company expects ICE will continue to utilize the Houston Processing Center beyond expiration of the extension due to ICE’s expanded detention needs, the ideal location of our facility on the southern border, long track record of high quality operations, and longstanding relationship and service to ICE at the Houston Processing Center.”

“You’re not going to get these ethical or moral questions right unless you start to think of capitalism as a social system like feudalism,” said Brendan Hogan, a philosophy professor at New York University. “You’re already in a system of domination that leaves you with a certain range of choices, all of which reproduces a system that is essentially oppressive.”

Yet in 2015, Columbia University and the University of California divested their prison holdings after pressure from students. California State University, LA was next, in 2016. New York City Pension Funds divested its prison company holdings earlier this year. Activists in this area say workers can organize to do the same, though the stakes are higher for an employee. “There’s a different level of risk because any time you’re organizing in your workplace because of the risk of being fired,” said Natalie Casal, national organizer of the Responsible Endowments Coalition. “But the same logic applies: you are part of this institution whether you’re working at it or learning through it, and you should have the right to dictate where your money is invested.”

“For all the ways in which you might frame capitalism,” Hogan said, “of course there are problems with your investment funds, but does that mean you can’t do anything about it? No. Will your efforts amount to anything? Who knows. But you have to give it your best shot.

“You live in a morally compromised system,” he said. “You’re already fucked.”