Skip navigation

PLN comments on the need for private prisons to generate profit

TruthOut, May 10, 2016.

In Saving for Your Future, Are You Supporting Drone Attacks and Prisons?

Tuesday, 10 May 2016 00:00By Amanda Bass and J. Celso Castro Alves, Truthout | News Analysis


Twenty-two-year-old Samantha Morris is a social worker at an Alabama-based nonprofit organization who works hard to attend to the needs of men and women recently released from prison or still incarcerated. When she began her job in 2015, she declined the nonprofit's offer to allocate a portion of her monthly wages into a 401(k) account. "At the time, I didn't want to take money out of my paycheck every month to invest through the organization that I work for," Morris said. However, like many young professionals anxious about their future, Morris found it prudent to save money, if possible, by investing in stocks and mutual funds.

Late last year, she discovered Stash, one of several investment phone applications that aims to "help everyone become an investor" no matter the size of one's income. Created in October 2015, Stash welcomed whatever amount of money Morris had left in her pocket after paying for rent and utilities and promised to channel it to good causes. As a social worker and a critic of police brutality, mass incarceration and the United States' illegal wars abroad, Morris found the titles of Stash's funds enticing. The fund "Water the World" promises to support companies committed to efficient water usage; "Global Citizen" encourages individuals to invest as little as $5 in companies from around the world; and "Small But Mighty," meanwhile, claims to be about "root[ing] for the little guy" -- that is, backing companies that are "small, quick, nimble, and have room to grow."

Before we spoke with Morris, a coworker who asked to be identified by a pseudonym in this article, she hadn't realized that the Vanguard Group, rather than Stash, manages a number of the supposedly socially conscious funds in which her hard-earned savings were roaming. Vanguard is one of the world's largest investment companies, managing over $3 trillion in global assets, and working with at least 20 million investors across approximately 170 countries. Morris was horrified when we told her that Vanguard's "reliable investment approach" includes massive investments in industries that profit off of human misery and environmental destruction across the globe, including: drone warfare, weapons manufacture, Big Oil and private prisons.

By investing in the Global Citizen fund alone, Morris helped finance some of the world's largest warfare drone manufacturing companies, namely: Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. She was also contributing to four of the most polluting and human rights violating oil companies around: BP, Halliburton, Royal Dutch Shell and Marathon Oil Corporation. She was unwittingly investing in the infamous multinational private prison provider, the GEO Group and, to complete the package, the private prison phone profiteer CenturyLink. Last but not least, Morris' small investment stretched out to an additional set of nefarious companies, some tied to Israel's illegal settlements and others known for restricting access to lifesaving medications and deceptive marketing practices.

Morris has since pulled her money out of all Vanguard-managed funds. She is not alone. In the post-1960s era of finance capital, conscientious people around the world have been increasingly resisting the alienated-investor-as-global-citizen model by boycotting basic commodities and institutions of various sorts. With fossil fuel divestment campaigns spreading throughout various university campuses, and, of course, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement exposing corporate ties to Israel's mass displacement and bombings of Palestinian civilians in unprecedented ways, resistance to predatory capitalism via boycotts and divestments has proved to be a viable mechanism of reform.

The corporate response to this growing movement has come swiftly and has relied on philanthropy and the opaqueness of speculative capital. The result: We are, today, invited to rescue the destitute "other" and the environment, though as consumers and investors only. Yet, the success of this philanthropic mission depends on our willingness to consume (and invest), if possible conspicuously and without guilt; to suspend our concerns with systemic violence (e.g. uncompensated labor and environmental destruction); and to accept our unawareness of where the profits accrued via our investments come from.

Vanguard knows about the growing number of "divestors" as well as liberal "social investors." The company's response to the questioning of its investments, however, mainly includes rhetorical gymnastics. On its website, and under a section entitled "Vanguard's View: Social Concerns and Investing," the company lists its obligations as a fiduciary: "Vanguard is required to manage our funds in the best interests of shareholders and obligated to maximize returns in order to help shareholders meet their financial goals." It sees no need to disclose the self-evident demiurge -- the market -- that supposedly imposes these obligations. Meanwhile, it acknowledges a conundrum that Vanguard and similar investment companies have ironically created: "it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill these obligations while managing portfolios that reflect the social concerns of all of our shareholders."

But Vanguard still promises to triumph over impossibilities. How? "We have established a formal procedure for all Vanguard funds for identifying and monitoring portfolio companies whose direct involvement in crimes against humanity or patterns of egregious abuses of human rights would warrant engagement or potential divestment." The company does not provide any detail regarding the "formal procedure" and the personnel involved. Instead, it deems itself proficient enough to strike "the appropriate balance between corporate responsibility and our fiduciary obligations" independently of "special interest groups and other institutions."

Vanguard's Investment in Drones

Now let's examine what Vanguard's balanced assessment of its own portfolios yields. Today, Vanguard is arguably the foremost investor in drones. It is the only company that ranks among the top five largest shareholders of at least six out of 12 prominent warfare drone manufacturing companies, including Boeing (for which Vanguard is the fourth-largest shareholder), Lockheed Martin (for which Vanguard is the third-largest shareholder), Northrop Grumman (for which Vanguard is the second-largest shareholder), AeroVironment Inc. (for which Vanguard is also the second-largest shareholder), Textron Inc. (for which Vanguard is the second-largest shareholder), and General Dynamics Corporation (for which Vanguard is the fourth-largest shareholder). Vanguard is also the largest shareholder of Honeywell International, a company which "provid[es] the engines, navigational, targeting, and guidance equipment for the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the world's foremost killer drone," according to longtime anti-drone activist Nick Mottern.

That US drone strikes have resulted in egregious human rights violations in parts of the world is undisputed. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that drone strikes inside of Yemen (since 2002), Pakistan (since 2004), Somalia (since 2007) and Afghanistan (since 2015) account for 575 to 1,196 civilian deaths and 1,495 to 2,745 injuries. Of those killed, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 184 to 236 were children. A 2012 report authored by the Stanford University School of Law International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the New York University School of Law Global Justice Clinic found that beyond the physical suffering inflicted by US drones, "their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities."

The illegality of the US targeted killing program under international humanitarian and human rights law is also well established. International humanitarian law requires that the use of force in situations of armed conflict adheres to principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, humanity and distinction -- principles that the United States' targeted killing program regularly violates, as happened in 2013 when a US drone strike on a wedding procession in Yemen killed approximately 12 and seriously injured at least 15 people. Human rights law, meanwhile, permits a state to use lethal force only in self-defense and as a last resort when faced with an imminent threat to life or to the physical security of others. As an additional matter, US targeted killings arguably fit under the definition of crimes against humanity as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which unequivocally states: "crimes against humanity" includes "murder" and "[o]ther inhumane acts" that "intentionally caus[e] great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health" when such acts are "committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack." And yet, neither the illegality of US drone operations nor the resulting atrocities have deterred Vanguard from investing heavily in the manufacture of these unmanned killing machines.

Vanguard's Investments in Firearms and Prisons

As if large investments in drone manufacturing were not enough, Vanguard is also the largest shareholder of Smith & Wesson, the small arms manufacturing company that produced at least two of the weapons used in the 2015 San Bernardino massacre. As reported by The New York Times in 2013, "thirteen Vanguard mutual funds hold shares of Smith & Wesson directly, and others do so indirectly." Vanguard is also among the largest shareholders of firearms manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Company, and ammunition makers Vista Outdoor and Orbital ATK. Like the devastation caused by US drones and targeted killings, the atrocities caused by gun violence are also well documented. In 2015 alone, there were an estimated 330 mass shootings, 13,404 deaths and 26,992 injuries in the United States due to gun violence. That same year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded that the United States failed to meet its international human rights obligations with respect to curbing gun violence.

The mass incarceration of people of color and the poor is another hugely profitable industry for Vanguard and its shareholders. As the single largest shareholder of private prison giants the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Vanguard directly profits from the political and economic disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of people. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the GEO Group "makes $1.6 billion per year locking people up" and its "long record of abusing and neglecting prisoners is second to none." In 2000, the US Department of Justice sued the GEO Group over "excessive abuse and neglect" of juveniles detained at the Jena Juvenile Justice Center in Jena, Louisiana. In 2008, the Seattle University School of Law and the human rights nonprofit One America issued a report accusing the company of subjecting thousands of immigrants confined at its Washington-based facility to illegal and inhumane conditions.

According to Alex Friedmann of Prison Legal News, CCA is "the largest for-profit prison operator in the United States and currently has around 90,000 privatized prison beds in around 20 states." Just in 2013, the company raked in at least $1.7 billion from the incarceration of men and women who were mostly detained for nonviolent offenses. CCA is paid by state governments per day and for every prisoner detained in its facilities, which, as Friedmann rightly points out, "provides an incentive for them to maximize the number of people incarcerated in their for-profit prisons." As a result, US tax dollars line the pockets of CCA and other similar companies. As the proposed contracts between CCA and up to 48 states across the US show, the surveillance state guarantees via harsh laws an occupancy rate of 90 percent for 20 years. Without concerted lobbying, none of this would be possible. CCA spends millions of dollars annually lobbying federal and state officials on "tough-on-crime" laws whose blueprint is provided by the infamous pro-corporate advocacy group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). "CCA has a vested interest in mass incarceration because that's how it generates its revenue," Friedmann said. "That's how it makes money for its shareholders and corporate executives."

Founded in 1975, Vanguard has since grown from a small operation staffed by its founder, John Bogle, and two analysts to the largest mutual fund provider in the United States. The company owes its growth to Bogle's persistent push for low-cost index funds as well as to the pre-eminent role that the stock market has secured in both the economic and governmental realms. Yet, in today's speculative, and thus highly predatory world, Bogle figures somewhat as an anachronism. With one foot in the post-1930s era of industrial capitalism, and another in our era of finance capitalism, Bogle still clings to the imagery of a financial market committed to raising capital for investments in production; a world in which portfolio managers won't demand layoffs and cutbacks in investments in order to skyrocket stock prices; and where the compensation for the average CEO won't double the growth rate of their own firms.

For various decades, Bogle has condemned the greed of "mutual-fund managers" that nowadays "are themselves corporations, in business first and foremost to earn the maximum possible return on their own capital." In his essay "Democracy in Corporate America," published in Daedalus in 2007, he argued that we ought to "return capitalism to its owners," and that stockowners (rather than stockholders) "should be allowed to behave as owners."

He is obviously not about workers' control of the means of production -- even though some of his own foes have ironically labeled him Marxist in the past. Unless Bogle has recanted most of what he has professed throughout his long life, it is hard to believe that he would endorse the Vanguard of today, its lack of transparency with its own "clients" and its heavy investment in malignant industries. And even if most people were to be de facto stockowners notwithstanding the size of their investments, will they be ready to publicly own the atrocities from which they profit? If not, they should follow Morris' example: divest.