Colorado PERA members helping support private prisons, immigration detention centers

There is some recent precedent for politically-motivated divestment at the state legislature

Protesters on July 12, 2019, lower the GEO Group's flag outside the ICE detention center that GEO owns and operates in Aurora. The facility and the company have been embroiled in nearly nonstop controversy for months. (Photo by Cullen Lobe)

The roughly 600,000 Coloradans who pay into the state retirement fund for public employees are, in a small way, helping to support the private prison company that runs the immigrant detention center in Aurora, among many other detention facilities around the country.

According to a spokeswoman for Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association, PERA has invested about $400,000 in the Florida-based GEO Group. That is a 0.00085-percent speck of the overall $48-billion PERA portfolio.

GEO owns and operates the Aurora facility, which can hold about 1,500 people. It’s lately been the subject of significant controversy because of what critics — including the U.S. inspector general — call substandard conditions, and also because of its association with increasingly severe federal immigration policy.

The company owns 134 correctional facilities, processing centers, and community reentry centers around the country. It owns and operates a total of eight immigrant detention centers in Colorado and four other states. GEO reported $2.33 billion in revenue last year.

Democratic state legislators are increasingly opposed to the for-profit detention industry, House Speaker KC Becker of Boulder said. Private facilities house about a fifth of Colorado’s Department of Corrections more than 20,000 inmates, but it’s the immigrant detention center in Aurora that’s received the most attention lately from legislators and activists.

“I think there’s generally, in my caucus, a strong dislike of private prisons,” Becker said, “That our prisons have become for-profit entities is just disappointing for folks.”

Added Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, of the PERA investment in GEO: “There are plenty of good investments for PERA to direct retirees’ savings into. We don’t need to be using retirees’ savings to support a corporation that profits off ripping children from their parents and brutalizing families that are seeking asylum in our country.”

There is some recent precedent for the legislature weighing divestment of PERA money for political reasons, as opposed to financial ones. 

The legislature in 2007 passed the “Sudan Divestment by Public Pension Plans” bill — it was later repealed — and in 2016 passed a bill titled “Divestment from Companies With Prohibitions Against Israel,” which was a statement of opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement protesting the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestine.

Earlier this year, Sirota and Rep. Chris Hansen, also a Denver Democrat, ran a bill to require a study into climate-related financial risk to PERA’s portfolio. The bill was defeated 11-1 in committee.

Were PERA to divest from GEO, the direction would have to come from the legislature. Earlier this year the PERA board adopted a policy on divestment, distancing itself from such decision-making.

“The world faces many critical issues today including genocide, pollution, terrorism, human and animal rights violations, and public health crises. As individual Americans, we enjoy the political and philosophical freedom to speak out against atrocities and join in those causes which are aligned with our personal beliefs,” it reads. “As an organization, however, PERA does not have the authority to determine social policy, foreign policy, economic policy, or any other policy beyond the operation of the retirement system.”

Explained board Chair Timothy O’Brien, “If we start taking up all these other issues — What about labor unions, and guns and opioids, and things like that? It’s not that we ignore these social and governance and environmental issues, et cetera. … (But) we will divest what the legislature tells us to divest from, rather than making individual decisions.”

He did caution, however, that divestment from GEO could be much trickier than pulling out the 0.00085 percent of the portfolio in question. 

PERA’s been invested in GEO since 2004, and the investment is held in a bundle. The GEO stocks are, a spokeswoman said, “a passive investment within a US domestic equities portfolio.” O’Brien said it could cost a lot in fees to remove the GEO investment from that bundle.

“It you want to buy 500 stocks, you buy 500. You can’t buy 499 without incurring excessive costs,” he said.

PERA’s membership comprises workers from many different sectors, including public education, the judicial branch and the State Patrol. Occasionally, factions of the membership will advocate for divestment for ethics reasons  — see, for example, the Fossil Free PERA movement.

It does not appear, however, that there is any organized movement calling for divestment from GEO, though one Carbondale resident recently raised the idea in a letter to The Aspen Times.

Emma Donahue, program manager at SecurePERA, a coalition representing the vast majority of PERA members, said her group has no comment on the GEO stocks.

Alex covers state and local politics with a focus on criminal justice and immigration. He is a D.C. native who's lived in Illinois, Chile and now Denver. You can reach him by email at alex@coloradoindependent.com or on Twitter at @alex_burness.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Burness the title of your article would have been accurate if it said ” Pension money collected from Colorado public servants used to fund private prisons”. Instead, the title implies active participation by PERA members in where their pension money is invested. Nothing could be more false.
    Colorado’s public employees work as public servants who make on average 9.6% below market pay. Those of us who stay for any length of time do so mostly because we hope to one day retire with a decent pension. We will soon be putting at least 10% of our paychecks into PERA, and we hope that money will be invested well. We hope it will be there 10, 20, 30 years from now.
    You might have noticed by now, there is a lot of hoping involved. No one has ever asked us if we support monetized/ for profit incarceration, we absolutely do not! PERA members are no more guilty of helping support these centers than anyone who pays their state/Federal income taxes, which is where the GEO contracts originate. No one has ever asked any of us what we approve of or find repulsive.
    We all hope for a better world and It’s lawmakers who hold the power to make it happen. Not only a better PERA but a better society that doesn’t allow profit from suffering.

    Dragan Mejic
    Vice President
    Colorado Wins public employees Union – SD3

  2. POLITICAL DIVESTMENT – ANOTHER WAY LEGISLATORS RAID STATE PENSION FUNDS

    This seems to be a rather contrived story, where a journalist is played in order to run a proposal (by a couple of liberal politicians) up the flag pole, as it were, to see who’ll salute. Politicians are behind running the state pension fund into the ground and it is hardly anything more than self-serving on their part to take what is rightly investments for public workers and turn it into yet another avenue to promote their political agendas.

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