A Danwatch investigation

Danish pension funds behind America’s for-profit prisons

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. The largest private prison and detention center operators have been criticized for lobbying for longer sentences. Photo: Matthew Ansley / Unsplash

Nicholas Buhmann-Holmes

Nicholas Buhmann-Holmes

Published in collaboration with DR P1
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18. February 2020
High-profile coverage on the separation of migrant families and appalling conditions for inmates and detainees have recently sparked debate about the private prison industry in the United States. But Danish pension funds invest millions in US for-profit prisons, a Danwatch investigation shows. Following the disclosure, public sector workers’ pension funds will divest its shares in the companies.

When Jose Azurdia Hernandez suffered a heart attack at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California, the nurse initially refused to see him. A guard had told her that the 54-year-old Guatemalan was vomiting, but she did not want to tend to him “because she did not want to get sick”, she said. Confined to his cell, Azurdia worsened. By the time he finally received the medical care that, according to experts, would have saved his life hours earlier, it was too late.

Stories like Azurdia’s, along with images of crowded detention centers or parents and young children being forced apart, have fueled the heated American debate over the country’s private prisons and detention centers for the past few years.

Danish investments in US private prisons

Danwatch’s review shows that the three Danish pension funds PKA, Velliv and Lærernes Pension all have investments in the two largest players in the private prison industry in the US: CoreCivic and GEO Group. These are the pension funds for social educators, social workers, nurses, and medical secretaries in Denmark.

PKA has invested a total of DKK 54 million in the two companies. Lærernes Pension has invested almost DKK 7 million in CoreCivic, and Velliv has invested a total of DKK 1 million in both companies.

More than one million Americans have petitioned investors to divest their money from the private prison industry. Over the past year, America’s largest pension fund and seven of the country’s largest banks have withdrawn investments from the industry’s two biggest players: CoreCivic and Geo Group.

However, American funds aren’t the only ones with a vested interest in the US prison industry. Several Danish pension funds have also invested significant sums, Danwatch discovered. Amongst them are PKA Pension, Lærernes Pension, and Velliv, funds which largely represent Danish nurses, social workers, and teachers.

While American teacher unions had also previously invested in the private prison and detention industry, affected teachers have since been made aware and are actively calling for their unions to divest from the industry.

David C. Fathi, Director of the National Prison Project in the American Civil Liberties Union, is highly critical of Danish pension funds which invest in CoreCivic and GEO Group.

“This is an industry that profits from human captivity and suffering. This is an industry that allows the United States to maintain the largest prison population in the world, and to detain tens of thousands of immigrants and asylum-seekers”, he tells Danwatch.

PKA withdraws its DKK 54 million

PKA, a pension company for social educators, social workers, nurses, and medical secretaries, had invested DKK 54 million in GEO Group and CoreCivic. Following Danwatch’s request, PKA announced that it will divest all of its shares in the two companies.

“We invest in accordance with the UN Global Compact’s principles of corporate social responsibility and sustainability which must, among other things, ensure that companies do not contribute to human rights violations,” PKA’s press officer Nicholas Rindahl wrote in an email to Danwatch.

This is an industry that profits from human captivity and suffering. This is an industry that allows the United States to maintain the largest prison population in the world, and to detain tens of thousands of immigrants and asylum-seekers

David C. Fathi, American Civil Liberties Union

“We do not believe that these companies live up to these principles, and that is why we have recommended that they be excluded from our investments at the earliest opportunity,” he continued.

Lærernes Pension had invested almost DKK 7 million in CoreCivic and announced that the company is on the pension fund’s watch list.

Velliv, formerly known as Nordea Liv & Pension, has invested DKK 1 million in CoreCivic and Geo Group, and reports that it is in dialogue with both companies for an “improvement of the companies’ practices”.

Inadequate medical care

Private prisons have existed in the United States since the mid-1980s when US President Richard Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’ meant that many more people became incarcerated in the country. Today, about eight percent of US prisoners are held in privately-run prisons, while private firms such as CoreCivic and GEO Group own or operate more than 70 percent of all US detention centers for detained migrants.

Following several stories on the gross neglect in private prisons, the Obama administration decided to phase out the use of privately-run prisons and detention centers in 2016. However, the Trump administration has since reversed this decision and has simultaneously implemented a foreign policy stance which calls for the large-scale detainment of migrants as they await processing. As a result, private prison companies have landed large contracts and saw a corresponding rise in stock prices.

Human Rights Watch documented in 2018 that the number of deaths in US migrant detention centers, including those controlled by GEO Group and CoreCivic, were linked to insufficient medical care detainees received. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report drawing similar conclusions based on a migrant detention center run by the GEO Group.

Grace Meng, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch USA, emphasized that there are currently major human rights failures in both publicly- and privately- run detention centers in the United States.

“But given the dominance of private prison companies in this area, there are many good reasons to bring attention to the particular role private prison companies play”, she says.

Poor democratic oversight

A study by the American Immigration Council in 2018 concluded that on average, migrants are held longer in private detention centers than in public ones.

In 2016, a US Department of Justice investigation concluded that private prisons were far more dangerous to both inmates and staff than publicly-run prisons. For instance, “low-risk inmates” were nine times more likely to be placed on lockdown or end up in solitary confinement in private prisons.

Washington State’s Attorney General had previously sued GEO Group for breaking the state’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees in migrant detention centers less than USD 1 dollar a day to work in the centers. The same grievance has been raised by detained migrants in a number of lawsuits against both GEO Group and CoreCivic, with several detainees also stating that the work was not voluntary but was coerced by threats such as being denied basic toilet privileges.

It’s time to ban private prisons and detention centers, and stop profit-driven cruelty against incarcerated people

Elizabeth Warren, US senator and presidential candidate

“Private prisons aren’t subject to the same kind of democratic oversight as public prisons. In most US states, freedom of information laws and open meeting laws don’t apply to private prisons”, says David C. Fathi.

“When you combine this lack of transparency with the profit motive and a powerless, politically despised population, it’s a recipe for bad and even deadly outcomes”, he says.

Democrats want prisons closed

California and a number of other states have recently decided to completely ban the private operation of prisons and detention centers.

“These for-profit prisons (…) contribute to over-incarceration, including those that incarcerate California inmates and those that detain immigrants and asylum seekers,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a press release .

Democratic Presidential candidates including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang have all expressed that they will phase out or shut down the private prison industry if they come to power.

“It’s time to ban private prisons and detention centers, and stop profit-driven cruelty against incarcerated people,” a campaign statement from Warren said recently.

Lobbies for harsher penalties

GEO Group donated millions to Trump’s 2016 campaign, and according to USA Today, GEO Group and CoreCivic together donated millions of dollars to support his inauguration.

The two companies have also lobbied for a number of bills to secure appropriations for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Furthermore, both companies have been involved in task forces promoting bills focused on mandatory minimum penalties and the three strikes law, which gives 25 years to life sentences for repeat offenses, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

Private economic interests in tougher judicial policy are particularly criticized since the United States already has the world’s highest rate of incarceration per capita – the proportion is significantly higher than for states most often understood as more totalitarian such as China and the Philippines.


Incarceration rate per 100,000 people

The United States has a larger proportion of its population in prison than any other country in the world. If we formed a city out of the US prison population, it would be among the nation’s ten largest cities in terms of population – there are more Americans in jail than living in cities such as Philadelphia and Dallas.

In fact, lobbying by the private prison industry may have allowed US immigration detention to balloon exponentially, explains Grace Meng of Human Rights Watch.

“Arbitrary and unnecessary detention is a major problem in the United States’ enormous system, no matter what the conditions for the inmates are,” she says.

“Arbitrary and unnecessary detention is a major problem in the US’s massive system in and of itself, regardless of conditions”, she says.

Largest pension funds and banks have withdrawn investments

Recent debate over Trump’s immigration policy has led a coalition of 250 US organizations to collect over a million signatures for US banks to divest their investments in CoreCivic and Geo Group.

So far, major banks JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, Barclays, Fifth Third Bank, and PNC have divested their shares from CoreCivic and GeoGroup.

In addition, the United States’ largest pension fund, CalPERS, has withdrawn its investments from the two companies, following Canadian pension fund CPPIB’s example in summer 2019.

Danish teachers and Velliv launch dialogue

From Velliv, Head of Responsible Investment Thomas H. Kjærgaard announced that pension fund advisors are currently in dialogue with CoreCivic and the Geo Group.

“This is a dialogue that we support and would like to continue. If the dialogue does not result in an improvement of the companies’ practices, we must assess whether the investments are right for us,” he wrote in an email.

From the teachers’ pension fund, Lærernes Pension, Investment Director Morten Malle announced that CoreCivic is currently “in yellow light” and thus on the pension fund’s observation list.

“We are closely following developments. If there is further documentation – e.g. sentencing – of the company’s non-compliance with human rights, the company will be ‘red-lighted’ and we will then sell the shares,” he wrote.

In particular, the American Federation of Teachers has pushed for US pension funds such as the California State Teachers Retirement System and the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund to withdraw their investments from CoreCivic and the GEO Group.

– Does it surprise you that your ethical guidelines apparently differ from both the majority opinion of American teachers as well as the policies of some of the largest US banks?

“We believe that Lærernes Pension excludes a larger part of the investment universe than most other investors, but that does not prevent the Lærernes Pension from investing in companies that other investors exclude,” Morten Malle wrote.

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