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HRDC FOIA Litigation Mentioned ~ New Mexico school fund delays decision on prison stake

Santa Fe New Mexican, Aug. 14, 2020. https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_ne...

By Michael Gerstein mgerstein@sfnewmexican.com

The board that manages the retirement funds for New Mexico public school employees delayed for at least another 60 days a decision on whether to divest from two private prison companies accused of mistreating inmates and immigrant detainees.

Despite calls from several outside organizations to divest, the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board’s trustees voted unanimously to have its legal team analyze what policy changes would be needed if they were to make that decision.

The board also agreed to discuss how its investment policy could be changed at its next meeting, scheduled for mid-October.

 

A coalition that includes the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education, and numerous other teachers groups and unions in New Mexico had urged trustees to make the decision to divest.

Investments are chosen on behalf of the retirement board by an investment management company, trustees said during the meeting.

The retirement board manages pensions for roughly 60,000 members and 50,000 retirees who used to work for public schools in the state.

Tim Eichenberg, a trustee of the retirement board and New Mexico’s state treasurer, suggested during the meeting that he wants the board to have more flexibility in which stocks it ties school employee pensions to in certain cases where people have ethical qualms.

“I just want the opportunity to every once in a while say, ‘Wait a minute’ — whether it’s climate change or human trafficking or whatever that comes before us through an S&P [Standard and Poor’s 500] investment. If we can say ‘Wait a minute,’ our policy allows us to say we don’t want to do that anymore,” Eichenberg said.

Board Chairwoman Mary Lou Cameron said she will continue the fight for divestment from private prisons and said she would even go to the Legislature to argue the case.

“We have heard the call and we are going to look and see what we can do to come to an end of this conduct,” she said.

The Florida-based Geo Group and CoreCivic have a history of accusations of harsh treatment of prisoners and immigrant detainees in New Mexico and other states.

 

Last week, inmates at the Cibola County Correctional Center, operated by Tennessee-based CoreCivic, barricaded themselves in their cellblock after officers allegedly denied them medical treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.

One prisoner said officers sprayed tear gas at the inmates, causing breathing difficulty for some. CoreCivic disputed the inmates’ claims.

The Cibola County facility recently experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 cases, including at least 170 in a single day.

The GEO Group, which operates the Lea County Correctional Facility and the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in New Mexico, is facing a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida for its response to the novel coronavirus in prisons the company manages.

In July, the Human Rights Defense Center accused New Mexico’s Corrections Department and the GEO Group of withholding public records showing the results of other lawsuits against the public and private prison operator and another private prison company in the state.

Both companies said they weren’t subject to the state Inspection of Public Records Act, according to the lawsuits, and the Corrections Department said the records were in the possession of the private contractors.

A 2019 GEO Group filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shows the company considers political opposition to private prisons and the ramped-up detention of immigrants under the Trump administration a threat to its business.

“Increased public resistance to the use of public-private partnerships for correctional, detention and community-based facilities in any of the markets in which we operate, as a result of these or other factors, could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations,” the GEO Group wrote in an SEC filing last year.

Sylvia Johnson, a spokeswoman with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, expressed frustration with the retirement board for not moving more quickly on what she said she views as a simple fix: just change the policy to invest in S&P stock, as the board now does, with the exception of the GEO Group and CoreCivic.

“It’s a very easy thing to do, and then there’s so much conversation and bureaucracy,” she said.

 

 

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