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Demonstrators Protest Gates Foundation’s $2.2 Million Investment in GEO Group

About two dozen immigrants’ rights advocates picketed outside the headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle on April 10, 2014, protesting the Foundation’s investments in the GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the U.S.

The demonstrators urged the Gates Foundation – whose co-chairman, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has publicly supported immigrants’ rights and immigration reform – to dump the $2.2 million it has invested in the Florida-based GEO Group, which operates 64 prisons and immigration detention facilities nationwide, including the 1,500-bed Northwest Detention Center in nearby Tacoma, Washington.

“This isn’t just a moral argument,” William Winters, a protest organizer, told the Seattle Times. “If the Gates Foundation wants to have the effect in the world they say they want to have, then investing in private prisons is the antithesis of that.”

The Foundation’s website proclaims that “all lives have equal value” and “we are impatient optimists working to reduce inequity.” The charity is best known for its grants that fund projects related to poverty, education and health care worldwide.

The protestors presented almost 11,000 signatures collected online asking the Gates Foundation to stop investing in GEO, and Foundation officials promised they would be submitted to the Trust that manages the non-profit.

Spokesman Jonah Goldman told reporters that the Gates Foundation is separate from the Trust and, therefore, does not control the Trust’s investments. But he also defended the GEO Group stock holdings as a means to achieve the Foundation’s lofty goals.

The Trust’s investments, he argued, are “the reason we have about $4 billion a year to spend on vaccines, AIDS drugs, on U.S. education and the millennium scholars program – on all the work the foundation does in Seattle and around the world.”

Goldman also tried to minimize the Foundation’s financial stake in GEO by contrasting it with the Trust’s total assets – approximately $39 billion.

Winters said he appreciates the worthwhile projects the Gates Foundation has funded. “But,” he added, “by investing in GEO, it’s capitalizing an organization that then uses that money to incarcerate more people, which seems to run counter to the Foundation’s own mission.”

In publishing its account of the protest targeting the Gates Foundation, conservative website reported that billionaire George Soros – a prominent contributor to liberal causes who supports immigration reform – is, incongruously, also a GEO investor.

The news site reported that between December 31, 2007 and March 31, 2008, Soros had purchased 105,354 shares of GEO Group stock. Most shareholders in GEO and its main rival, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are institutional investors such as private equity firms, banks and mutual funds. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.46].

According to the Gates Foundation’s website, its investment managers are instructed to refrain from investing in “companies whose profit model is centrally tied to corporate activity that they find egregious.” Bill and Melinda Gates are the sole members of the Trust’s board and, as prominent supporters of immigration reform, their Foundation’s investment in GEO appears counterintuitive and contradictory.

By 2012, the Gates Foundation had sold off $23 million in CCA bonds. It reportedly also sold its entire $184 million stake in the global security company G4S, which operates a number of juvenile detention facilities in the United States as well as prisons and immigration detention centers in the UK and South Africa.

On March 7, 2014, the Human Rights Defense Center, the parent organization of Prison Legal News, along with 25 other criminal justice, immigrants’ rights and social justice groups, signed a letter calling for the Foundation to end its investment in the GEO Group. The joint letter was sponsored by Enlace, a non-profit that works on issues related to racial and economic justice, which also coordinates the Private Prison Divestment Campaign.

A separate letter from 14 members of the Gates Scholars program, also criticizing the Foundation for its investment in GEO, was submitted on June 17, 2014. Further, Presente, a Latino social justice organization, collected an additional 4,300 signatures through a MoveOn petition urging the Gates Foundation to divest from the private prison industry.

“Bill Gates needs to be transparent about whether they’re still investing in GEO Group,” Presente managing director Mariana Ruiz Firmat told Mother Jones.

PLN reached out to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust in June 2016 regarding its stock ownership in private prison companies, and was told the “Trust does not comment on its investment holdings and decisions.”


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