by Pat Zerega
Senior Director Shareholder Advocacy, Mercy Investment Services
This weekend, we saw Rocketman, the story of Elton John. It brought back memories of so many songs we grew up with. For some reason I kept thinking of the song the long and winding road as a parallel to the story (even though it was written by the Beatles, Elton John performed it on occasion). Part of the reason it came to mind is that the song reflects how I feel about the private prison work and GEO specifically. It might be helpful to review some of the history that got us to today.
Around 2003, John Celichowski, O.F.M., Cap. and Valerie Heinonen, O.S.U., began approaching the private prison companies. At that point, their stock was considered ‘penny stock’ with few members at ICCR owning GEO, CCA or Cornell. The first resolution oat GEO received 3.2% and a similar resolution brought CCA to the table without going to vote. Fr. John moved on to leadership in the community and passed the mantle to Fr. Mike Crosby. A variety of approaches including lobbying and human rights policy development continued with GEO and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) through 2011. Dialogues were often contentious (my participation was through the Lutherans), and at one point the CEO of GEO wondered why we didn’t just “sell the stock and leave them alone.” We continued to focus concern with the people in custody.
In 2011, a resolution calling for a human rights policy was filed. At the same time, the Jesuit Social Research Center had obtained a grant to work with private prisons around human rights and training, so the Jesuits began to lead both dialogues. This grant brought in prison experts to help lead the way and both companies developed polices and entered into dialogue.
We all know writing a policy is not the be all and end all of work. We need to see that the policy doesn’t sit on the shelf but is implemented, training occurring and the culture changing. Shareholders expected to be able to find that out through dialogue and increased transparency in reporting on the prison companies’ websites.
Since that time, the dialogues have focused on several issues including medical care and segregation from the general population, but shareholders felt like we were not seeing the real impact hoped for with a human rights policy. Abuse allegations remained high, and news coverage of these events continued. In the spring of 2018, we began to see many reports concerning immigration detention conditions in private prisons. ICCR hosted letters to both private prison companies with more 50 signatures asking for the prisons not to become involved with government detention contracts.
CoreCivic answered the letter and continued to engage in a meaningful way, this spring presented its first ESG report. They are working on other ways to be transparent on human rights issues.
In the late summer of 2018, GEO, however, put a ‘pause’ on dialogue. This was new to me. I’ve had companies stall or not answer letters, but to actually write and say they didn’t want to talk was new ground.
Our group was frustrated and decided to file a resolution in the fall of 2018 asking for a report (that was indicated in GEO’s own policy) concerning how implementation of the human rights policy. Many shareholders joined the group of Jesuits and Mercy Investment Services addressing this issue, and in November the resolution was filed.
As expected, the resolution was challenged, but the SEC denied the no action thus, agreeing it had to be on the ballot. Shareholders filed a proxy memo indicating reasons why it should be left on, alerted proxy advisors of the resolution, and the week before the AGM learned that both proxy advisory firms were supporting the resolution. As that information became public, we also received an unexpected email from GEO, telling us they would no longer oppose the resolution and filed such a statement with the SEC. The company never quite supported the resolution, nor changed the proxy on their site, nor put the SEC statement on their site, nor did they reach out to talk with us. So, we prepared to present at the AGM (a virtual-only AGM, but that too is for another day), and garnered nearly 88% of the vote.
The story of course does not end there. Shareholders have met since then to discuss next steps and have sent a letter requesting to return to the dialogue table with all interested parties and explain what we are looking for in the requested human rights report. Thus far, there is no answer to that request, but we know there is always another twist in the road ahead.