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Comedian-activist calls for divestiture from private prison industry

Karen Dewitt
Andres Rieloff?, Chilean musician, in costume with comedian and activist Randy Credico before a protest outside New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's offices in Albany.";

A New York comedian, who is also an activist on prison rights issues, is drawing attention to the state’s practice of investing a small amount of its pension fund in the private prison industry.

Stand-up comedian Randy Credico, who helped bring about reform of the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws,  is now setting his sights on the New York state comptroller’s office, where he is protesting against state pension fund investments in the private prison industry. He says the prisons’ business model is dependent upon large groups of young men, primarily African American, becoming inmates.

“It requires mass incarceration for the stock to go up,” said Credico. “For that business to thrive, they need a lot of prisoners."

The state’s pension fund encompasses not just the retirement funds for thousands of state workers, but retirees in over 3,000 local governments as well.

Credico says there’s been instances of abuse and scandals at the private prisons, which he says  are “economically and morally unsound."

“This is the same as investing into South Africa [when there was apartheid],” said Credico. “Or investing in convict leasing, or slavery.”

Credico, and a small group of supporters dressed in black-and-white prison stripe costumes, picketed outside Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office in the midst of a rainstorm.  Credico says he has nothing against DiNapoli, and even wishes he would run for governor. But he says he’s become frustrated with lack of action on the matter by the comptroller and his office. He says the investments don’t fit with the progressive record  of DiNapoli and other leading state Democrats.

“If he made these investments wittingly, then there’s something really wrong with that,” Credico said.

A spokeswoman for the state Comptroller’s office confirms that the state’s pension fund holds investments in the two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America, and the GEO group. It’s difficult to place a specific dollar amount on the investments because they are part of larger mutual- type  funds that invest in numerous companies. The total for the three funds is around $12.5 million, out of the  $184.5 billion pension fund.

State comptroller spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman says  the investments are currently under review, but she says the comptroller’s first duty is to his “fiduciary responsibility."

DiNapoli and previous comptrollers have used the fund as a vehicle for social change in the past, divesting funds from South Africa during the apartheid era, and from tobacco companies, as well as freezing and then ending investments in guns manufacturers after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Credico says if New York were to get rid of investments in the private prisons, other large retirement funds would likely be next.

“Once this state divests, which it will, you’re going to see a national follow up to that,” Credico predicts. “You’re going to see a tsunami.”

Columbia University ended investments in the private prison industry earlier this year. Yale University divested part of its endowment fund, and some corporations including Amica Insurance and General Electric have stopped investing in private prisons.

Credico says his group is also working on getting New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer to divest from private prisons, as well. New York City has over $20 million worth of investments in a $165 billion fund.

In addition to prison divestiture, there are also calls for the pension funds to stop investing in fossil fuel companies.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.