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Sonoma County faces divestment pushback from private prison executive

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Local activists’ calls for Sonoma County to divest from companies with ties to private detention facilities, and county supervisors’ pledge to consider the idea, has caught the attention of a top private prison executive who also happens to be a Sonoma County resident.

Kathy Prizmich, the locally-based vice president of GEO Group, a multinational company specializing in corrections and detentions, is now pressing supervisors to stop the divestment venture while attempting to dispel what she termed “myths” about the company’s work with immigrants and asylum seekers.

Prizmich sent several documents, as well as a letter to Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who has led the charge toward divesting about $100 million in county funds.

Hopkins and her fellow supervisors on Tuesday voted to send letters of their own to Wells Fargo and BNP-Paribas, saying those financial institutions’ continued ties with private prison companies such as CoreCivic and GEO Group make the banks complicit in and profiting from mass incarceration and the criminalization of immigration along the southern U.S. border. The ongoing support is “diametrically opposed to our values,” the letter states.

In her letter, Prizmich argues GEO Group is nothing like what has been portrayed by Sonoma County activists.

“Misrepresentations about the services we do and do not provide in an effort to drive a political agenda show a reckless disregard for the truth,” Prizmich wrote.

GEO Group, a Florida- based, publicly traded company, builds and manages prisons, provides secure transportation, operates work-release-type programs and does electronic monitoring on a contractual basis with a variety of agencies. Its work with the U.S. government, according to documents provided to supervisors, focuses almost exclusively on undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation.

Prizmich declined to speak on the record Tuesday, but according to documents she provided to supervisors, GEO Group doesn’t use cage-like enclosures, doesn’t house unaccompanied minors or have a role in family separations.

Further, the company is shown disputing an Office of Inspector General report that found the company’s Adelanto facility, in San Bernadino County, had problems that posed significant health and safety risks, including makeshift nooses in detainee cells, overly restrictive segregation and untimely and inadequate detainee medical care.

If the numbers are viewed differently, according to GEO documents, GEO facilities are safer than similar government-run facilities. And some, including the company’s Karnes City, Texas, facility that once housed women and children, and has been singled out by immigrant advocates for complaints, have “amenities including artificial turf soccer fields, flat-screen TVs in living areas … classrooms … and libraries,” according to one document.

Supervisors received the letter and documents last week, but still voted to move forward Tuesday with the letter to banks.

“Through our Treasurer, we are in the process of reviewing our investment portfolio considering whether (the bank) has in fact lived up to its commitments,” the letter reads.

But the county has made no formal steps toward divestment.

Supervisor James Gore said it could cost the county half a million dollars. David Rabbitt, the board chairman, spoke of the difficulty in untangling investments, and multiple supervisors acknowledged that Treasurer Erick Roeser’s financial authority extended to a mix of funds deposited by other public entities into the $2.5 billion county treasury.

Some have suggested the best way to divest is to let the $100 million-plus in current, short-term investments run their course. The county has three investments with Wells Fargo, with the newest reaching maturity January 2021. Its lone investment with BNP-Paribas, via Bank of the West, will reach maturity next month.

Prizmich’s letter laid out the case against divestment, contending it wouldn’t have the desired impact because GEO Group, she said, isn’t engaged in the much- criticized detention sites and operations.

“Such action would, however, affect our ability to provide the care-based rehabilitative services we do offer to the justice- involved population in California and throughout the nation,” Prizmich said.

She offered Hopkins the opportunity to visit one or all of GEO’s facilities.

“We are confident you will find reality differs from the politically charged false narrative being pushed by activists,” Prizmich said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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