Teacher Of Year Mandi Torrez Urges New Mexico Educational Retirement Board Trustees To Divest From For-Profit Prisons

2020 Teacher of the Year

I first heard the term “school-to-prison pipeline” during my first year in graduate school when I was switching careers and moving into education.

My professor gave us an article that included how one southern state was using third grade test scores to plan for the prison inmate capacity it would need heading into the future.

Let that sink in.

I am a third grade teacher and when I look at my bouncing, bubbly students, I see potential not profit, and I do not know of a teacher who feels differently. So as educators, it is time that we ask why our pension fund is being invested in for-profit prisons, a move that goes against the very grain of what teachers like me stand for, which is to empower all children to thrive in society instead of leaving them to fall victim to an unfair justice system.

This is why I am asking the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board Trustees to vote during its Aug. 14 meeting to divest from for-profit prisons.

This is an opportunity for the trustees to honor the request of thousands of their vested members and put the NMERB on the right side of history.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, our incarcerated population has increased by 700% since 1970. This steep rise outpaces both population growth and crime. It’s safe to say that one reason is because for-profit prisons rely on cells to be filled in order to make their business model work. The plight of underserved populations should not be for sale.

Neither should the plight of children or any human being, especially those who seek only safety and freedom. Yet, according to the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, more than 70% of immigrants being detained in the United States are in for-profit prisons. Many are refugees trying to escape violence and death in their home Countries, oftentimes brought on by historic U.S. actions. The conditions in which they are detained are deplorable and many are forced to stay for extended lengths of time while they await an asylum hearing.

We are failing on our moral standards as a country. The ACLU reports that the U.S. imprisons more people — both per capita and in absolute terms — than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran. Our teachers should  not be forced to play a part in this. We should not prop up companies that bank on our system failing vulnerable, underserved populations.

Companies and cities around the country already have divested funds from for-profit prison corporations like GEO Group. The California State Teachers Retirement System made this move, as did Columbia University and Georgetown University.

Having our hand in prison profits sends a terrible message about where the priorities lie in our state. As educators, we must support healing communities and seeking true partnerships, not contribute to a system that just might one day claim our students. Divesting from for-profit prisons will help dismantle those pipelines that lead from schools to prison. Dismantling injustice is why I signed up for classroom duty. How about you?

Mandi Torrez is a third grade teacher at Placitas Elementary and on sabbatical to carry out duties as the 2020 New Mexico Teacher of the Year.