Columbia University students protesting the school’s investment with private prison companies. Photo by Jo Chiang.
Today, Columbia became the first university in the United States to divest from private prison companies. Since early 2014, students have been campaigning to get the university to sell off its roughly $10 million worth of shares in two companies that run prisons and immigration detention centers.
Prisons are “fundamentally racist,” said student organizer Dunni Oduyemi in a statement after the vote by the school’s Board of Trustees to divest from G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, and Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the United States. “We hope that private prison divestment campaigns, with the abolitionist vision of a larger antiprison movement, can help us start working towards divesting from the idea that prisons equal justice.”
For-profit prison companies are a huge lobby in the United States and they lean on political candidates to support new prison construction and privatizion of existing prisons. According to the ACLU, that lobbying is paying off: The number of people in private prisons increased by approximately 1600 percent between 1990 and 2009. There are now about 130 privately run prisons in the country and nearly half of all immigrants who are detained are held in privately run facilities. While private prison companies say they can help governments cut costs, private prisons have been the sites of numerous cases of violence and exceptionally bad conditions. They also often don’t wind up saving governments money at all, in part because some companies have struck deals with states that guarantee maintaining certain prison occupancy rates even if crime goes down.
A banner on campus calling attention to the school’s investments. Photo courtest Columbia Prison Divest.
In 2013, Columbia students first learned that the university had more than $10 million of its endowment invested in shares of the two private prison companies. In February 2014, a group of students formed the Columbia Prison Divest campaign and delivered a letter to the school president demanding that the school divest. Over the next year and a half, the students organized protests on campus and gained support from the school’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing to divest from the companies.
After today’s vote, a Columbia spokesperson emailed out a statement that says the school will never again invest money from its $9 billion endowment with private prison companies. “This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum,” the statement said.
It’s often hard to get political support for reducing prison populations and closing prisons because politicians want to appear “tough on crime”—and because millions of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people can’t vote. But the work of groups like these Columbia students helps to make support for prisons politically unsavory. Let’s hope this spreads.
Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media’s online editor.