Columbia Becomes The First College To Divest From Private Prison Industry

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The Columbia University Board of Trustees voted Monday to make the university the first in the nation to pull its investments from the private prison industry. The university will divest from two major for-profit prison companies and create a new policy to ban investment in companies that operate prisons.

Students have been campaigning since February 2014 against Columbia’s $10 million in holdings invested in Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the world, and G4S, an international security company that transports immigrant detainees and provided security at Guantanamo Bay until last year.

Both companies have dismal records strewn with lawsuits over inmate mistreatment, rampant corruption, inhumane conditions, and even death.

“We targeted the university’s investments in two private prison companies, but we hope that private prison divestment campaigns, with the abolitionist vision of a larger anti-prison movement, can help us start working towards divesting from the idea that prisons equal justice, which we believe to be fundamentally racist,” student organizer Dunni Oduyemi wrote in a statement.

Columbia may be the first school to divest from the private prison industry, but it’s fairly common for universities to invest in the same companies. After all, they offer some of the rosiest projections and stablest long-term bets on the stock market, particularly as immigration detention rates grow and more states look for cheap ways to manage their prison populations. Prominent schools including Brown, Cornell, and the University of California system are all facing similar pressure from students over their holdings.

CUNY Prison Divest found that the city college system in New York City has significant investments in the private prison industry. Besides the major private prison facilitators — CCA, GEO Group, and G4S — the college’s endowment is also invested in Aramark, the leading prison food provider currently dealing with allegations they poisoned inmates and served others rat-eaten food. Many divestment campaigns also note that major banks including Bank of America and Wells Fargo have close ties and substantial investments in private prisons.

Divestment campaigns against the prison industry have gained momentum as more abuses come to light, successfully prompting prominent organizations like the Gates Foundation and the United Methodist Church to relinquish prison industry holdings. Still, divestment activists have a long way to go to register in these companies’ bottom line. Losing $10 million from Columbia may not mean much to companies that spend far larger sums lobbying governments to incarcerate more people and build more detention centers.

“As long as prison companies have the bed space the government needs and wants, they will most likely stay in business,” Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News, told CNN.

Though its withdrawal of funds may not mean much to private prisons financially, Columbia’s move reveals how institutions are increasingly forced to reckon with the broader problem of mass incarceration. “This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum,” a university spokesperson told the Columbia Spectator.