Columbia University Divests of Investments in Private Prisons

Columbia University’s board of trustees voted this week to divest of its investments in private prison companies and became the first university to do so following a nearly year-and-a-half long student campaign calling on the school to separate itself from the controversial industry.

“We are pleased to announce that after 16 months of research, protest, presentations and countless hours of organizing, the organizers of the Columbia Prison Divest campaign have just been notified of the Columbia University Board of Trustees’ decision to #DIVEST from the private prison industry and to institute a policy banning reinvestment in companies that operate prisons,” the group posted on its Facebook page.

The group’s short description for its raison d’tre is simple: “Because an institution that claims concern for the future should not invest in racist and classist systems of incarceration and detention.”

Columbia Prison Divest is “a coalition of students who find Columbia University’s $10 million investment in the private prison industry unjust and destructive” and had pressed the university to sell its reported 220,000 shares in G4S, the largest multinational security services corporation, and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country.

As the student organizers of the Columbia Prison Divest campaign, we have embraced the collaborative spirit of prison divestment as a strategy born out of Black/Brown solidarity and organizers who came together in the common struggle against criminalization,” the group describes in more detail. “While this campaign is primarily an effort born out of Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI), a Black-led prison abolitionist group, our strategy in targeting private prison companies specifically has been in effort to call out the ways in which these companies exploit the intimate ties between anti-Black racism, criminalization of immigrant communities, gender policing, and settler colonialism. CCA, GEO Group, and G4S (the main targets of our campaign) make money from anti-Black drug laws, mass deportation of immigrants, and mass incarceration, policing, and surveillance.

For its part, Columbia’s board of trustees said in a statement its action “occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum. We are proud that many Columbia faculty and students will continue their scholarly examination and civic engagement of the underlying social issues that have led to and result from mass incarceration.”

According to the ACLU, which this week reported that CCA had lost four prison contracts this month, “several studies suggest that prisoners in for-profit prisons face greater threats to their safety than those in publicly-run prisons.”

Dunni Oduyemi, a 20-year-old lead organizer of the Columbia Prison Divest campaign, told CNN, “The private prison model is hinged on maximizing incarceration to generate profit they’re incentivized by convicting, sentencing, and keeping people in prison for longer and longer times.”

In addition to Columbia, campaigns to divest from private prisons are taking place at other schools across the country, including Brown, Cornell, U.C. Berkeley and UCLA.

“It seems to be a moment where people are making the connection between all the kinds of uprisings we’re seeing right now #BlackLivesMatter, mass incarceration, and university movements,” Oduyemi added. “We all recognize how much work has to be done in the future.”

A spokesperson for G4S told CNN that Columbia’s holdings of his company’s stock represented about 0.01 percent of G4S’ total market capitalization, valued at more than $4.3 billion.

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