On June 22, after 16 months of student pressure, the Columbia University board of trustees announced it would sell its holdings in private prison corporations. A handful of churches and companies have divested from private prisons in recent years; Columbia is the first university.
In December 2013, Asha Rosa, an activist in the prison abolitionist group Students Against Mass Incarceration (and former In These Times intern), asked an administrator for a list of Columbia’s investments, claiming it was for a thesis paper. She discovered that Columbia had $10 million invested in two of the largest private prison contractors in the world: the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and G4S. CCA operates for-profit prisons throughout the United States, and G4S supplies technology, security personnel and other services to governments around the world, including the U.S. and Israel.
Both corporations have faced numerous accusations of prisoner maltreatment. The ACLU reported in June 2014 that a CCA-operated immigrant detention center in Texas was overcrowded, with contaminated water and inadequate healthcare. In October 2013, allegations surfaced that G4S guards had electrically shocked South African prisoners and forcibly injected them with anti-psychotic drugs. Under the banner of opposing private prisons — which “very few people are for,” notes Rosa — she and her fellow students saw an opportunity to raise awareness around a number of different issues: racism in the criminal justice system, immigrant rights and the occupation of Palestine.
In February 2014, the students delivered a letter to University President Lee Bollinger demanding divestment. More than a year of rallies, protests and sit-ins followed, and proved too much to ignore. Prison divestment campaigns are gaining ground. Student governments at five University of California campuses have passed divestment resolutions, and Wesleyan University President Michael Roth endorsed divestment in April after 40 student activists staged a sit-in. At Columbia, student organizers say the university remains complicit in the prison-industrial complex through its campus expansion, which brings more police to West Harlem and contributes to gentrification. They wrote in a press release: “We refuse to buy into false narratives that justify our privilege at the expense of others.”