How Columbia Became the First University to Divest from Private Prisons

Thanks to relentless student pressure, more than a year of rallies, protests and sit-ins proved too much to ignore.

Dayton MartindaleJuly 17, 2015

Columbia students successfully pushed the University's Board of Trustees to divest $10 million from private prison corporations CCA and G4S. (Danielle Fox / Columbia Prison Divestment)

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.

'Under the banner of opposing private prisons, they saw an opportunity to raise awareness around racism in the criminal justice system, immigrant rights and the occupation of Palestine.'

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.”

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is an asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times, and a found­ing mem­ber of Sym­bio­sis. His writ­ing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Jour­nal and The Next Sys­tem Project. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.
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