Columbia Students Sit-In For Prison Divestment

George Lavender April 25, 2015

Columbia students take part in a sit-in organized by Columbia Prison Divest outside the office of President Lee Bollinger

Bring Prison Divest­ment to the Board” read the mes­sage on one plac­ard as stu­dents at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty took part in a sit-in on Friday.

The sit-in out­side Colum­bia Pres­i­dent Lee Bollinger’s office was orga­nized by the Colum­bia Prison Divest cam­paign which is attempt­ing to per­suade the school’s Board of Trustees to pull its invest­ments from pri­vate prison com­pa­nies. Orga­niz­ers say the school has around $10 mil­lion invest­ed in G4S and Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of America.

We found this invest­ment to be fun­da­men­tal­ly at odds with what Colum­bia claims to be, and what Colum­bia should be” Dun­ni Oduye­mi, a cam­paign orga­niz­er, told the Prison Complex.

In a major suc­cess for the cam­paign, last month the University’s Advi­so­ry Com­mit­tee on Social­ly Respon­si­ble Invest­ing vot­ed to rec­om­mend divest­ment. The Com­mit­tee’s res­o­lu­tion stat­ed that they were con­cerned about the busi­ness mod­el used by pri­vate prison companies.

…(It) cre­ates incen­tives for increas­ing the lev­el of incar­cer­a­tion in the Unit­ed States, which is remark­ably high both in his­tor­i­cal terms in the U.S. and in inter­na­tion­al com­par­isons. The prof­its of pri­vate prison com­pa­nies increase in the uti­liza­tion of prison ser­vices, both in the occu­pan­cy rate for exist­ing facil­i­ties and in the con­struc­tion of new facil­i­ties. This gives pri­vate prison com­pa­nies incen­tives to lob­by for leg­is­la­tion, police and pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al prac­tices, and sen­tenc­ing deci­sions that increase (or at least main­tain) cur­rent incar­cer­a­tion lev­els. In the Committee’s opin­ion, an invest­ment whose pos­i­tive per­for­mance is linked to an increase in already high lev­els of incar­cer­a­tion does not fit with the University’s mis­sion and values.”

The Com­mit­tee was formed in the wake of Colum­bia stu­dents’ fraught cam­paign against South African Apartheid and uses three main cri­te­ria to con­sid­er divest­ment from com­pa­nies: com­mu­ni­ty sen­ti­ment, the mer­its, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties for share­hold­er engagement.

On the first, Dun­ni Oduye­mi says that Colum­bia Prison Divest has wide­spread sup­port, not just among stu­dents but fac­ul­ty as well who don’t want to be com­plic­it in unjust incar­cer­a­tion either.” For the sec­ond cri­te­ria, Oduye­mi says the cam­paign has suc­cess­ful­ly argued that there is noth­ing redeemable about mass incar­cer­a­tion or in par­tic­i­pat­ing in or prof­it­ing off of mass incar­cer­a­tion.” Final­ly, after some ini­tial dis­agree­ment, orga­niz­ers say they were also able to per­suade the Com­mit­tee there’s no way that pri­vate com­pa­nies could be redeemable even if they went through dif­fer­ent reforms.”

Ulti­mate­ly, the deci­sion to divest from the pri­vate prison com­pa­nies will be tak­en by the Board of Trustees, of which Pres­i­dent Lee Bollinger is a mem­ber, and the sit-in was intend­ed, Oduye­mi says, to keep up pres­sure on him. Accord­ing to orga­niz­ers the cam­paign will meet with Bollinger on Monday. 

Pho­tos via Jo Chiang

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH