Here’s Why It’s a Big Deal That Columbia Divested From Private Prison Companies

The school is the first in the country to sell its shares in private prison and security giants.
Student activists from Columbia Prison Divest. (Photo: Columbia Prison Divest/Facebook)
Jun 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

With more than 2.2 million people in a prison system that disproportionately incarcerates blacks and Latinos and funnels many into a growing private prison industry, one Ivy League school has taken a stance against profiting off institutions that thrive when the prison population soars.

On Monday, Columbia University announced that its trustees would divest millions of dollars from Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, along with two other private security industry companies.

“For us, prison divestment has been an entry point for addressing the ways in which students at elite colleges and universities are directly and specifically in the privileged positions that we are because of systems of inequality,” wrote Columbia Prison Divest, the student group that led the divestment campaign, on its Facebook page. “We hope this victory opens doors to more campaigns, to more organizing, to more victories.…We want to see more schools divest.”

The students, who organized for 16 months, pushed the school to consider whether such investments were at odds with the university’s policy against discrimination, given that people of color and immigrants are disproportionately incarcerated in private prisons and private detention facilities. Over the past year they’ve conducted sit-ins and other protests to spread their message. Along with divesting from share ownership in the Corrections Corporation of America, the school said it will sell its shares of the GEO Group, a private prison operator, and G4S, a British prisons and security company. The university reportedly had more than 220,000 shares in G4S.

So, Why Should You Care? Columbia is the first school in the U.S. to divest part of its more than $8 billion endowment from private prison and security companies. Similar student-led campaigns are under way at several University of California schools, Brown University, and Cornell University. Between 1999 and 2010, the number of people held in private prisons grew by 80 percent, according to The Sentencing Project.

These companies have repeatedly come under fire from human rights and legal advocates for the neglect and abuse of inmates and for promoting policies that guarantee prison beds will be full. But the emphasis on profit over quality has led to “volatile environments that are more prone to abuse, violence, injury, and death,” according to The Sentencing Project.