Columbia University Just Made A Huge Statement About Private Prisons

June 24th 2015

Laura Donovan

Following a vote this week from the Columbia University Board of Trustees, Columbia University is now the first college in America to divest from private prison companies.

This decision comes two months after the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing recommended divesting from "any direct stock ownership interests in companies engaged in the operation of private prisons and refrain from making subsequent investments in such companies."

According to CNN, Columbia will sell its 200,000 plus shares in G4S, which is the world's largest private security firm, in addition to its shares in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), America's largest private prison company.

Last year, an ACLU investigation uncovered abuse and neglect at CCA managed prisons. The report said the facility used "extreme isolation arbitrarily and abusively" and neglected to give inmates timely medical care, among other factors. 

CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns told CNN that CCA has treated prisoners well and that the protestors ought to come up with solutions on how to improve the lives of prisoners.

"Our company helps keep communities safe and enrolls thousands of inmates every year in reentry programs that reduce recidivism," he said. "It's unfortunate that activists would advocate against those benefits without themselves providing any solutions to the serious challenges our corrections systems face."

ATTN: reported earlier this year on CCA, a major company getting rich off of prisons by offering to help financially struggling states by purchasing their prisons. Over the past decade, CCA has put $17.4 million towards lobbying, and from 2003 to 2012, it garnered $1.9 million in political contributions. As ATTN: previously noted, it's unclear how states get a chance to save any money on this as they must meet an occupancy rate set by companies or pay a fine. This gives states a financial incentive to keep inmates locked up.

G4S spokesperson Nigel Fairbrass told CNN that accusations that the company engaged in prison torture are false.

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Last year, students formed Columbia Prison Divest upon learning that the university invests in G4S and CCA. The students spoke out against the administration for supporting a "racist, violent system."

"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," Dunni Oduyemi, a 20-year-old organizer, told CNN. "We don't think about how the privileges and resources students get access to are premised upon violence done to people by virtue of their race, class, or citizenship status."

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Oduyemi suggested that other colleges are experiencing similar campaigns because of increased awareness on social justice issues.

"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 said to CNN. "We all recognize how much work has to be done in the future."

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Oduyemi told student newspaper The Columbia Spectator that students, namely those of color, are to thank for the university's decision to divest from the private prison industry.

“All of the work was done by students and especially students of color on this campus,” Oduyemi said. “The narrative should really be one of students and the way that we have managed to take power in a small way that is representative of a larger movement ... We’ve said over and over again that we don’t want any investment in racist and classist systems of incarceration and policing, and those are all things that are going on in Harlem."