Organizing is the new black — students push Columbia University to divest from private prisons


(Facebook / Columbia Prison Divest)

In a vote Monday night, after 16 months of student pressure, Columbia University’s Board of Trustees voted to divest its $9.2 billion endowment from private prisons, and create a negative screen that will prevent further investments down the line.

The campaign has been led by Columbia Prison Divest, or CPD, a part of the black-led campus group Students Against Mass Incarceration. In a statement posted on its Facebook page shortly after the announcement, CPD wrote, “The racist, classist images of ‘criminals deserving of punishment’ are created in tandem with images of ‘hard-working college students deserving of opportunity,’ and each is defined in relation to the other. Through prison divestment, we have worked to challenge these narratives and structures.”

Reflecting on the growth that has taken place in the last year of the campaign, organizer and CPD co-founder Asha Rosa, a rising senior said, “At some point, we all just started saying we were going to make it happen before we graduate. So we did.”

Although there have been smaller victories around private prison divestment at the campus level, Columbia is the first institution to officially divest. Earlier this spring, Wesleyan University’s president expressed his support for fossil fuel divestment after students staged a sit-in for fossil fuel and private prison divestment, as well as for divestment from those companies profiting off of Israeli apartheid, as consistent with the Palestinian civil society call for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” or BDS. Yale University has divested its stocks in certain companies, but has set no barriers against buying up similar holdings in the future.

Since early 2014, when students discovered $10 million invested in private prison companies, CPD has conducted extensive research, and held two campus-wide weeks of engagement along with multiple rallies and direct actions. Through the course of the campaign, organizers sought out the support of faculty, alumni and community members in nearby Harlem. This spring, 40 students with CPD held a sit-in in the campus’s Low Library to pressure President Lee Bollinger to bring a recommendation for divestment to the Board of Trustees; in May, he agreed, supporting a late March recommendation by the school’s Advisory Committee on Social Responsibility to move ahead with divestment. “It is my hope,” Bollinger wrote, “to see a resolution to this complex, but vitally important issue within a year.”

(Facebook / Columbia Prison Divest)

Students held a sit-in at Low Library this Spring, calling on the President Bollinger to bring the issue of private prison divestment to the Board of Trustees. (Facebook / Columbia Prison Divest / Jo Chiang)

National organizations such as Enlace, the Responsible Endowments Coalition and Color of Change have all helped to coordinate what’s called the National Prison Divestment Campaign, supporting campus campaigns at the local level. In a written statement, Enlace Executive Director Daniel Carillo said, “This incredible victory by Columbia students is a victory that says black, brown and immigrant lives will not be bought and sold by educational institutions. This is a victory for all of us in the fight to decriminalize our lives and our communities, to end immigrant detention, and to end private prisons.”

Although Columbia had already rid itself of the 230,000-shares worth of Corrections Corporation of America stock it once held, the school maintains 220,000 holdings in G4S that will be transitioned out of its portfolio over the next several months. Contractors like G4S, CCA and Geo Group not only own prisons, but also a number of the facilities where undocumented immigrants are held en route to deportation in both the United States and United Kingdom, where G4S is headquartered.

Alumni and former CPD organizer Imani Brown said in a press statement that, “From the start, we wanted to establish those links that what’s happening globally is happening domestically.” In addition to operating immigration detention centers, private prison companies have been instrumental in militarizing the borders themselves — as well as checkpoints in the occupied West Bank. What’s more, they have lobbied for the passage of measures such as Arizona’s notoriously draconian anti-immigration bill, SB 1070.

“Police violence and mass incarceration have the same roots in anti-black racism and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow,” Rosa said. “Divestment is not just about financially divesting, but about divesting from the notion that police keep people safe and that prisons establish justice.”

Private prisons in the United States, in Britain and elsewhere have been the subject of incriminating reports by the ACLU and The Guardian, who say the facilities are notoriously brutal and poorly run. One prisoner in the United Kingdom, who spoke with The Guardian said, “I’ve been to jails all over the country. But this was the worst. It’s a shit-hole staffed by kids who should be stacking shelves.” Similarly, Carl Takei of the ACLU’s National Prison Project has written that “handing control of prisons over to for-profit companies is a recipe for abuse, neglect and misconduct.”

In what may well be a sign of private prison divestment campaigners’ success at pushing the issue into the mainstream, the most recent season of “Orange Is the New Black,” the popular Netflix series about a women’s prison in upstate New York, features an extensive and damning plotline about the for-profit prison industry.

(Facebook / Columbia Prison Divestment)

(Facebook / Columbia Prison Divestment / Danielle Fox)

While bringing in an international perspective, student organizers at Columbia have further used the campaign as an entry point to talking about Columbia’s impact on the surrounding community, in particular its massive expansion into (historically black) West Harlem. According to Rosa, CPD, Students Against Mass Incarceration and the broader coalition that worked on the successful Columbia campaign will continue to “disrupt that process of gentrification and call out the ways Columbia works to police, profile and create borders within the neighborhood through its own police force and relationship with New York Police Department.”

No doubt enlivened by this week’s historic win and the groundswell of energy that’s been generated against police violence by the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, private prison divestment campaigns continue at over a dozen campuses — up from just three when CPD began pressuring Columbia. Eager to preserve the movement’s forward momentum, Rosa said she “want[s] this victory to be the kind that opens doors, not closes them.”