On Monday June 22nd, following sixteen months of relentless student activism, the Columbia University Board of Trustees announced its decision to divest from the private prison industry and institute a policy banning reinvestment in companies that operate prisons. This decision makes Columbia the very first university to divest from the private prison industry.
“We targeted the university’s investments in two private prison companies, but we hope that private prison divestment campaigns, with the abolitionist vision of a larger anti-prison movement, can help us start working towards divesting from the idea that prisons equal justice, which we believe to be fundamentally racist.” – Dunni Oduyemi
The Columbia Prison Divest campaign was launched in February 2014 by Students Against Mass Incarceration, a Black-led prison abolitionist student group, after students discovered that approximately $10 million of Columbia University’s endowment was invested in two for-profit prison companies: the Corrections Corporation of America and G4S. CCA, GEO Group, and G4S have played major, active roles in pushing for legislation that further criminalizes marginalized communities such as mandatory minimum laws and Arizona’s infamous SB1070 statute. Alumni, faculty, staff, and West Harlem community members came together to support the student-run campaign demanding immediate divestment from these companies and a permanent negative screen against any future investments.
“My involvement in this campaign has been about acknowledging my complicity in racist systems of incarceration and policing. As a student at an elite university, I have a choice to quietly benefit or take the opportunity to leverage my privilege to hold my school accountable” – Ella Every-Wortman, student organizer
“These companies have a fundamental interest in expanding incarceration in order to maximize profit. We will not see an end to the racism and exploitation embedded in our contemporary systems of mass incarceration and detention if we do not dismantle the economic engines of this prison-industrial complex.” – Gabriela Catalina Pelsinger, student organizer
Prison Divest is a strategy born out of collaboration between immigrant justice and anti-mass incarceration organizers in a common fight against the criminalization of marginalized communities. Student organizers have situated prison divestment in the context of broader visions for change. Through their actions, political education, and avid social media presence, Columbia Prison Divest has tied their work to the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-gentrification efforts in West Harlem, the movement to divest from the Israeli police state, and activism against immigrant detention and the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Universities investing in prisons reinforce systems of inequality that allow only some to succeed. As a Black student, I know that Columbia is actively doing violence against people that look like me in a number of ways. I refuse to be just another brown face in a college brochure that my school can use to mask the systemic racism it participates in.” – Asha Rosa, student organizer
“From the start we wanted to establish those links that what’s happening globally is happening domestically”- Imani Brown, alum and former organizer
“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. 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. We refuse to buy into the false narratives that justify our privilege at the expense of the suffering of others. We hope this victory opens doors to more campaigns, to more organizing, to more victories. This is not the end. This is a beginning”- Columbia Prison Divest campaign organizers
There are over a dozen active prison divestment campaigns on college campuses across the United States. Notable victories in prison divest organizing include United Methodist Church’s divestment from CCA and GEO Group and the Gates’ Foundation’s divestment from G4S.