New student organization calls for BU to divest from private prison system

The Daily Free Press | Sofia Saric

Boston University Students Against Mass Incarceration, a new student-run private prison divestment campaign, launched this month with the goal of educating the student body about BU’s participation in the prison industrial complex.

According to the group’s Facebook page, BU is tied to the prison system through its use of financial services from the Vanguard Group and JP Morgan Chase, which both own shares in the two largest private prison companies, GeoGroup and CoreCivic.

By supporting the investors and lenders of the private prison industry, the Facebook page states, BU helps fund the prison industrial complex.

BUSAMI member Allie Miller, a senior in the College of Communication, said BUSAMI is one of many groups that are organizing in the Boston area and nationwide to participate in prison divestment campaigns.

“We have this campaign that we just started [at BU], and Harvard and Tufts started around 2018,” Miller said. “We just started this semester, and this is going to be the first event that we’ve ever had.”

BUSAMI hosted a film screening of the documentary “13TH” at the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, “13TH” discusses inequities in the criminal justice system and argues that mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. The film’s title references the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

“We decided to have this screening through collective decision making in the group meetings … We’re all big fans of the movie,” Miller said. “We wanted to show something that would be informative about the problems with the prison industry in general.”

BUSAMI member Sophie Bartholomew said the film viewing is in line with the group’s goal of educating BU students about what they can do to actively oppose mass incarceration and systems that make money off of imprisoning people, especially people of color.

“It’s a way to start conversations, also to frame … BU’s participation,” said Bartholomew, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Massachusetts has the third lowest state imprisonment rate of the 50 U.S. states — with 188 people incarcerated per 100,000 people, according to The Sentencing Project. As a whole, the U.S. still stands out internationally as having a higher rate of incarceration than every country other than Rwanda, Russia and Brazil.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, people of color are overrepresented in prison populations in Massachusetts. Hispanic people and American Indian/Alaska native people had about four times the incarceration rate of white people. The incarceration rate of black people was more than six times that of white people.

Bartholomew said BU isn’t an anomaly in its ties to the private prison industry and that many cities have financial ties to the industry.

“The way it works is BU uses financial tools from corporations that invest money in private prisons, so there is a middleman thing going on,” Bartholomew said. “Through tracing BU’s financials services, what companies they use to use investments, and given the information we know about those companies — we know that BU’s investments have exposure to private prisons.”

Miller said as BUSAMI’s campaign has just started, they are mostly focusing on the educational portion of the campaign and broadening their base support.

“The strategizing, as far as how to interact with administrators, is something that is in the works,” Miller said. “It’s something that will be a bigger part of our campaign starting next fall and into the next school year.”

In 2015, Columbia University was the first U.S. college to divest its endowment from the prison campaign after a student activist campaign. Later that year, the University of California system divested as well.

In the long term, Miller said, BUSAMI wants BU to divest their endowment from private prisons and reinvest into community-building organizations.

BU Spokesperson Colin Riley wrote in an email he was unfamiliar with BUSAMI, but added that BU has been offering college courses to incarcerated people since 1972.

“BU is a nationally recognized leader in prison education,” Riley wrote. “[T]hrough Sept. 2018, 353 students have earned bachelor’s degrees and 28 have received master’s degrees.”

BUSAMI will hold their last meeting of the semester on May 2 at 5 p.m. in the Center for Gender, Sexuality and Activism, but they are actively seeking new members and plan to continue their work in the Fall 2019 semester.

DivestBU member Bridget De La Torre, a junior in CAS, wrote in a Facebook message DivestBU has been in communication with BUSAMI throughout the past few months as the group has developed and hopes to continually support their efforts.

“This solidarity hopes to bring awareness to the intersectionality of social and environmental justice campaigns,” De La Torre wrote, “as well as build support to stop our university from financing institutions that degrade human and environmental health, obstruct freedom, and discriminate based on race, gender, and or income.”

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