By Christopher Zoukis
In the years and months since I’ve been writing about prison conditions across the United States, the insidious creep of privatization into our justice system has transformed into an all-out takeover. The prison-industrial complex has now grown into a $74 billion industry that spans across a broad spectrum of areas. Students at Columbia University have sought to provide a solution to part of the problem through its adoption of a divestment policy geared specifically at the prison-industrial complex.
Divestment, the process of ridding oneself of investments that run counter to one’s ethical beliefs in an effort to force policy change, is a form of protest that has been gaining traction all over the world. This increased engagement is often due in large part to social media and the internet—as individuals are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of their investment behaviours on social and environmental well-being.
Sustained pressure over the last year or so from the student organization Columbia Prison Divest led the university to strike an advisory committee on the matter. The end results, announced just this week, will see them divesting their $9.2 billion endowment of stocks from the British-based G4S and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and banning future investment in any private prison corporations.
Prison Divest and Columbia University (along with several other well-known post-secondary institutions) have recognized that a privately-run prison system is fundamentally incompatible with the values of rehabilitation and facilitation of re-entry into the community. Their entire reason for being depends on ensuring high prison return rates in order to satisfy its shareholders, and CCA is a case in point.
CCA is the largest for-profit prison company in the nation. Its recent claims of being committed to improving prisoner re-entry are belied by its thirty-year track record that includes increased recidivism, increased violence, increased abuse, all going hand-in-hand with increased profits. Companies charged with the care and rehabilitation of the incarcerated are given free run with our inmates, with little to no public accountability.
As we've noted elsewhere, facilities run by CCA and similar private prison companies have not improved re-incarceration rates, and likely hinder inmate rehabilitation through a variety of policy failures. Thus their modus operandi seems to have more to do with “getting them coming and going” rather than seeing them successful re-enter society. Indeed, their own market prospectus’ have highlighted the lucrative nature of the industry, precisely because of the country’s high rates of recidivism. It's hardly cynical to question why CCA would suddenly be committed to eliminating the very source of their profitability.
Some critics argue that Columbia’s divestment represents a mere drop in the profit bucket of these corporations, and that may be true. But as our own Alex Friedmann points out, it serves an important educative role that sheds light on the role these companies play in our penal system and who ultimately benefits from their involvement; as with any social action, momentum is key. And more importantly, it sends a message to private entities of what we, as investors, consider to be acceptable policies, and that there will be impacts on their bottom line from divestment—whether direct or indirect.
The social market has spoken: private industry has no role in our criminal justice system.