Columbia Divests From For-Profit Prison Companies After Intense Pressure From Students

Student activism CAN make a difference.

After relentless pressure from within, Columbia University voted to divest from private prison companies over concerns of mass incarceration. The decision marked the elite American university becoming the first major higher education institution in the United States to do so. 

Columbia will sell its approximately 220,000 shares in G4S, a British prison and security services company. The New York school also owned more than 230,000 shares in the Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison corporation in the country, though it no longer did by April. Columbia University's trustees pledged that they would no longer invest its some $9 billion endowment on for-profit prisons.

The push for Columbia to divest from private prison companies began in 2014, when a student group called Columbia Prison Divest discovered that the school had intricate investment ties with the two corporations. Both G4S and the Correction Cop. of America run prisons, detention centers and militarized borders.

The group organized protests and met with administrators, arguing that it was wrong for the Ivy League school to invest in a "racist, violent system," CNN reported. Yesterday, the group announced on Facebook that the months of efforts to get the school to divest paid off.

The G4S prison facility in England has been found to be rife with drugs and alcohol, as well as inexperienced prison staff who frequently clash with prisoners. The Corrections Corp. of America is no better, either — an ACLU lawsuit accuses one of its prisons as allowing excessive violence towards inmates and the refusing to treat their injuries.

With the trustees' vote, Columbia University's contributions to injustices in America and abroad are significantly lessened. Law professor Jeff Gordon said that the group is considering whether Columbia should divest from fossil fuel corporations to protest global warming.

The success of Columbia Prison Divest is a prime example of the monumental — but often untapped — power that students have, particularly those in elite institutions.