Columbia University recently announced that it is divesting from private prison companies. The move sends a powerful message that institutions should not profit from the mass incarceration of people.
The Ivy League school -- with an endowment of $9 billion -- is selling its reported 220,000 shares in private prison operator G4S, the biggest multinational security services corporation, and its shares in Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison company in the United States.
A student group called Columbia Prison Divest learned of the investments and began a divestment campaign in early 2014. Because of its efforts, Columbia has become the first university in the country to make such a move. Similar divestment movements are underway at Brown University, Cornell University, University of California at Berkeley and UCLA.
G4S has supplied checkpoints in Palestinian occupied territories and a prison in Gaza, serviced the U.S. detention complex at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, and operates at facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Corrections Corp. of America operates prisons, jails, detention centers and residential re-entry centers on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service, and states and counties throughout the United States.
These companies have checkered records. In 2014, as many as 300 prisoners at a Corrections Corp. prison in Natchez, Mississippi, protested mistreatment, inadequate food and poor medical care. The uprising led to a guard being killed and 20 other people being injured.
"Yet these private prisons operate in the shadows, effectively free from public scrutiny," says an American Civil Liberties Union report. "By statute, most of their records are exempt from the open records laws that apply to other federal prisons."
The United States has created a prison monster, with 2.2 million people in prisons or jails nationwide. Although America has less than 5 percent of the world's population, it incarcerates almost a quarter of the world's prisoners, who are mostly people of color and the poor.
And at $5 billion a year in revenue, the private prison industry is a booming and lucrative business, accounting for 7 percent of state prisoners and 20 percent of federal prisoners, according to Mother Jones magazine. Moreover, the number of inmates in for-profit prisons doubled between 2000 and 2010. Filling the prisons with warm bodies, the raw material for these moneymaking enterprises, is their top priority, at the expense of the well-being of prisoners, their living conditions and certainly their rehabilitation.
These are the consequences of a prisons-for-profit scheme in a nation that seeks to bring free-market profiteering to every corner of society. Government functions such as prisons become exploitative when money is introduced into the equation.
The successful divestment campaign at Columbia shows us that no one should profit from the exploitation of others.
David A. Love is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project.