Editor’s note: This story was reported by Clare Sestanovich for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the US criminal justice system. You can sign-up for their newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
In the late 1970s, on college campuses across the country, students banded together to demand that universities align their wallets with their consciences: They called for schools to divest from companies with ties to South Africa, to translate moral opposition to apartheid into tangible economic policy. Now, four decades after Columbia’s Coalition for a Free South Africa blockaded the steps of a university building, another divestment movement is trying to tackle what could become this generation’s signature cause: criminal-justice reform.
Columbia is one of several schools where students are demanding that university endowments take a visible stand against mass incarceration by divesting from private prison companies, which have faced criticism—and lawsuits—for rampant abuse and a lack of transparency.
Back in 1985, Columbia agreed to student demands. Within months of the first blockade, the board of trustees voted to divest, joining endowments from coast to coast, from Harvard to University of California campuses. In retrospect, some skeptics have called the effect of divestment on South Africa’s economy into question. The impact on American universities, however, is clear. Divestment petitions became a go-to tool in the arsenal of student activists, representing a range of political causes. In recent years, robust movements calling for divestment from Israel and fossil fuels have demanded attention from university administrations. The University of California student council even lobbied to divest from entire nations, including the United States, with poor human-rights track records.
In February 2014, Columbia Prison Divest launched their campaign with a letter to university president Lee Bollinger—which they read aloud to his secretary when they found him away from his desk. According to the group, the university had $8 million invested in Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, as well as shares in other behemoths of the private security industry, the GEO Group and G4S. They called for immediate divestment from the groups and a pledge not to reinvest in the future.