On December 18, 2015, the eve of the Christmas holidays, the University of California announced that it was withdrawing roughly $30 million worth of its investments in private prison companies. U of C was not the first institution of higher learning to do so; Columbia University had divested itself of all of its shares in the private prison industry the previous June. In both cases, the Trustees’ decision to divest came after months of pressure from black student groups. By their action, Columbia and the University of California joined corporations like General Electric, Scopia Capital, and DSM, each of which has dumped millions of dollars’ worth of prison stock in the past few years in response to shareholder demands. The Prison Divestment Campaign, launched in 2011 by a coalition of human rights organizations, is on track to match the success of the massive South Africa divestment movement of the mid-1980s, and success cannot come too soon.
The growth of the private prison industry is one of the most toxic byproducts of the “War on Drugs.” The ratcheting up of drug law sentences by both the federal government and state legislatures throughout the l980s and 1990s led to a rapidly expanding prison population and the need for huge increases in corrections spending and prison building. Many states could not keep up with the demands of mass incarceration. Their need for more prison cells was met by for-profit prison companies, the largest of which are the Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Florida-based GEO Group, both publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. With the intensification of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal government has turned to the private sector for space to detain tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants. Today, private prisons are a multi-billion dollar industry.
The reasons to divest from these companies are both moral and practical.
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Glenn E. Martin is the Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA) , an organization that aims to cut the US correctional population in half by 2030 by elevating and amplifying the voice of people most impacted by crime and incarceration, and positioning them as informed, empowered reform partners.