Are prisons doing more harm than good?

This is how a small group of students at Columbia University feel. This group of students launched a campaign to divest the university in early 2014, when they learned that the school was “investing in two firms, which run prisons, detention centers, and militarized borders.”

Fast forward a year later and Columbia University has become the first college in the United States to divest from private prison companies. The decision means that an Ivy League School with a roughly $9 billion endowment will sell roughly 220,000 shares in G4S (the biggest private security firm in the world) and all its shares in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), (which is the biggest private prison company in the nation).

This decision is critically important in the fight for justice. Here are two reasons why:

1. Prisons should not make profits.

First of all, divesting from prisons tackles the problem of profiteering. It is wrong for a public service to be turned into a profit-making machine—there’s no way around that. Private prison companies are motivated by profit and not rehabilitation or justice. The very model is “incentivized by convicting, sentencing, and keeping people in prison for longer and longer times.” America has a jail problem—and this is a big part of the reason why.

Columbia is setting an example for others to follow, and this decision shines more light on an issue that’s easy to ignore. With enough public pressure, things might change—and look what already has changed.

2. Students have the power to make huge changes.

This important decision to boycott the private prison industry was led by a student activist campaign that spanned a year and a half.

As a former college student of a big university, this reminds me exactly how much power I had and still do have. We might think we don’t have much power in the face of big schools, but that is not the case.

Is your school connected to the private prison industry? Are you an alum of a college or university that has financial ties you don’t believe in? Maybe you can start by writing an informed and thoughtful letter to your school’s president, in the way that the group of Columbia University students started off.


So What’s Next? How Do We Take Action Now?

One of the ways everyday people can get involved in the prison divestment campaign is by joining or supporting organizations like the civil rights nonprofit Color of Change. Color of Change has been pushing over 150 companies to divest from for-profit incarceration companies since last year.

Another great way to get involved is to take part in the National Prison Divestment Campaign’s workshops and strategy sessions, in which “youth leaders, immigrant leaders, formerly incarcerated leaders, Black leaders, LGBTQ leaders, and labor leaders share strategies that they are using to weaken the prison industry and fight for liberation.”

And most importantly, take your education into your own hands, and do your research to see if your school or local institution is involved in prison divestment. Check out the Correctional Association of New York, which is a non-profit that works to put an end to prison profiteering by “[advocating] for a more humane and effective criminal justice system and a more just and equitable society.” They work to expose abusive practices, educate the public and policymakers about what goes on behind prison walls, and advocate for systemic, lasting and progressive change.

Columbia students should be proud—and for the rest of us, it’s time to get to work.


Neerali Patel is a graduate student of sociology at the George Washington University. She became committed to studying socioeconomic inequality and stratification after a volunteer teaching experience in the slum communities of Ahmedabad, India. You can find her thoughts on inequality, interviews with thought leaders, and some of her poetry on her website.