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Editorial: Columbia right on private prisons

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 02, 2015 5:00 AM

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On June 22, the Columbia University Board of Trustees voted to divest from two companies: G4S, one of the largest private security firms in the world, and Corrections Corp. of America, the largest for-profit private prison company in the United States. The decision has landed Columbia the bittersweet title of being the first U.S. college to divest from private prisons and to state that future investments will never again be in the private-prison industry. 

But given the morally ambiguous and controversial nature of privately owned, profit-driven correctional facilities, why did it invest in the industry in the first place?

According to CNN, the market cap for both of these corporations sits around $4 billion, and the two firms yield high profits and will continue to do so. So one would assume that a portion of Columbia’s $9 billion endowment was invested in the companies because it made the school money. 

The idea of an institution of higher learning not only condoning the practice of profit-driven, private correctional facilities but to a certain degree encouraging the expansion of said practice through investment seems to be entirely hypocritical to everything an esteemed Ivy League educational institution should embody. 

Activists argue that the for-profit prison systems’ main incentive is money rather than the rehabilitation of criminals, which ultimately leads to abhorrent conditions for prisoners, such as underfeeding and overcrowding, while profits for the firm rise.

The Washington Post has reported that the private-prison industry has “funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and has spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts,” which some activists allege is for harsher punishments and the perpetuation of War on Drugs policies that send thousands behind bars each year. 

Dunni Oduyemi told CNN, “The private-prison model is hinged on maximizing incarceration to generate profit — it’s incentivized by convicting, sentencing, and keeping people in prison for longer and longer times.”

Look at the dramatic increase of incarceration rates since the founding of GEO, a global provider of correctional, detention, and re-entry services, in 1984 and the Corrections Corp. in 1983, which according to a congressional report, has soared from 25,000 federal prisoners in 1980 to an astonishing 219,000 in 2014. That is roughly a 776 percent increase in just under 35 years
Though the private-prison industry is problematic, money is stubborn. The campaign led by Columbia student activists started in early 2014, and they saw their victory just two weeks ago. The victory is a small one, but satellite movements have been sprouting up across the nation since then.  According to CNN, just a few of these institutions are Cornell, Brown, California-Berkeley, and UCLA. 

Profit-driven correctional facilities do not yield the proper environment to correct an offender’s behavior, and they have no place in the United States, let alone anything to do with institutions of higher learning.


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