When Colleges Support Prisons, We all Lose by Catie Malone

When Colleges Support Prisons, We all Lose


Catie Malone


College is meant to provide an opportunity for each of us to expand our knowledge base, achieve our goals, and improve our stations in life. Studies have shown that those with a bachelor’s degree earn around $650,000 more than those with just a high school diploma, about $550,000 more considering cost of attendance.[1] More importantly, college degrees have a stronger correlation to economic mobility thank many other factors. College graduates are 5.3 times more likely to escape the bottom percentile of the income spectrum.[2] Since blacks and Hispanics fall within poverty rates at disproportionately high levels,[3] the opportunity to rise in socioeconomic status and social status are especially important.

However, many of these opportunity-offering institutions of higher education are also substantial investors and beneficiaries to the private prison system that incarcerates about 20% of federal prisoners and 7% of state prisoners, with its use in immigration detention continuing to rise.[4] Offering a cost-saving model for states, the private prison industry has grown 784 percent in the last twenty years.[5] In 2013 alone, 37% of male inmates in state or federal prisons were black and 22% were Hispanic.[6] For female inmates, the imprisonment rate of blacks was twice the rate of white females.[7] These private prisons depend, in large part, on higher incarceration rates and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has stated that its services would be “adversely affected by [any] relaxation of enforcement efforts.”[8]  Because of contracts with governments to maintain occupancy rates,[9] the private industry is more focused on staying as full as possible to make as much money as possible, and less on rehabilitating those in its jurisdiction for life outside.

Until recently, the system that disproportionately held people of color in confinement and capitalized on their forced labor was supported by substantial investments by colleges and universities. In 2013, students at Columbia University discovered their school’s investment in one of the largest private prison operations in the country, CCA.[10]  When students discovered that their school owned over 230,000 shares of CCA stock worth $8 million,[11] their campaign to get the school to divest its interest in these private prisons was born. Similarly, the University of California system had a $25 million investment in three large private prison organizations and over $400 million invested in Wells Fargo, “one of the largest financiers or private prisons.”[12]

These schools benefit from the private prison industry by directly investing their endowments in organizations like Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group. They also contribute indirectly by relying on the services of the “Million Shares Club,” a group of banking and financial institutions that individually own at least one million shares of CCA and GEO, and collectively own over two-thirds of the shares.[13] For example, Wells Fargo, one of the members of this exclusive club, provides over $1.2 billion capital for private prisons.[14] The financial return on these investments in a “system that has ruthlessly targeted Black and immigrant people for the sole purpose of making profit.”[15] Schools who pay lip service to the values of diversity in the classroom with students representing various racial, sexual, gender, socioeconomic, religious, nationality, etc. identities while investing in this prison system which some would call “systemic and structural economic slavery… carried out through mass incarceration.”[16] But the problem runs deeper than just the benefit that these schools receive from their investments. Their investments also fund the prison industrial complex and its continued model of using those sentenced to serving time as a low-cost, un-unionized labor force that “turn[s] Black, brown, and immigrant bodies into a profit under the guise of rehabilitation.”[17]

The contradiction of higher education investment in the prison industry is further highlighted when considering that the goal of colleges should be focused on preparing students for employment in their chosen career. Colleges and universities “mission… [of] teaching, research, and public service, [is] fundamentally incompatible” with the profit-driven goals of the prison industry.[18] Though it may not directly affect the curriculum of a school or its approach to teaching, that the school is funded in part by the private prison system shows the disconnect with the objectives of education. Education is supposed to help those in need find ways out of their situations and into a better life. It is supposed to open doors and provide opportunities. These focal points do not comport with the profit concerns of the private prison industry, the ways that this system encourages and benefits from the overcriminalization of black and brown bodies, or the disenfranchisement many face upon release from prison. The effect of the prison industry complex can also seen in the position of the two on opposite ends of the funding spectrum. The state of California has increased spending on correctional programs by 436% since 1980, while higher education spending has decreased by 13%.[19] The problem is even further compounded by the presence of CCA board members on university Boards of Trustees.[20] These CCA board members have been named Trustees at schools like Ohio, Florida Atlantic, Belmont, and Arizona State Universities.[21]

While the student-led divestment campaigns have been successful in pressuring Columbia and the California systems to sell their shares in CCA and GEO,[22] they failed to make any headway in eliminating or reducing the amounts invested in “Million Shares Club” institutions. If this express contradiction in the proclaimed goals of higher education and the motives and operating procedures of private prisons is to end, institutions of higher learning should become just that. They must end their contribution to the prison industry both in financial support and in direct investment to the organizations.

[1] Dr. Ricardo Aziz, The Great Debate: Is College Still Worth It?, The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-ricardo-azziz/debate-college-worth_b_4561068.html (March 11, 2014).

[2] Id.

[3] Who is poor?, Institute for Research on Poverty, http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs.htm (last accessed Feb. 14, 2016).

[4] Gabrielle Canon, Here’s the Latest Evidence of How Private Prisons Are Exploiting Inmates for Profit, Mother Jones http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2015/06/private-prisons-profit June 17, 2015.

[5] Hannah Gold, 5 Links Between Higher Education and the Prison Industry, Rolling Stone

June 18 ,2014

[6] E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2013 U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p13.pdf (revised Sept. 30, 2014).

[7] Id.

[8] Michael Cohen, How For-Profit Prisons Have Become the Largest Lobby No One is Talking About The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/04/28/how-for-profit-prisons-have-become-the-biggest-lobby-no-one-is-talking-about/ (April 28, 2015).

[9] Id.

[10] Gold at 1.

[11] Id.

[12] Anthony Williams, University of California Has Millions Invested in Private Prisons, Afrikan Black Coalition, Nov. 30, 2015, http://afrikanblackcoalition.org/2015/11/30/university-of-california-has-millions-invested-in-private-prisons/.

[13] Million Shares Club: 36 Major Private Prison Investors, Prison Divestment Campaign, June 12, 2014 https://prisondivest.com/2014/06/12/million-shares-club-36-major-private-prison-investors/.

[14] Black Students win Prison Divestment at CSULA Prison Divestment Campaign, Feb. 11, 2016, https://prisondivest.com/2016/02/11/black-students-win-prison-divestment-at-csula/#more-5877.

[15] Williams at 1.

[16] Id.

[17] Chris Isidore and Robert Mclean, University of California dumps private prison stocks after student protests, CNN Money, Dec. 29, 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2015/12/29/investing/university-california-private-prison-stocks.

[18] University of California School System Has Invested Millions Into Private Prisons, http://www.clutch

magonline.com/2015/12/university-of-california-school-system-has-invested-millions-into-private-prisons/ (last accessed Feb. 14, 2016).

[19] Aaron Sankin, California Spending More on Prisons Than Colleges, Report Says, HuffPost San Francisco, Sept. 8, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/california-prisons-colleges_n_1863101.html.

[20] Gold at 1.

[21] Id.

[22] See Reuters University of California Drops Prison Investments Amid Student Demands, Dec. 18, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-university-idUSKBN0U202020151219, Tyler Kingkade, Columbia University Will Divest From Private Prison Companies, The Huffington Post, June 29, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/22/columbia-divest-prison_n_7640888.html.


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