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Student-led campaigns pushing universities to divest in for-profit prisons
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At the behest of student group Columbia Prison Divest, Columbia became the first U.S. university to pull investments from prison companies, inspiring students at other universities to undertake similar initiatives. - photo by Omar Etman
A student-led campaign led to Columbia University becoming the first university in the United States to divest from prison corporations.

Columbia has sold off two holdings, according to CNN: G4S, the largest private security firm in the world, and Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the U.S. The university will sell its shares in both companies, which comprised a small fraction of Columbia's $9 billion endowment.

Columbia Prison Divest, the student group founded in 2013 that pushed the university toward this move, has inspired similar divestment initiatives around the country.

Prison divestment has been our demand not because we see private prisons as the primary problem or because we see financial investment as the only (or even primary) way that universities like Columbia participate in systems of criminalization and control, the group wrote on its Facebook page. For us, prison divestment has been an entry point for addressing the ways in which students at elite colleges and universities are directly and specifically in the privileged positions that we are because of systems of inequality,

The fear among students is that their elite education (and the comfortable life it provides) is made possible by the struggle of an out-of-sight population, according to the Columbia Spectator.

In some ways, we are here because other people are locked up, senior Asha Ransby-Sporn told the school's paper. There are people back home, there are people uptown, who are policed and incarcerated in ways that Columbia students are not.

The university echoed the feelings of students.

This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum," university spokesman Robert Hornsby said to USA Today. "We are proud that many Columbia faculty and students will continue their scholarly examination and civic engagement of the underlying social issues that have led to and result from mass incarceration."

Prison population has grown 80 percent over the past decade, a report by the Center for Health and Justice shows. During that same period, CCAs stock prices tripled and G4Ss doubled. In 2012, CCAs revenue topped $1.7 billion.

But officials stand by the facilities they operate.

"Our company helps keep communities safe and enrolls thousands of inmates every year in re-entry programs that reduce recidivism, a CCA spokesman wrote to CNN. "It's unfortunate that activists would advocate against those benefits without themselves providing any solutions to the serious challenges our corrections systems face.

Still, Columbia Prison Divest is marching on.

We hope this victory opens doors to more campaigns, to more organizing, to more victories. We want to see more schools divest, they wrote.

The passion seems to be catching on. Similar student-led campaigns are underway at Brown, CUNY, Cornell and several UC schools.