Recently, the University of California sold around $30 million worth of stock it held in private prison companies. Though the official reason given was that the sale was solely about financial concerns, the decision came after a series of protests by black student groups over these holdings. Regardless of the reasons for the action, the University of California should be commended for stepping away from the assault on the American justice system waged by the prison-industrial complex.
The private prison industry plays a significant role in the phenomenon of mass incarceration. The ACLU estimates that about 16 percent of the American prison population is housed in private prisons. The very idea of for-profit prisons runs contrary to any notion of fairness in the criminal justice system. When questions of profitability enter the equation, the system aligns more with the interest of stockholders than the deliverance of fair punishment.
According to In the Public Interest, private prisons make contracts with state and local governments to maintain a certain prison occupancy rate, usually around 90 percent. These quotas represent a strange perversion of justice, where harsher sentencing is required in order to meet the terms of a contract. Men and women receive worse punishments not because of their actions, but because politicians decided to serve profit over the public interest.
It is true that individual universities only represent a small share of the private prison industry. When Columbia University divested from the private security firm G4S last year, the 220,000 shares that were sold represented only 0.015 percent of the company’s market cap. It is unlikely that the University of California’s divestment will bring serious financial harm to the private prison market. However, this does not mean that the divestment movement lacks significance. Students have a right to choose what their college represents morally. The University of California’s decision to divest is a stand for the values of a fair justice system, a refusal to take part in an inherently amoral industry.
In addition, divestment movements typically aim to bring issues into the forefront of public discourse. The most famous divestment campaign in recent years took place against South Africa during the ’70s and ’80s as an attempt to pressure the country into ending apartheid. A 1999 study by Ivo Welch and C. Paul Wazzan suggests that the financial impact of the movement was insignificant. The real impact of South African divestment was to increase awareness of the injustices of apartheid. Similarly, though it might be impossible to bring down the private prison industry through divestment, the movement may help bring down private prison control through increased public pressure.
Private prison divestment is a moral stance that can lead to a saner future for our criminal justice system. It seems that presidential candidates are hearing the voices of discontent. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have promised to end private prisons if elected as president. However, change comes from below, not above. The end of private prisons can only happen if millions of Americans show a desire for the workings of justice to prevail over corporate greed.