Columbia Prison Divest is wrapping up a week of events called People, Prisons & Profit, which aimed to increase awareness for its divestment movement on campus.
On Wednesday, the group sent a letter to University President Lee Bollinger asking for a meeting within two weeks to discuss the benefits of divestment from the private prison industry.
"We see a fundamental contradiction between investment in incarceration and what this university stands for, because this is a matter of what is just and for whom we demand justice," the letter said. "Because this is a direct relationship between our privilege at Columbia and the denial of human dignity elsewhere."
In February, students of Columbia Prison Divest hand-delivered a letter, which student leaders said had been in the works since last semester, to Bollinger's office. Students said they found out in June that Columbia owned 230,432 shares in various private prison companies, worth about $8 million. Bollinger could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The group never met with Bollinger, and its members are now hoping that the week's events will bring more attention to their cause.
"We want to reiterate the demands that we've voiced. We want to make sure to bring these demands to the community in as accessible a way as possible," Gabriela Pelsinger, CC '15 and a member of the group, said.
The letter sent on Wednesday goes into detail about how Columbia's financial benefit from incarceration in private prisons "puts [for us] the prestige of this university in question" and that the matter "warrants more than just research, more than presentations behind closed doors."
The group hopes that a meeting with Bollinger will allow them to continue conversations that they have had with the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, a group that advises the University trustees.
"I really feel like it impacts my ability to be close to people who I care about—it impacts the health of communities that I care about—and so it's really important to me that mass incarceration be addressed," Jesse Ferrell, CC '16, said.
The week has included tabling and information sessions in Lerner about the history of mass incarceration in the United States and the movement to divest from prisons, a photo project in which students held signs to show their support for divestment, and conversations with other student groups about the prison system. On Thursday, the group will host a teach-in on Low Plaza at 3 p.m. with Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and an event with Radical C.U.N.T.S at 5 p.m. in Malcolm X Lounge on sexual violence in the age of mass incarceration.
At Wednesday's event, "Questioning 'Justice,'" which was held in collaboration with Students Against Mass Incarceration and Lucha, participants discussed the relationships between race, power, justice, and mass incarceration.
"The whole incarceration system is based on free will," Kelvin Rojas, CC '15, said. "That narrative doesn't apply to poor people of color in the same way."
Attendees at the event also discussed Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which allowed local police to ask people about their immigration statuses based on their physical appearences. Event facilitators showed different media clips on the Supreme Court's decision to uphold part of the law, which in turn led to a discussion of the portrayal of criminality by the media.
One of the corporations that lobbied for the original passage of the bill by the Arizona State Legislature, Corrections Corporation of America, is a private prison company in which Columbia currently invests, according to Columbia Prison Divest.
"Essentially, officials in CCA saw the immigration debate as a place where they could make money if they built detention facilities to host undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation," Pelsinger said at the meeting.
Members of Columbia Prison Divest hope that the group's actions will help create policy changes in how the University chooses to invest in organizations.
"The fact that capital is connected to the lawmaking process demonstrates that we can't look to government reform or to capital," Chris Wang, CC '16, said. "Obviously, reform would be beneficial, but we need a more radical change."
The group hopes that events like this will engage more students in this issue to help shift Columbia away from investing in the prison industry.
"We are engaged in this process. We know that there's a lot of bureaucracy, and because we see divestment as one part of a larger anti-mass incarceration struggle, getting Columbia to divest is the goal of this campaign," Asha Rosa, CC '16, said. "However, that's a strategy, and it's a part of a larger divestment effort nationally, which has the aim of creating the culture in which it is not socially acceptable to be invested in something like a prison."
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