American universities do a fine job of selling themselves as pathways to opportunity and knowledge. But follow the traffic of money and policies through these academic institutions and you'll often wind up at the barbed wire gates of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the two largest private prison operators in the United States. In the last two decades the private prison industry has exploded, growing 784 percent at the federal level, and helping the United States to achieve the highest incarceration rate in the world. CCA operates 69 facilities throughout the United States, GEO operates 55; both typically mandate that 90 percent of their beds be filled at all times. In the last two years alone CCA has defended itself against charges of fraudulent understaffing of its facilities, medical neglect and abuse of inmates.
A series of policies, appointments and investments knit America's universities into the widening net of the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex. Institutions of higher education have now become a part of what sociologist Victor Rios has called the "youth control complex"—a tightly bundled network of institutions that work insidiously and in harmony to criminalize young people of color. Here are five ways that universities buy into private prison companies.
1. Investing In Private Prisons
The clearest link between havens of higher education and private prisons, are direct investments of a university's endowment in CCA and GEO Group. The most public display of such nefarious investments has been at Columbia University, where in June 2013 a group of students discovered that their university owns 230,432 shares of CCA stock worth $8 million. In February 2014 the newly formed student groups Columbia Prison Divest delivered a letter to President Lee Bollinger demanding, among other things, that Columbia divest all its CCA shares and fully disclose its investments in the future (students can only view 10 percent of the university's investments currently).
These connections are glaring, the less obvious ones go by the names of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and other members of the "million shares club"—companies that own more than one million shares of CCA and GEO Group, and which collectively own more than two-thirds of these private prison companies. They all have directors and CEOs who sit on the boards of wealthy universities like Stanford and Columbia, and these top universities hand over healthy wads of endowment cash to them too. The full list of mega-powerful conglomerates that take stock in incarceration can be viewed here.