Columbia University (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In July, I published a post about Columbia University becoming the first U.S. institution of higher education to announce that it was divesting from private prison companies after a years-long campaign by students. The post explained how Columbia came to make the decision, and examined why other colleges and universities should do the same. It was written by Christia Mercer, Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia, where she teaches in prison as part of Columbia’s Justice in Education Initiative. She is also editor of Oxford Philosophical Concepts, co-editor of Oxford New Histories of Philosophy, and winner of the 2008 Columbia College Great Teacher Award and the 2012 Mark van Doren Teaching Award. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, a national initiative devoted to increasing the public impact of underrepresented voices.

Her piece prompted a response from Jonathan Burns, director of public affairs for CCA, who argued that the piece was incorrect. In the interests of broad discussion, I am publishing his comments as well as a response by Mercer. Below you will find the original post, as well CCA’s comments and Mercer’s response to CCA.

By Christia Mercer

On Tuesday, July 14, in Philadelphia, President Obama gave a policy speech to the National  Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention saying that “we can’t close our eyes any more” to mass incarceration and calling for a bipartisan effort to fix “a broken system.” On Thursday, July 16, he will be the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, where he will “shine a light on” prison conditions. There is a movement afoot to reimagine justice in the United States.

Last month, Columbia University, where I have been a professor for over 20 years, became the first university in the nation to divest from prisons. In the words of President Lee Bollinger, the university will “divest any direct stock ownership interests in companies engaged in the operation of private prisons and refrain from making subsequent investments in such companies.”

Despite my university’s clarion call, the prison divestment struggle will not be easy. At Columbia, divestment from fossil fuels is also being seriously considered, but many other university presidents and trustees find divestment of any sort ill advised. Harvard University President Drew Faust put her anti-divestment cards on the table in a 2013 letter to the Harvard community. Having taken up the question of fossil fuel divestment, she flatly rejects any “steps intended to instrumentalize” investments or use them “as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes.” Arguing that her university’s sole financial goal is to maintain “the endowment’s financial strength,” she refuses to consider “other purposes, however worthy.”

It would appear that social purposes are in the eye of the Harvard beholder. Not only did the university divest itself of some of its holdings in South African businesses in the late 1980’s, it severed financial relations with the tobacco industry during that time as well. As President Derek Bok explained in 1990, Harvard did not want “to be associated with companies [whose] products create a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm to other human beings.”

Amnesia about past divestment also plagues current trustees. Christianna A. Wood, a trustee of Vassar College, rejects divestment campaigns, noting that “petulantly selling” shares is ill advised because it doesn’t “hurt the company at all.” Instead of divesting, it’s better to engage “institutions in our society responsible for public policy, such as legislators, regulators, and standard setters.”

President Faust and Trustee Wood use the same arguments employed by their anti-divestment predecessors in the 1980’s, and show the same disregard for the grave social concerns motivating the call to divest. They also conveniently overlook the close financial ties that university trustees so often bear to the very companies selected for divestment.

Such anti-divestment voices will die out as more and more Americans discover the cruelties and injustices underlying the prison industry. Following in the footsteps of their anti-apartheid predecessors, activists across the nation are working to expose the brutality in a regime only dimly understood by the vast majority of Americans. President Obama’s attention to the problem will greatly help their cause.

The facts speak for themselves. Although in the early 1980’s, the American criminal justice system incarcerated around 400,000 people, there are currently at least 2.2 million people in a correctional facility in the U.S, which imprisons more people — both per capita and in absolute terms — than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran.

Recent studies show that black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic men. If current trends continue, one in every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one in every six Latino males—compared to one in every 17 white men.

The challenge facing today’s divestment supporters is much like that of their anti-apartheid predecessors. When that movement began in the 1970’s, few Americans understood the repressive tactics of South Africa’s regime. As students and other activists disclosed the suffering and injustices underlying apartheid, they provoked the consciences of the nation.

The South African divestment campaign was hard-fought. Beginning in the late 1970’s, student activists faced an uphill struggle persuading university trustees that their responsibilities extended to matters of social conscience and justice. Columbia’s divestment movement made significant headway in 1978, when trustees agreed to “withdraw deposits in financial institutions doing business with the South African government.”

As progressive as this decision seemed on the national stage at the time, it did not satisfy Columbia’s Black Students Organization, whose Coalition for a Free South Africa (CFSA) pressed on. Although the University Senate unanimously voted for full divestiture in 1982, trustees soundly rejected their recommendation commenting that divestment “won’t help South Africa, but will hurt Columbia.” After years of frustration, the CFSA escalated its tactics in March 1985, when seven members began a hunger strike while other students blockaded the campus’ main classroom building, chaining shut its doors.

The 1985 Columbia campaign gained international attention when in quick succession thousands of students joined the protest, faculty cancelled classes in support of the cause, South African Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu voiced solidarity, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson gave rip-roaring speeches to large crowds on campus, and the iconic folk-singer Peter Seeger led students in song. Hundreds of thousands of supporters across the nation joined the cause. After disciplinary actions, police presence, court orders barring arrests on campus, and more protests, Columbia’s Trustees agreed to reconsider their decision. In October 1985, Columbia became the first private institution of higher education in the nation to divest all its holdings in businesses related to South Africa.

The demonstrations at Columbia changed everything. In 1984, only scattered colleges and state universities had fully divested from South African. By 1988, over 150 had joined the cause.

Although prominent universities like Harvard and Yale never fully divested, companies began to withdraw from South Africa with General Motors selling its plant there in 1986 and IBM leaving in 1987. In the words of F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid regime, “When the divestment movement began, I knew that apartheid had to end.”

Or, as Desmond Tutu would later say, “We could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.”

Like the anti-apartheid movement, the current divestment campaign is spearheaded by black students and engages a broad range of topics. After Barack Obama gave his first political speech at an anti-apartheid rally in 1982, the discussion quickly turned to America’s own “smoldering racism.”

After Columbia students formed Student Prison Divest in 2013, their rallies against the prison industry provoked hand-made signs and passionate speeches about systemic racism and criminal injustices. As students proclaimed, black lives matter whether in a playground in Cleveland or sweltering prison cell in Oklahoma.

Although prisons dot the landscape of North America, the money they generate and the suffering they cause have been hidden from most Americans. Of the millions of people currently under some form of correctional control in the United States, a disproportionate number come from a few neighborhoods in major cities of each state.

Overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor, the residents of these neighborhoods are those most likely to suffer from substandard schools, unemployment and homelessness. These are the same neighborhoods to which the vast majority of incarcerated people return. Although roughly 12 percent of the U.S. population is black, in 2011, black Americans constituted 30 percent of people arrested for a property offense and 38 percent of those arrested for a violent offense. Black youths account for 16 percent of all children in America, but count for 28 percent of juvenile arrests. With more than 4 million people under state surveillance and supervision, many from the same neighborhoods, resentment is rampant, undermining the legitimacy of the justice system itself. From Ferguson to Cleveland, recent shootings of unarmed black youths have brought the simmer to a boil.

In 1985, the divestment campaign educated Americans about the brutality and racism of the South African regime and demanded that U.S. businesses not make money on the backs of apartheid’s victims. In 2015, anti-prison campaigners call attention to the brutality of mass incarceration and the money made on the backs of incarcerated people. And, like their anti-apartheid predecessors, current activists expose the vast financial rewards reaped by companies that deprive individuals of freedom, wrest loved ones from families, and destroy communities while also draining state governments of tax-paying citizens. The anti-prison campaigners intend to stir consciences and undermine a brutal regime, this time hidden in our own backyard.

Columbia’s prison divestment campaign called special attention to G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, and to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the United States, whose guards are reported to use “extreme isolation arbitrarily and abusively,” exposing prisoners to contaminated water, and delayed medical care, causing “needless suffering.” As a Columbia Prison Divest organizer made the point, “The private prison model is hinged on maximizing incarceration to generate profit — they’re incentivized by convicting, sentencing, and keeping people in prison for longer and longer times.” In words reminiscent of the apartheid campaign, she added, “We don’t think about how the privileges and resources students get access to are premised on violence done to people by virtue of their race, class, or citizenship status.”

We also don’t think enough about how these industries influence politicians through lobbying and donations.

CCA states in its 2010 Annual Report, “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . .” That same year CCA and another prison company received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue.

Columbia’s president and trustees have been moved by the brutality of prisons and the need to reconsider the prison industrial complex more broadly. “The issue of mass incarceration in America,” as President Bollinger wrote to the Columbia community in May, “weighs heavily on our country, our city, and our University community.”

In a statement that I hope business leaders and other university presidents will note, a university spokesperson placed Columbia’s divestment decision “within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum.”

In 1985, a Columbia student weak from his days-long hunger strike explained, “The fasts are a symbolic sacrifice for others who are suffering. We hope that our university will have the courage and integrity to follow suit.”

Columbia students and professors like me hope other universities will have the courage and integrity to follow Columbia’s lead in reconsidering our complicity in a prison industry that ravages our communities and brings disgrace upon our nation.

Here are comments from Jonathan Burns, director of public affairs for CCA:

I am writing on behalf of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to request a correction to the July 15 opinion piece “Columbia University divesting from private prison companies. Why other schools should too.” ( The piece contains multiple misleading and false statements about our company. I have highlighted each area of concern below, followed by corrective factual information.

Columbia’s prison divestment campaign called special attention to G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, and to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the United States, whose guards are reported to use “extreme isolation arbitrarily and abusively,” exposing prisoners to contaminated water, and delayed medical care, causing “needless suffering.”

This statement is false. First, the piece links to an unrelated ACLU report ([]). The quotes cited are nowhere in the linked report.

The relevant, although still incorrectly cited, report can be found at[]. As you can see in the text, the ACLU’s research is not solely dedicated to CCA, as the author implies. In fact, quotes such as “extreme isolation arbitrarily and abusively,” and “needless suffering,” are pulled from sub-headlines in the report; the report’s authors do not use those phrases in specific reference to CCA, but rather in reference to their opinion of private prisons in general. As you will see in the ACLU report, CCA is only mentioned once under the section titled, “Prison staff use extreme isolation arbitrarily and abusively,” and it is in only in reference to a single contract. Further, CCA is not mentioned at all in the “needless suffering” section. The claim that these quotes are referring specifically to CCA or the work of our staff is false and wildly misleading to your readership.

We also don’t think enough about how these industries influence politicians through lobbying and donations.

CCA states in its 2010 Annual Report, “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . .” That same year CCA and another prison company received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue.

There a number of falsehoods in this statement. To be clear, under longstanding policy, CCA does not draft, lobby for or in any way promote policies that determine the basis or duration for an individual’s incarceration or detention. It is misleading and inaccurate to draw a line from our company’s political contributions to specific policy issues — especially given CCA’s longstanding lobbying policy.

It is also misleading to presume policy stances from any company’s shareholder report or filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). For example, the Coca-Cola Company ( discloses that obesity concerns may decrease demand for its products, but the company does not lobby against obesity awareness.

These reports—which are required by law—are meant to communicate to shareholders any and all potential risk factors for a company, regardless of whether the company takes a stance on those issues. To argue otherwise is false.

We respectfully request corrections to the false and misleading information in this piece. Please feel free to contact me at the information listed below to speak further about this issue.

Thank you,

Jonathan Burns
Director, Public Affairs

Here’s a response to Burns’ comments from Mercer:

The summer of 2015 will prove to be a turning point in the history of criminal justice in the United States. In June, Columbia became the first university in the nation to divest from private prisons. In quick succession in July, President Obama insisted that we no longer “close our eyes” to mass incarceration, became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison where he highlighted unfair sentencing laws and motivated what appears to be a genuinely bi-partisan effort in Congress to revise decades-long laws.

August was full of articles in major newspapers about prison violence, unfair sentencing, and “unusual alliances” on prison reform, and in the last days of summer, California has agreed to reform its use of solitary confinement, which The Washington Post recently called a form of torture.

It’s no wonder the private prison industry is running scared.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the largest private prison company in the United States, standing to lose millions of dollars in revenue as students and professors like me help expose the brutal realities of its facilities, call upon our universities to divest from the private prison industry, and support the growing movement to reimagine justice in our country.

It did not come as a surprise when Jonathan Burns, CCA’s Director of Public Affairs, requested corrections to my Post, “Columbia University divesting from private prison companies. Why other schools should too.” Mr. Burns’ demand for corrections exemplifies the tortured logic of the corporation he represents.

Founded in 1983 as the tough-on-crime movement was gaining momentum, CCA’s profits and influence have increased alongside the 500 percent growth in the U.S. prison population. In 2013, CCA made nearly $1.7 billion in revenue and $300 million in profits, 100 percent of which came from taxpayers via government contracts. Although Mr. Burns and his colleagues say CCA does not lobby for specific bills, the lobbying firms it employs have spent over $21.1 million since 1998 promoting legislation that has increased the number of prisons, prisoners, and immigration detainees.

CCA prisons are notoriously dangerous. In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against CCA for turning a blind eye to systemic violence in an Idaho prison, which its occupants called the “Gladiator School” because, as a former correctional officer at the prison explained, to enter meant you had to “fight or die,” according to this CNBC story.

According to a senior ACLU staff attorney, in “39 years of suing prisons and jails,” he had never witnessed “a more disgraceful, revolting and inexcusable case of mass abuse and federal rights violations,” noting the appalling “level of unnecessary human suffering” and utter failure of prison officials “to protect prisoners from being violently harmed.”

Inexcusable suffering in CCA-run facilities is nothing new. Within months of opening a prison in Youngstown, Ohio in 1997, CCA faced a class-action suit that alleged “high levels of violence and dangerous conditions” and resulted in a settlement of $1.6 million. The Youngstown mayor decreed in 1998, a year after the prison opened, “It’s been a nightmare.” CCA’s “credibility is zero.”

“Allegations of violence, sexual abuse, incompetence and mistreatment have become endemic to CCA’s facilities,” one study states, “as have numerous charges of CCA employees using prisoners for profiteering, from cases of drug trafficking to outright theft.” Guards have been found guilty of misconduct ranging from mixing urine in prisoners’ juice to systematic sexual mistreatment of immigrant detainees.

Instead of responding publicly to ongoing claims of rampant sexual exploitation in its facilities, CCA shareholders rejected a resolution in 2012 that would have required making public any plan to reduce incidents of rape and abuse. At the same meeting, shareholders approved a $4.1 million annual salary for CCA’s chief executive officer.

The corporation’s attempts to skirt the law have also been exposed. After an FBI investigation confirmed theviolence in CCA’s “Gladiator School,” state authorities demanded changes, but CCA was found by an Idaho judge to have falsified records. The judge found the corporation in contempt of court, citing its “pattern of lies,” writing in 2013, “For CCA staff to lie on so basic a point – whether an officer is actually at a post – leaves the Court with serious concerns about compliance in other respects, such as whether every violent incident is reported.” In attempting to deceive state authorities, CCA stood to make thousands of dollars in undeserved profits while continuing to ignore the safety of its prisoners.

Finally, Idaho’s governor announced in 2014 that CCA would not be allowed to renew its contract, citing “more than a decade of mismanagement,” according to this Associated Press story.

CCA has also been accused by the ACLU to be duplicitous in its business practices. After supporting Temple University professors’ research on cost-benefits of private prisons, the corporation used the resulting report in its promotional materials, calling it an “independent study” while the offending professors hid the financial sources of their work and published op-eds about their findings. Even after experts questioned the report’s conclusions and revealed that the private prison industry had commissioned it, CCA continued to use what one expert called their “bought-and paid-for research” to urge politicians to sign multi-million dollar contracts.

Just last year, experts offered scathing criticisms of the professors’ methodology as Temple University disassociated itself from the report, bringing ethical complaints against its authors.

Given its track record of misinformation, it’s not surprising that CCA demanded corrections to my Post when none is required. The Corrections Corporation of America seems no better at making corrections than at running correctional facilities.

Mr. Burns claims it’s “wildly misleading” to suggest CCA’s guards have used “extreme isolation arbitrarily and abusively” and exposed prisoners to “delayed medical care, causing needless suffering.”

But a 2014 study shows that CCA’s contract for one facility set a “10% quota for putting prisoners in extreme isolation whenever the prison is filled to capacity.” That is, regardless of behavior, CCA was prepared to force 10 percent of the prison’s occupants to suffer the deprivation of solitary confinement.

And CCA’s record of insufficient medical care is unambiguous. A CCA-managed facility in Colorado refused to refill a man’s $35 prescription when his release was only days away. He did not survive the remainder of his stay. In another case, a quadriplegic man died halfway through a 10-day sentence for marijuana possession, having been denied a medically necessary ventilator. One CCA-run Texas jail was closed after seven people died, apparently due to lack of proper medical attention. In one of those cases, a woman was given cheap insulin pills rather than her prescribed injections leading to diabetic coma and death. As a well-documented 2013 study argues, “CCA’s profit-increasing strategies constitute a vicious cycle where lower wages and benefits for workers, high employee turnover, insufficient training, and chronic understaffing can lead to mistreatment of inmates, increased violence, security concerns, and riots” as well as “profit-focused measures that affect inmates, such as withholding medical care.”

Mr. Burn also denies that CCA seeks to influence politicians, writing “CCA does not draft, lobby for or in any way promote policies that determine the basis or duration for an individual’s incarceration or detention.” He insists, “It is misleading and inaccurate to draw a line from our company’s political contributions to specific policy issues.”

Really? Not only does CCA spend hundreds of thousand of dollars annually on lobbyists, it’s been a prominent member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that writes legislation, which it then peddles to conservative lawmakers.

Besides being a corporate member of ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force, which wrote “model bills” on “crime and punishment,” CCA co-chaired the committee during the early 1990s when the tough-on-crime movement was gaining significant ground.

One ALEC official was quoted in this public radio story as saying that the task force “really took the forefront in promoting” the tough-on-crime “ideals and then taking them into their states and talking to their colleagues and getting their colleagues to understand that if, you know, we want to reduce crime we have to get these guys off the streets.”

In Wisconsin, for example, then state legislator Scott Walker proposed a “truth-in-sentencing bill” in 1998, acknowledging that ALEC “had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation.”

As to the benefits of ALEC-sponsored sentencing laws, Wisconsin now spends more on prisons than it does on higher education and has the country’s highest rate of African-American men behind bars, nearly double the national average.

Finally, Mr. Burns challenges any suggestion that CCA’s 2010 Annual Report reveals its “stance on” parole standards and sentencing practices. But CCA’s business practices and lobbying efforts clearly discourage leniency. In a 2012 letter to state governors, for example, CCA proposed to “assume ownership” of state prisons with the requirements that each prison have a “minimum rated occupancy of 1,000 beds” and that CCA obtain “assurance” that there is “sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the [20 year] contract.”

In the words of the ACLU, “to keep a large prison 90% full for twenty years” poses “an obstacle to more serious criminal justice reform.”

Given CCA’s longstanding influence on ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force, it’s no wonder that ALEC has promoted three-strike laws, mandatory minimum sentences, laws requiring repeat offenders to serve 25 years to life in prison, and truth-in-sentencing bills, which requires prisoners to serve most or all of their time without a chance for parole. As one long-time correctional expert summarizes the underlying point in this CNBC story, “you can put a dollar figure on each inmate that is held at a private prison. They are treated as commodities.”

The events of the summer have significantly advanced the struggle to rethink criminal justice in the United States. Fewer Americans can condone the harsh sentencing laws of the past, abide the present rate of incarceration, or accept the use of tortuous solitary confinement. As more and more members of our community also become aware of the unimaginable cruelties inherent in the private prison industry, they will increasingly see the false claims and deceptive practices of CCA for what they are.