CUNY Prison Divest
Agbasoga (second from left, front row) and Trupin (fourth from left, back row) with other members of CUNY Prison Divest at a strategizing meeting in Nov. 2014.

Through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, CUNY Prison Divest, a new cross-campus coalition of student-organizers working towards divestment from private prisons, was able to confirm that CUNY’s endowment has substantial investments in private-prison companies. These investments include the Geo Group, Inc. (with endowment holdings of $8,400 USD), Corrections Corporation of America (CCA; $13,300 USD), and G4S ($248,900 USD). CUNY is also invested in at least one major prison contractor, Aramark ($4,600 USD), and Wall Street firms that have at least one million private-prison shares apiece, including Wells Fargo ($743,800 USD) and Morgan Stanley ($157,500 USD). Though CUNY’s revenue comes primarily through state and city funding as well as tuition, CUNY’s endowment plays an increasingly important role as university fundraising from private donors increases as public funding decreases.

Ashley Agbasoga, a Brooklyn College senior and one of the main organizers of CUNY Prison Divest, and Ian Trupin, a full-time organizer with the Responsible Endowments Coalition and a fellow core organizer of CUNY Prison Divest, gave an interview to Christina Nadler (sociology), Melissa Marturano (classics), and Sean M. Kennedy (English), all Graduate Center doctoral students, regarding this pressing issue.

We (Christina, Melissa, and Sean) hope this interview can raise awareness in the GC community about CUNY’s investments in private prisons, mobilize our community to protest these investments with CUNY Prison Divest, and enable us to think more critically about the need for the abolition of all prisons. As Ashley discusses in her responses to our questions, prisons and the prison system (known as the prison-industrial complex because of its extensive links to state and private capital) tear apart, terrorize, and incapacitate communities that are composed predominantly of poor people of color. Prisons do not make us safe. They are horrific manifestations of both state and capitalist violence.

Christina Nadler [CN]: What’s wrong with private prisons? Why do you want CUNY to divest from them? And how does this link up to other divestment efforts, such as from fossil fuels or from the Israeli occupation of Palestine?

Ian Trupin [IT]: The leading private-prison companies are GEO Group and CCA, which collectively hold contracts for about three-fourths of the private-prison beds in this country. Their combined revenues were over $3 billion USD in 2012. There are other private-prison companies, like MTC and G4S, but these haven’t been targeted as frequently because MTC stock is not traded publicly on the stock market, and G4S is a gigantic global corporation (the second largest after Walmart) and private prisons and detention centers are a relatively small part of their business.

Ashley Agbasoga [AA]: Prison as a concept is horribly wrong. But when you’re literally profiting off of the lives of others, it’s disgusting. People in both state and private prisons are usually put in there for injustices and unfair policies – for instance, most people incarcerated are in for non-violent crimes and they [are facing] extremely long sentences. You can find out more about the many abuses people face in private prisons, such as the denial of medical care and physical assault, in an online article from ACLU called “Warehoused and Forgotten.” And the first reading that got me into this is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. That sparked my interest in the prison-industrial complex as a whole and the policies around it. Keep an open mind for critiques, but there is a lot of writing out there on this subject. As for why we want CUNY to divest, I don’t want money [from] public education going towards imprisoning my own communities. I identify as Black and I know how prisons affect our communities firsthand – [they’ve] affected my own family, and I have seen what it can do to my friends and neighbors here in Brooklyn. I wouldn’t want my school to fund these institutions that destroy my community. In terms of working with other groups, I personally work with Students for Justice for Palestine, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. A lot of CUNY Prison Divest core members are also in other movements, such as Students for a Democratic Society, and Students for Justice for Palestine, and other Palestinian-rights organizations.

IT: G4S is also a BDS target, and climate change is becoming a leading factor contributing to the displacement of people, which generates income for prison companies who lock up climate refugees in detention centers. The Israeli occupation of Palestine functions as a laboratory for private companies like G4S to develop new systems of control, including carceral and surveillance technologies that are then marketed for profit around the world.

Sean M. Kennedy [SMK]: Can you give us a snapshot of the status of the movement against private prisons in the United States generally and at CUNY specifically? And how is CUNY part of the national movement?

AA: The private-prison movement is relatively new. There have been several abolitionist groups that want the abolition of all prisons, private or public, [but] private prisons didn’t get a lot of attention until recently. CUNY Prison Divest started with the help of Ian. I met him at a Columbia Prison Divest event, and we thought it’d be a great idea to bring this to CUNY. I went to Columbia my first year of undergrad, and a lot of the founders of Columbia Prison Divest I was personally friends with. I thought, Wouldn’t it be a good idea to see if CUNY is investing? I bet they are. So we started a coalition group. We reached out to other groups that participate in social-justice movements. Now we’re growing strong. We got our Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request back, we’re planning teach-ins on our campuses. We definitely have to approach it differently than at Columbia because Columbia’s more of a nuclear campus as opposed to CUNY, which is massive with schools all over the five boroughs. So we’re still in the planning stages of how to effectively make this work. We’re going to make a solid plan before we go out there.

IT: CUNY Prison Divest is connected with the National Prison Divestment Campaign, which was convened in 2011 to specifically use divestment as a means to destroy private prisons’ ability to lobby for laws and contracts that are contributing to driving up mass incarceration. The national campaign was convened by Enlace, an organization made up of low-wage worker centers in the United States and Mexico, and over the four years of its existence has included over 150 organizations, including grassroots groups, unions, [and] media campaigning and advocacy groups. CUNY Prison Divest members have taken part in regional and national prison divestment convenings and other events.

Melissa Marturano [MM]: Private-prison companies particularly receive a lot of attention because of their role in immigration-detention centers along the US-Mexico border. These companies are exploiting the US’ ever-increasing militarized and draconian immigration laws and the federal government’s shift from deportation to indefinite detention—they see immigrant detention as a “growth industry” and lobby aggressively to ensure that immigration laws become harsher and harsher.

AA: Absolutely. These private-prison companies have facilities that detain undocumented immigrants and immigrants waiting on their asylum applications. The conditions in these prisons are obviously inhumane, and should especially not be happening to families. Women and children being detained in the South-west face unbearable conditions. It’s definitely a profitable market, and in a capitalist society, we have entities like private prisons that profit off people’s lives. Instead of deportations – which is also wrong – they’re making money by keeping people in the system, which is terrifying.

MM: I just read in Colorlines about a hunger and work strike by women at the private Karnes Immigrant Detention Center run by the GEO Group. The women there have little access to clean water unless they buy a bottle of water, which costs three dollars a bottle – more than they make from a day of work. I’m curious as to how much attention this is going to get, especially since these are women striking. This is something Victoria Law writes about – too often people only pay attention to the resistance of men behind bars, but as we imprison and detain more and more women in this country, is that going to shift?

AA: I hope there’s a shift soon! I’m already seeing dialogue around looking at the imprisonment of women in our country and how it affects communities en masse; however, there’s clearly not enough out there that shifts the conversation to how women are directly and indirectly affected by mass incarceration. CUNY Prison Divest has connections to CUNY Dreamers and Families for Freedom, other immigrant rights groups and they keep us posted about things going on within immigrant communities in New York. In the future, we would like to start addressing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers in New York.

MM: One of the main criticisms against private prisons — the same for neoliberal, corporate entities like charter schools — is their lack of any real transparency or oversight, which allows for egregious abuses. But egregious abuses happen all the time in state- and federal-run facilities as well. The state can, too, hide in the shadows and can cover its abuse with legal sanction. Is CUNY Prison Divest going to research whether CUNY has any financial or institutional ties to state-run prisons, which are the majority of prisons in the United States? Or is the idea to target private prisons first, then public ones, as part of the broad prison-abolition movement?

AA: As a group, CUNY Prison Divest is definitely interested in examining how our school system is involved in state-run prisons. Prisons at all levels, whether they are public or private, contribute to the mass incarceration that targets large numbers in Black and Brown communities. Tackling all prisons could definitely prove to be an arduous task. I, however, believe that it is imperative to tackle all prisons, as they all contribute to the devastating mass incarceration in our country. To be quite honest, private or public prisons all eventually have the same goal – to incarcerate. Private prisons obviously do it for a profit, but there is plenty of money in publicly operated prisons as well. Currently, we as CUNY Prison Divest are only tackling private prisons since we have a direct investment that has been proven through the FOIL request, but hope to eventually have our school system divest from all forms of prisons.

MM: Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a CUNY professor, recently wrote in the Social Justice Journal about four issues she saw in the movement against mass incarceration and for prison abolition, one of them being what she believes is an undue emphasis on private prisons and divestment from them at universities. If only “about 5 percent of the people locked up are doing time in private prisons,” according to Gilmore, then public prisons and jails, which hold the other 95% of incarcerated people, should receive more attention. What is CUNY Prison Divest’s response to this critique? This is something I personally grapple with all the time as an activist – is our energy in the wrong place? Is there a wrong place to focus in the face of obvious injustice?

AA: This is something I grapple with too. Sometimes, I do think that it may be a waste of time to go after private prisons when they make up such a small percentage of the prisons in America. However, private prisons are growing at an astronomical rate, much faster than public prisons. Their tactics and their partnerships with the state [are troubling]. Private prisons should not be profiting off communities and bodies. Because they are growing at such an alarming rate, that explains to me why so many people focus on them. How much are they charging the state to run these prisons? And sometimes, the conditions are much, much worse in private prisons than they are in state-run prisons. Eventually, CUNY Prison Divest wants to make sure CUNY is not involved in any prisons.

IT: I think that Professor Gilmore’s point of view doesn’t reflect an accurate analysis of the goals and strategy of the private-prison divestment campaign, which is focused on using divestment from private prisons to attack the lobbying influence of private companies, which has an effect well beyond the number of people currently locked up in private prisons. Ironically, given her critique, the prison divestment campaign’s stated goal is entirely about the state and the political process that is feeding mass incarceration. If anything, I believe a weakness is that divestment only focuses on the politics, and in itself will not set anyone free. However, divestment is one strategy with a proven track record in the fight against South African apartheid, tobacco companies, and now fossil fuels and Israeli apartheid. In each of these fights, divestment was and continues to be extremely effective in polarizing and activating society around these issues through our institutions like universities, unions, religious centers, and city governments. Also, this critique ignores immigration detention. Detention centers and prisons are similar and play similar roles. The drug war and the war on immigrants are branches from the same tree. And fifty percent of detention centers are privately run. The figures Gilmore cites are arrived at by ignoring immigrants in detention.

MM: For me, just from an immigration-rights standpoint, private prisons need be stamped out immediately. As the United States detains more and more people at the US-Mexico border, more and more of these facilities will be opened up, which should be troubling for anyone – although, of course, all detention and deportation should be stamped out.

CN: As we start to look at the scope of these companies and these further connections, we could also broaden that scope to think about the other companies that make money from private prisons. Will CUNY Prison Divest also target the 36 companies, like Wells Fargo, that invest in private prisons?

AA: We’ve been in discussion about this but we haven’t made a final decision. There are a lot of opposing viewpoints on what to do. Initially, before we filed the FOIL request, we knew that the CUNY Board of Trustees and other people who are important players in the CUNY system had ties to banks that are tied to private prisons – we knew that right off the bat. But we also agreed that it would be much harder to go after these large banks rather than these private prisons. When the FOIL request came back and we got the percentages of CUNY’s investments, starting with the private-prison groups instead of the larger entities made the most sense. However, we will not fail to mention that they have a large role in this system as well.

MM: So, for CUNY Prison Divest, it’s a question of energy at this point — what can you do immediately and what you can do over the longer term?

SMK: Yeah, it sounds like a strategy of escalation, which is always a good strategy.

CN: As I understand it, the national movement’s strategy focuses on endowments, but does the endowment strategy make as much sense for a public university like CUNY, which has a much smaller endowment ($300 million USD) than private universities typically do? Is there discussion in this movement about varied forms of investment in private prisons, beyond endowments?

AA: That’s a really good question. Columbia’s endowment is $9.23 billion USD. It’s a ridiculous amount of money.

CN: Especially when you compare it to CUNY’s endowment.

AA: But the frank answer to this question is I don’t care if CUNY’s endowment was five dollars. If one dollar is going towards the imprisonment of people, especially if it’s people who look like me, I don’t want it in their endowment. No matter how “small” the endowment is there are much better things to invest in than private prisons. We take our model from Columbia because they are the closest to us and [have] the largest [campaign] in the Northeast; however, we always talk and debate about the way CUNY is very different. Our set-up is very different, from our endowment to the way things work at the board of trustees, to even just us being a public university. Also, the demographics of CUNY are different than Columbia’s and so, private-prison and security systems will affect us much more as CUNY students. Even graduating with a CUNY degree as a person of color is different than [graduating with] a Columbia degree. And of course there are a lot things at play, if you have a Columbia ID you are going to be treated differently. Personally, I’ve gotten out of getting a ticket because I showed my old Columbia ID. CUNY is made up of working class people of color – though that’s changing rapidly – and a lot of the students come from communities that are affected directly by police violence. We definitely have to look at those differences.

IT: I think this is a great question. Two campaigns that emerged this spring, at Middlebury College and Brown University, are demanding both prison divestment and abolition of the box on admissions forms that ask applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. I think these demands go well together as they can both become powerful ways to challenge our institution’s complicity in mass incarceration. I have much less certainty about looking at prison labor, however. While I think it’s really important to educate people about the existence of slave labor in prisons, I’ve also heard that prison-labor programs in some instances are the only place people inside can get anything close to skills training, or even an activity to pass the time. This is not to say that prison-labor conditions aren’t slavery, or that they aren’t abusive or even sometimes dangerous for people inside. But I would encourage folks not to boycott prison products unless people on the inside specifically call upon us to do so in solidarity, which I haven’t heard of yet.

SMK: In addition to endowment investments, a lot of universities have board members who are connected to private prisons. Do you know if any CUNY board members or administrators are linked to private prisons?

AA: We’re currently in a research phase in determining [if any] board members are involved directly with private prisons. We have a little bit of research on which trustees are involved in certain banks, such as Wells Fargo.

CN: Recently, divestment from fossil fuels was discussed by the CUNY board of trustees subcommittee on investments and it received a lot of negative feedback from the board because, as members of the board claimed, it would be too great a loss of money and, thus, they felt it would harm students. How do you hope to combat this mentality from the administration in your efforts to divest from private prisons?

AA: We know this is possibly going to be an argument against us. In terms of this, if I had to stand in front of the board of trustees, I would ask, “Can you think of anything else that will affect the CUNY population in terms of the cost of life more than private prisons and fossil fuels? I’m pretty sure you can’t.” However, these investments are profitable and, so, I think we also have to think of where the CUNY system puts its money. For example, inordinately high investments go into Macaulay Honors College, which really isn’t meant to better the general CUNY student body but rather makes CUNY look like NYU or Columbia. We see that time and again within the CUNY system. So I would let them know that there are other things we can invest in.

IT: Ultimately, what matters is that people get free, and divestment just happens to be an effective political tool to mobilize university communities in this direction. Also, divestment can take on added impact if the funds that are divested are reinvested in cooperatives or other businesses that hire formerly incarcerated people, or are redirected towards scholarships and programs for communities that are targeted by ICE, the police, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

CN: And I think what you said before ties into this – prisons, private or state, are real issues for the majority of CUNY students who are largely working class students of color. So if you think of it that way, what will harm students more, possibly making less money in the endowment, or the private-prison and immigration-detention industry?

MM: The administration can justify not divesting by saying it harms students but, to me, that’s just a line they say in order to not think about it critically.

SMK: And endowment gains aren’t going to students—it’s just a mystifying discourse. More money could in fact benefit us, but it doesn’t.

IT: If we invest in prisons, that means we’re betting that prisons will continue to be profitable in the foreseeable future. For prisons to continue to be profitable, that means that racialized mass incarceration, the drug war, and the war on immigrants will have to continue. So a bet on private prisons is a bet against the communities and even the very lives of many in the CUNY community, which is majority people of color and working class. So, board of trustees, are you going to keep on betting that the captivity of our people will remain profitable?

CN: Looking at the list of companies CUNY’s invested in, I was wondering if CUNY divested from private prisons, would they move that money into industrialized slaughter houses, or into Smith & Wesson and the other problematic companies CUNY’s invested in? Though now that we ask this question, perhaps we shouldn’t even engage with this line of questioning because it’s beside the point?

SMK: Yeah, because this is just a discursive tactic by the administration meant to mystify the issue. Answering this question isn’t the point. The point is that we’re proposing an ethical refusal. It’s not up to us to know where to put the money, we just know we don’t want the money invested in this. This is the same question around Palestine. People always ask, “Why Palestine?” The answer – people are asking us to do this. Opponents always want to pivot to the question of why not boycott everything? Why not divest from everything? The point is, this is where the mobilization is, in these particular campaigns. Prison abolition is a linchpin for broad social transformation.

AA: We need to start somewhere. A huge force in Brown and Black communities is the power of the police and how institutionalized racism tears apart our communities [which prisons feed off of]. If we present facts about the private-prison industry, how deeply it’s connected to politicians, and how the politicians we elect benefit from incarcerating communities of color, that’s somewhere to start rather than just demanding the overthrow of capitalism, because people will ask, “Why?” For instance, many politicians, like Jerry Brown in California, receive campaign donations from private-prison corporations, and, thus, they create a partnership with these groups. Going against private prisons and the entire prison-industrial complex will open up questions about capitalism. This could spark something. For a lot of people, private prisons help them to ask those questions.

CN: For people who are reading this interview and becoming aware (or more aware) of this campaign, how can they get involved in CUNY Prison Divest?

AA: The first thing that pops into my head other than come to the meetings is read more, like the ACLU article I mentioned, “Warehoused and Forgotten,” and ask questions. Go home and read about private prisons and come out to our meetings, they’re usually at 7pm on Wednesdays. They’re hosted in different parts of the city. There’s a Facebook group, and we’re working on building a website. We also have a listserv. We’d love to see new faces and have people come in and join the fight.