5 Links Between Higher Education and the Prison Industry

The worlds of academia and incarceration are closer than you may think

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The Alma Mater statue at the Columbia University campus in New York City.
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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. 

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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.

In the spring of 2013, several student groups at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara passed a Student Senate resolution calling for the UC system to dump its "million shares club" investments. California, a state that spends more money on incarceration than higher education,accounted for 12 percent of CCA's total revenue in 2012.

2. College Applications 

At many of American colleges and universities, children and young adults with criminal records need not apply. A Center for Community Alternatives report found that two thirds of colleges collect criminal justice information from their applicants. Though not all administration officials said such information had weight in the college acceptance decisions, it was more likely to be a decisive factor for private and four-year schools than for public and two-year schools. Such information is most often divulged through the Common Application, where applicants are encouraged to self-report any previous charges. At colleges that have official or informal policies of disclosure, failing to self-report one's criminal record increases the likelihood of denied or rescinded admission.

20 percent of schools reported conducting criminal background checks on prospective students, most of these hire private companies to do the dirty work. 

You don't even have to follow any money to see how such practices launder the legitimacy of the prison industrial complex through the sterling reputation of colleges and universities. In particular, barring young people with criminal records from having a shot at a college education means lending credence to a juvenile detention system which locks away more young people than that of any other industrialized nation, and institutionalizes inequality and racism in America (black youths are incarcerated at a rate five times that of their white peers; Latinos at two to three times the rate).

Meanwhile, a handful of universities, which includes the University of Phoenix, Lynn University, and DeVry University all offer reduced tuition rates for GEO employees, their parents, spouses, and children.

3. Boards of Trustees

These days it's hard to swing a chunk of change at an American university without hitting a CCA board member. That's because many of them hold prestigious positions on university Boards of Trustees where they can rub elbows with esteemed academics and advise institutions of higher learning on what to do with their endowments.

In January 2013, John Ferguson, the chairman of the board for CCA was inducted to the Board of Trustees at Belmont University, where he joined fellow CCA board member Joseph V. Russell. Belmont seems to relish its relationship with CCA. Back in 2005, The Massey Business School at Belmont University even hosted a "CCA Power Lunch" which they bragged would "continue what is already a strong bond between CCA and the Massey Business School." 

Donna M. Alvarado, who has served on CCA's Board of Directors since December 2003, was appointed to the Ohio Board of Regents in 2002 where she currently serves as vice chair. In Ohio she also serves as a member of the Governor's Commission on Higher Education and the Economy. John D. Correnti serves on CCA's Board of Directions and on the Board of Trustees at Clarkson University. Anne L. Mariucci, CCA Board of Directors member, is a director of the Arizona State University Foundation, which aside from fundraising, also, "serves as the university's entrepreneurial arm in technology commercialization, real estate investment and other emerging initiatives," according to the foundation's website. George C. Zoley, enjoys two prestigious chairmanships, one on the Board of Directors of GEO Group, which he also founded, and another at his alma mater Florida Atlantic University. Charles C. Wheeler, another GEO Group director, is on the board of FAU's Foundation, which fundraises and manages university assets. Last year, Florida Atlantic came very close to naming its new football building "GEO Group Stadium."

4. Campus Security

The global security service behemoth G4S gets the most ink for operating in Israeli prisons, where its guards have been alleged to abuse the Palestinian prisoners held there. The company's operations extend to prisons in Australia and South Africa. Sometimes their security guards return to the mothership to violently assault protesting shareholders from denouncing G4S's legion human rights violations at their own annual board meeting.

G4S also provides security services to colleges and universities nationwide. According to their website G4S provides colleges with such services as video surveillance, security officers, and "risk-mitigation software solutions." Since universities are under no obligation to advertise their security provider, it's hard to say just how many have employed G4S. Many universities, including Columbia, invest in G4S. 

5. Funding University Research

One very good way to sway public opinion, as we all know, is to have a very official-sounding study with an academic at the helm that confirms your political agenda. This is exactly what private prisons do, bankrolling university research to generate greater profits for their booming industry.

In only the last few days Temple University has begun investigating an ethics complaint against two professors who failed to disclose funding from CCA and GEO Group for crooked research on the private prison system. The research, unsurprisingly, found that private prisons are the perfect capitalist cages, generating more profits than public prisons while maintaining quality of facilities. 

CCA also partially funded a 2007 Vanderbilt University study "Do Government Agencies Respond to Market Pressures?" which, similarly, found that private prisons reduce costs per inmate. CCA generously wrote up its own summary of the report and have it proudly displayed on their website. 

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