UH Students Urge University to Divest From For-Profit Prisons

Grad students at the University of Houston have launched a petition urging the school to divest from the private prison industry, which is made up of companies that profit from incarcerating people.

Two social work students, Julia Kramp and Nakia Winfield, learned that UH had several million dollars invested in four major financial corporations that, in turn, each had millions of shares in private prisons. The two had been tasked with launching a social policy initiative as a class project and had been following End Mass Incarceration Houston, which often criticizes these private prisons for making a buck off mass incarceration. So when Kramp and Winfield found out UH was, indirectly, investing in this industry,  they reached out to End Mass Incarceration Houston and started putting together a petition urging UH to stop “banking on bondage.” Now, the petition has more than 200 signatures.

"Private prisons really prey on and exploit targeted populations: people of color, usually in poor neighborhoods," Winfield said. "They try to pass legislation that increases detentions, that rips apart families, that has people in jail for longer sentences for nonviolent crimes. So it's really insidious on a personal level because of the way it rips apart communities."

The petition is modeled after initiatives that student activists launched at the University of California and Columbia University in New York, where they successfully convinced their universities to divest from private prisons in December and June respectively. Unlike UH, both of those universities were directly investing in prison companies, like the Corrections Corporation of America. Michael Allen, an activist with End Mass Incarceration Houston, had been in contact with students and activists from each of those schools about how they managed to pull it off, and he shared those tips with Kramp and Winfield. “They suggested it might take as long as two years,” Allen said. “But we think we can do it more quickly if we can bring the pressure to bear and keep it consistent.”

Over the past couple of decades, private prisons have been on the rise. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of people held in private prisons increased by 1,600 percent, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Many are undocumented immigrants: Sixty-two percent of all beds in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities are run by private prisons, according to the national social justice group Grassroots Leadership.

Another report by In The Public Interest found that roughly two-thirds of private prison contracts it examined required that the prisons be 80 to 100 percent at capacity — and that's regardless of the crime rate outside. Which means that the private prison industry also has a big incentive to lobby lawmakers to keep their tough-on-crime attitudes up. As Kramp, Winfield and Allen note in their research, Corrections Corporation of America and another private prison company, GEO, together had hired 270 lobbyists since 2003. And they can do that, the UH students note, because of the millions of dollars that others invest in their companies.

Kramp, Winfield and Allen are putting together a panel to raise awareness about the issue on April 12. They said they hope this might lead to more student interest in things like future rallies or sit-ins — things that were largely a part of Columbia's campaign, for example. 

Allen said it helps to look at what those students were able to accomplish

“We don't want to limit ourselves by thinking, oh, we're not big enough —we're just activists or students,” Allen said. “We don't want to limit ourselves to that. I really believe that this is within our grasp.”

We asked the University of Houston for comment on the petition. We will update if and when the school provides one.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn