UC prison divestment is a half-hearted, face-saving gesture

Courtesy of UC Berkeley
Courtesy of UC Berkeley

Recently, the University of California system divested from California’s private prisons, selling approximately $25 million in shares from several of these corporations. This comes after a period of protest by students across the UC who have objected to alleged human rights abuses occurring in private prisons.

On a superficial level, this move by the UC is in line with the demands made by its students. After all, this is happening after student protests, and would thus appear to be in response to them. However, other factors make this fact seem, at best, to be a coincidence, and at worst, a cynical move aiming to improve public perception.

For starters, the divestment is only a partial measure. The UC system still has significant funds invested in private prisons, which means only a fraction of their total investment has actually been removed from those businesses. Not only that, the UC also holds investments in various companies that, in turn, have money in private prisons. Therefore, if their goal of divesting is to make a statement about the privatization of the criminal justice system, the statement is severely watered down.

The UC system is ultimately a business, and it needs to invest to stay in the black. However, its choice of business that it works with, namely, private prisons, indicates several factors that put its public face in an ugly light. Considering the potential profits to be found in private prisons, the UC demonstrates it is not just interested in financial stability; it wants to make money.

The UC system is also indicating, by not taking decisive action regarding divestment, that it is blind to both the demands of the student population and the larger significance of its investment in private prison corporations. Despite the ongoing protests of students across the UC system against its investment in such corporations, the administration has failed to pull out entirely, making instead what can be called an attempt at appeasing the groups opposing them. Furthermore, the action does not have the backing of the UC Board of Regents, meaning that at its core, the system does not want to make a change.

Equally as important is the problem that by investing in private prisons, the UC system is ignoring critical humanitarian issues. Student money is being used to prop up institutions that profit off mass incarceration, take advantage of prisoner labor and are filled because of maximized prison sentences and disproportionate (i.e. racist) rates of incarceration. Simply put, the money students contribute to the UC system should not be used to support such an ignoble business, and the regents are showing a very callous side by ignoring the student voices that want that change to be made.

We can be thankful, at least, that this divestment happened at all. Regardless of its motives and intent, the UC system has done something that meshes with what its students have fought to achieve. And this first act can lead to more action along the same lines. As it stands, though, it is not enough.

This unfortunate situation the UC system providing de facto support for certain institutions against the will of the student population is easily resolved. Considering that the administration has, to a degree, begun the process of divesting from private prisons, it is no major stretch for them to finish the job and divest 100 percent of its money from prison corporations and the miscellaneous businesses that back them. Such a policy, it may be argued, is bad for the UC’s business, but by doing so, the system would affirm its purpose as an educational institution, rather than an organization looking to make money. It also does not have to be a total loss for the system’s inseparable business side.

Because of the UC’s business nature, there is still a need to invest in companies to maintain financial stability. With the recent divestment, it has a large chunk of change on hand for investing in some other corporation, one that falls in line with the concerns of its students and the values it is supposed to uphold. This policy, supplemented by further divestments, would show that the administration is interested in what its students have to say, and continue to provide the necessary economic basis for the operation of its business aspects.

Alternatively, the money available could be used to more directly benefit students. The money obtained from divesting could pay for infrastructural repairs and upgrades across the system. Similarly, it could cover the expenses of hiring new teaching staff, expanding classes or funding important student programs. These would be investments in the most significant resource at the UC’s disposal its students and would prove that the administration is not concerned first and foremost with profit.

One key note is that all of this action is meaningless if it is occurring without the consent, much less the approval of the UC Regents. If other figures must go above their heads to make this change, then the Regents show they are unwilling to be anything but roadblocks on the path of progress. In this case, they only deepen their unpopularity with an often-disgruntled student body. Therefore, to save face and show a desire to champion reform, the Regents must themselves push for divestment, and make themselves open to the voices of the students they are charged with overseeing.
The benefits of divestment making better investments and earning the trust of students far outweigh the short-term losses of revenue. Future generations of regents and students (and prisoners) will be better off if the administration makes smart choices today.

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