Berkeley City Council voted July 19 to adopt a resolution calling on the city to divest from private prisons and send a letter to the city’s business partners requesting them to do the same.
During City Council’s regular meeting, a resolution proposed by Councilmember Kriss Worthington was passed to appeal to the city of Berkeley to divest from the private prison industry. According to Worthington, the resolution would first require the city’s finance department to evaluate the potential consequences on Berkeley’s economy from divesting in private prisons before acting.
“There’s a certain amount of research that has to be done first,” Worthington said. “The first step here is to look at what the financial impact can be and weigh that in relation to the ethical.”
In 2015, the university sold about $25 million worth of its investments in private prison corporations, such as the GEO Group Inc., the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, and G4S, after meeting several times with groups of concerned students from the Afrikan Black Coalition, or ABC, a universitywide group for Black student organizations.
Campus senior Anthony Williams, editor in chief of the ABC, said the ABC ultimately supports the divestment of all prisons. He added that the city of Berkeley needs to continue putting pressure on companies that hold investments in private prisons.
“We need to keep taking it further, we need to keep pushing,” Williams said.
Following the divestment from the UC system, the ASUC sent a resolution to the city of Berkeley to take similar action and divest from private prisons. Campus senior and outgoing ASUC Senator Boomer Vicente, who worked closely on the City Council item, said he will begin meeting with Enlace, a national organization promoting racial and economic justice, to plan the next steps for the city.
According to campus law professor Jonathan Simon, the biggest difference between a public and private prison is who operates it. A public prison’s agents are directly appointed by the state, whereas a private prison is independent of the state. Simon said that under the Constitution, both types of prisons are required to uphold the same standards for prisoners.
Simon added that advocates of private prisons see them as more innovative compared to public prisons because of their freedom to invest more into technological and educational advances. He warned, however, that because private prisons are typically for-profit, they may have ulterior motives when given the choice of selecting prisoners.
“The thing to worry about is primarily that private prisons*,* primarily*,* will try to cherry pick prisoners that don’t have health needs that need to be met,” Simon said.
Ruben Pulido, a spokesperson for Wells Fargo — a company that the city resolution specifically recommended sending a letter to divest from private prisons — said in an email that, as a corporation, Wells Fargo does not take official policy stances on issues that are unrelated to its ability to serve its customers and team members.
According to Jonathan Burns, director of public affairs of CCA, in the past, CCA has helped alleviate the California prison system when it was over capacity.
“It’s unfortunate that activists would advocate against those benefits without themselves providing any real solutions to the serious challenges our corrections systems face,” Burns said in an email.
Berkeley is the second city in the nation to pass an item on divestment from private prisons after Portland, Oregon. No cities in the U.S., however, have yet divested from private prisons.