Divest / Invest

The US today spends more than $80 billion a year incarcerating 2.3 million people in state and federal prisons, local jails, youth facilities and deportation centers. That’s $80 billion that comes out of public coffers and goes into public confinement. 

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were shocked to see woman, children and migrants—including many pre-trial and pre-hearing, who had never been convicted of anything — crammed into overcrowded lock-ups that might as well have been petri dishes for community spread of the disease. 

By the middle of October, close to 150,000 residents and almost 30,000 staff and workers had tested positive for Covid and 1,122 detainees and 42 staff had died according to the Behind Bars Covid Data Project of UCLA. 

For many Americans, there’s never been a better time to reconsider this entire incarceration system. Years of work by abolitionists like Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and organizations like Critical Resistance are finally paying off. 

With movements calling for defunding and divesting, people are raising the heat on the thousands of corporations that profit off the millions of our fellows whom we lock up. The list of 4,100 prison contractors from the advocacy group Worth Rises includes thousands of names you know, like Black and Decker and Smith and Wesson, and thousands more you don’t.  

That heat has translated into action. In 2019, JP Morgan and Bank of America agreed to stop lending to new prison construction. The HEROES Act passed by the House in the early days of the pandemic restored FCC regulation over the crazy costs of prison phone calls. One individual was shamed off an LA Art museum board this fall. 

Divestment resonates because it has a track record. In South Africa, it was economic pressure, from students and shareholders and politicians and unions that pushed racial apartheid into crisis. But divestment didn’t do the whole job of righting the wrongs of apartheid South Africa. Today, while that country’s government looks a lot like the nation, the biggest corporations — and the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth and capital — is still overwhelmingly in white hands. 

The US has a chance to go one better than South Africa. As much as we talk about divesting from harm and what hurts our society we also need to talk about healing, and that means moving money not just out of incarceration, but into the hands of those people and communities whom our current system has harmed most. 

Especially after Covid, the most contentious election in living memory and the most layoffs since the 1930s, we need to divest from harm for starters, yes. And then we must invest in what closes our killer wealth gap and makes our society whole. Community healthcare, publicly owned clean water and renewable power;  well paid green jobs, public, high-quality education, unions, arts, worker-owned businesses..

What difference could $80 billion make invested in improving the life chances of the most vulnerable where you are? And beyond voting for someone else to do it, how would you, yourself go about investing in that? 

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