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Editorial: Against Divestment from Private Prisons

During the Spring Undergraduate Student Government elections this week, students voted on, among other ballot items, a referendum calling on the University and the Princeton Investment Corporation to “divest from corporations that draw profit from incarceration, drug control and immigrant deportation policies.” The Board has consistently argued against divestment of the University’s endowment. Although the referendum did not meet the minimum voting requirement of one-third the student body,the Board urges the University to reject future petitions to divest unless there is substantial consensus and more conclusive evidence. In addition, we believe there are several problems with the proposal. Specifically, Students for Prison Education and Reform and advocates of the referendum conflate issues surrounding the criminal justice system with issues surrounding private prisons. Finally, we believe SPEAR presents inconclusive evidence on the merits or harms of governmental entities employing private companies to incarcerate or detain people.

Divestment should only be reserved for issues that garner substantial consensus among members of the University community. The University’s endowment is largely funded by alumni donations and serves as its primary source of revenue. It implicitly represents the entire Princeton community. As a result, the neutrality of the endowment should be maintained, and its investment practices should not be politicized. Political issues related to America’s criminal justice system are controversial, and divesting from certain corporations involved in the prison system would imprudently take a position that lacks substantial consensus within the University community. This harms the University’s commitment to free and open academic discourse since the institution itself would be taking a public position on a political issue that might garner debate on-campus among students, guest speakers, or faculty members. Student referenda are also poor measures of support in the University community for a proposition. Less than one-third of undergraduates voted in this referendum, and the lack of an organized opposition campaign to this first-time referendum resulted in largely one-sided public advocacy. For these reasons, we continue to oppose efforts to divest Princeton’s endowment unless substantial consensus is demonstrated.


Besides our objections to divestment in general, we also believe there are several issues with the private prisons divestment proposal itself. First, operating private prisons is a separate issue of justice from the issues conventionally associated with American incarceration policy. Government definitions of crime, mandatory minimums and guidelines for policing are separate policy challenges from private prisons. While the Board acknowledges that the American criminal justice system is not perfect and still suffers from issues related to systemic racism and discrimination, prisons and incarceration are an integral part of any justice system. Government entities around the country have chosen, for a myriad of reasons, to employ private companies to either run prisons or provide the services necessary to run them. This choice should be viewed separately from the policies determining why people are incarcerated. This divestment proposal attempts to address mass incarceration, but it targets the wrong aspects of the criminal justice system. There are also problems with SPEAR’s charge that lobbying by private prison companies causes particular harms. Lobbying is not unique to private prisons since the same incentives can exist for public sector prison unions. For example, the California Prison Guards Union has extensively lobbied for prison expansions. Thus the link between lobbying by these corporations and changes in federal or state laws is unclear. Many policy justifications exist for changing sentencing rules and policies such as bed quotas, and regardless of whether those justifications are correct, SPEAR does not provide evidence that these policies were implemented because of lobbying.

Secondly, there is not conclusive evidence that private prisons are more harmful than public prisons. While SPEAR cites several concerning examples of behavior by private prison companies in its referendum fact sheet, they provide little evidence of issues unique to private prisons. Additionally, studies examining the effectiveness and quality of private prisons and how they compare to government-run prisons are inconclusive. As Sasha Volokh wrote in The Washington Post, “there isn’t much basis for strong empirical statements about public or private prisons” based on available evidence. The lack of significant evidence of systemic problems with the concept of private prisons and detention centers undermines the moral and pragmatic claims made by proponents of the referendum. We are not arguing that there is not a legitimate policy debate about whether private entities should run prisons; however, insufficient evidence of harms critically undermines arguments for divesting from these companies.

During the past two academic years, there have been several divestment proposals tied to various political causes. The Board has consistently opposed these efforts because of our position that divestment should only occur in the most extreme of circumstances and when proposals are backed by substantial consensus among the Princeton community. Good examples of this include when the University divested from companies tied to apartheid in South Africa and the genocide in Darfur. We acknowledge that there are significant problems with the nation’s criminal justice system; however, divestment from private prisons is not the correct response.

Ashley Reed 18 and Sam Mathews ’17 abstained from the writing of this editorial.

TheEditorial Boardis an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor and the Editor-in-Chief.