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Princeton prison investments: bankrolling Trump’s racist agenda

This column is the third part in a series focusing on a student campaign for private prison divestment as a lens for examining questions regarding historical and present injustice, institutional responsibility and accountability, and mechanisms of change. This series reflects my personal involvement (not as a spokesperson) in the Princeton Private Prison Divest coalition. The first column discussed the disturbing parallels between current University investments and Princeton’s close historical relationship to the slave trade and xenophobia. The second addressed the glaring problems and contradictions of common arguments in favor of prison privatization.

Today, more than ever before, private prison and immigrant detention corporations are key players in a mounting wave of institutional violence against communities of color. Princeton’s investments in this industry make it an active participant in this violence.


Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department will continue its use of private prisons. While hardly unexpected, this reversal makes clear the shared interests between private prison corporations and a demonstrated racist like Sessions. Both actors hope to escalate rates of incarceration, and both have an enormous supply of financial and political capital to achieve this goal.

At this moment, Sessions and President Trump are the political allies of our institution’s short-term and socially irresponsible financial interest in returns on private prison investments. It’s important, then, that we understand exactly who these unsavory allies of ours are and what they plan to do. Such an honest appraisal may help us grasp the degree to which we, as a university, currently stand on the wrong side of history.

Sessions’ recent announcement indicates the dangerous direction in which the justice system is headed under the Trump administration. His Feb. 21 memo rescinded the Obama administration’s plan to phase out the federal government’s contracting with private prison companies. Sessions and his advisors chose to ignore the overwhelming evidence of heightened safety and security risks in private prisons, which prompted the previous administration’s decision to curtail the use of such facilities.

Despite the fact that populations of federal prisoners have steadily decreased since 2013, Sessions’ memo reflects a concern on the part of the attorney general that the 122 prisons run by the Bureau of Prisons itself will run out of space in coming years. In the memo, Sessions argues that private facilities are necessary for the BOP’s “ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” This statement can only mean that Sessions plans to ramp up of rates of incarceration. Such a backward direction runs against the now-broad public recognition of the justice system’s deep racial disparities and astronomical prisoner populations.

Sessions’ record as Alabama attorney general suggests that the Justice Department will significantly increase the number of federal prisoners under his leadership. Known for his vigorous attacks against civil liberties, Sessions has denounced any attempts to reform clearly unjust civil asset forfeiture laws. Even scarier, however, is Sessions’ record of zealously defending minimum sentencing and of leading the country in convictions for drug crimes — measures which have had a disproportionately harmful impact on communities of color. In this way, Sessions has pioneered the war on drugs and wreaked havoc on communities of color and poor people.

Meanwhile, Sessions’ defense of the continued use of private prisons rests upon a set of blatant falsehoods (or, as they are now known, “alternative facts”). The Trump administration points to completely inaccurate or misleading statistics about supposedly rising crime rates, ignoring evidence that crime rates have steadily declined for decades. It should be deeply troubling to any informed observer that the current administration’s policies on incarceration are informed by falsehoods and directed by an attorney general whose record demonstrates a disturbing disregard for the safety and dignity of people of color.


What should be most disturbing to members of the Princeton community, however, are the University’s financial ties to the very corporations that will help carry out Sessions and Trump’s agenda of locking up human beings en masse. It is abundantly clear that the current administration plans to swell prison populations, particularly with individuals charged with minor drug violations or detained because of their documentation status.

The brunt of this institutionalized violence will be born by communities of the poor and people of color, while aloof University administrators send emails to students assuring their support for programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. President Eisgruber does not seem to grasp the irony of touting a letter in support of DACA while simultaneously remaining silent on the University’s investments in facilities which have been used to illegally detain DACA recipients. Just last week, a woman renewing her DACA status was detained directly after speaking at an immigration press conference.

It is dangerously naïve to ignore the very real possibility of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids within our own community. Meanwhile, the University is currently invested in the detention centers which pose an immediate threat to the physical safety of our friends, neighbors, and peers.

Now is the moment that every member of the University community, including administrators, should recognize that the current wave of mass incarceration and immigrant detention represents a sustained state of emergency. The process of divestment from private prison and detention corporations must therefore begin now. This action should be considered a basic step towards fulfilling the ideal of social responsibility expressed in the motto: “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of humanity.”

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Max Grear is a Spanish and Portuguese major from Wakefield, R.I. He can be reached at mgrear@princeton.edu.