At the recent Princeton & Slavery Symposium, speakers like Toni Morrison discussed Princeton’s past entanglements in the U.S. slave economy and the implications of this history for the present. As we continue to reflect on our institution’s sordid racial legacy, it’s worth considering the University’s relation to a modern-day industry that cages human bodies for profit — private prisons and immigrant detention centers.
For two academic years now, students (myself included) have been pushing the University to divest from the for-profit detention industry. Members of the Princeton Private Prison Divest Coalition (PPPD, of which I am a lead organizer) have been meeting regularly with University administrators over this time in order to demonstrate that current or future investments in private prisons and detention centers would contradict the University’s core values of integrity, diversity, and service to humanity.
Over the past two years, the students involved in the divestment campaign have maintained contact with the broader campus community through petitions, referenda, and editorials. However, since newer community members might be unaware of PPPD’s work, it’s worth returning to a few basic questions: what are for-profit detention companies? Why divest from them? What does divestment entail, exactly? Where does the divestment campaign currently stand?
The for-profit detention industry includes companies that directly operate private prisons and immigrant centers, as well as companies contracted by prisons to provide services like communications and health. PPPD’s proposal has specified eleven specific companies for divestment, including the prison and detention operators G4S plc, the Geo Group, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA), and service providers like Corizon Health, Inc. and Global Tel Link (a telecommunications company).
So why do these companies’ practices contradict core University values? Scholars, government researchers, community organizers, and legal advocates have repeatedly drawn attention to human rights abuses perpetrated by for-profit detention companies. Researchers have proven that private prisons have high death rates and frequent assaults. Private prisons have poor working conditions for staff, and individuals who have been incarcerated in privately-run facilities are more likely to recidivate (that is, to go back to prison after having been released). Even compared to the abysmal racial disparities in the U.S. prison system in general, black and Hispanic individuals are overrepresented by even higher margins in private prisons. Conditions within private prisons are shielded from oversight. The private prison industry exercises a significant degree of influence over elected officials through lobbying while avoiding transparent disclosures of political campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are held in detention centers, the large majority of which are privately-run. The GEO Group and CoreCivic also operate immigrant detention centers, which indefinitely detain individuals in harsh conditions and denied access to family and legal counsel. Other service providers to prisons and detention centers also exploit the families of prisoners and detainees, like the telecommunications company JPay.
More broadly, prison privatization is inherently dangerous it generates profit through the caging of (disproportionately black and brown) human bodies. As the Princeton & Slavery Project makes abundantly clear, the University’s history is intimately tied to the eerily similar commodification of black bodies. The University thus has a particular moral responsibility to fully disassociate itself from a prison system that Michelle Alexander has called the “New Jim Crow.”
But what, exactly, would divestment entail? The term “divestment” stands in for a broader strategy of disassociation from a morally repugnant industry. When an institution divests from a particular industry, it not only drops current investments, but ensures against any future investments in the targeted companies. The Princeton Private Prison Divest Coalition is currently pursuing the second side of divestment. This semester, members of the University Resources Committee are continuing to deliberate over whether or not to recommend that the University implement a negative screen prohibiting any future investments the eleven companies targeted by PPPD.
Importantly, this question of a negative screen is the same issue that was raised by the successful movement to divest from Darfur. In a 2006 press release, a spokesperson explained that “while the University currently has no direct holdings in companies operating in the Sudan, the finance committee of the University’s Board of Trustees voted today (June 5) to adopt a policy of disassociating from companies that directly or indirectly conduct operations in Darfur that support acts of genocide, and to prevent future investment in such companies.”
As it turns out, PPPD’s goal for a negative screen against future investments is consistent with President Eisgruber’s own off-the-cuff remarks about the for-profit detention industry. At last spring’s meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community, in response to a packed lecture hall of divestment supporters, President Eisgruber declared that “we do not hold investments in the companies that are the current subject of this petition” and “there is no intention to invest in those companies.” This public admission is a promising start, given that the University does not typically divulge even the broadest piece of information about its investment practices. Eisgruber’s words suggest that he too sees investments in for-profit detention companies as problematic.
However, such a casual statement by Eisgruber does not constrain the investment choices made by PRINCO. All that PPPD asks is that the University formalize Eisgruber’s promise, reflecting an institutional rather than a merely individual moral and ethical stance against injustice. The Resources Committee, the Board of Trustees, and President Eisgruber must all agree upon a negative screen before the policy would be implemented by PRINCO. The University community has repeatedly demonstrated its support for divestment— it's time that administrators get on board and place Princeton on the right side of history.
Max Grear ’18 is a senior columnist as well as a lead organizer of the Princeton Private Prison Divest Coalition.