Leaving the dining halls, you may notice white vans with the red Aramark logo pulling out of loading docks. One of the nation’s largest food service purveyors in a variety of institutions, Aramark maintains large contracts with state departments of corrections to provide food, commissary products, and facility management services. Paid on a per-meal basis, food providers like Aramark are incentivized to cut costs by reducing quantities and substituting ingredients for cheaper alternatives. Aramark in particular has found itself at the center of several scandals, with widespread reports of maggots in kitchens and sexual acts between Aramark employees and incarcerated people, leading Michigan to cancel its $145 million contract. Evidence of similar staff abuses in Ohio and sanitation violations in New Jersey have apparently not deterred the University from using its services.
Last April, the University thought it had finally put to rest calls for divesting its endowment from private prisons. After a year of deliberation, the resource committee refused to recommend full divestment, but administrators claimed the University was not invested in the 11 specific private prison operators named in the divestment coalition’s proposal. However, far more than a few notorious private prison companies reap profits from mass incarceration; the deep entrenchment of the vast industry of human caging throughout our economy requires that institutions like the University analyze much more rigorously how they indirectly benefit from our investments in and contracts with companies profiting from exploiting incarcerated people as both captive laborers and consumers.
In solidarity with the National Freedom Campus Day of Action, SPEAR joins students across the country to call on the University to fully divest its endowment and operating contracts from the Prison-Industrial Complex and actively reinvest in the communities harmed by a racist and classist criminal punishment system.
My class did not experience much of the Princeton Private Prison Divestment Campaign (PPPD), but its work forced the Trustees’ incredibly stringent divestment policy to face public scrutiny. The policy establishes a “strong presumption against” the University taking any position through its investment strategy on “external issues,” but allows consideration of divestment proposals when there is a “a central University value clearly at stake.” Although the Resources Committee agreed the divestment campaign demonstrated “considerable, thoughtful, and sustained campus interest,” only half the committee voted to recommend divestment. The official rationale claimed that private prisons were a “consequence,” not a cause of injustice, that the rise of private prisons was not “historically exceptional,” and that not enough research exists on the practices of private prisons to conclude their “practices do or do not align with Princeton’s values.” The Resources Committee concluded that it does not conflict with the University’s core values to benefit from our investments in companies that profit off of the warehousing of black and brown people.
However, Princeton’s repeated assertions that our endowment does not invest in the 11 major private prison operators indicates that the University feels at least some urge to distance itself from private companies with a vested interest in filling prisons with bodies. These same companies actively lobby for the creation of public policies that further criminalize and incarcerate the most marginalized communities. But lest anyone be mollified that our tuition dollars are not directly invested in these private prison companies, the insidious reach of the Prison-Industrial Complex extends much further into our economy than a few high-profile villains.
Annually, billions of dollars in the United States flows to private companies contracted to provide goods and services in incarceration facilities. A 2018 report by the Corrections Accountability Project at the Urban Justice Center exposes the more than 3,100 companies that profit from the Prison-Industrial Complex. Contracting goods and services to the prison system, while disturbingly common, cannot be treated as business as usual. Commissary vendors, for example, are able to disproportionately profit off of those incarcerated because they avoid the costs of brick and mortar retail by selling directly from the warehouse to the facility. All service and good providers within prisons can operate as legal monopolies within prison walls, allowing them to charge exorbitant prices that are not only high for the free world. These prices are especially unaffordable to those incarcerated, who on average nationally make between $0.33 and $1.41 per hour, working for both the state and iconic brands, such as Wal-mart, K-mart, Microsoft, AT&T, and more — quantifying the full extent of the companies benefiting from this labor is incredibly difficult as the supply chains of corporations are often shrouded in secrecy.
So what does Princeton have to with this?
Aramark is only the tip of the iceberg, but it is a telling place to start to understand the extent of our entanglement with the Prison-Industrial Complex. The administration would like us to believe that our contracts and investments are entirely apolitical; in 2017, President Eisgruber asserted that the University “aims to influence society principally by the scholarship we generate and the people we educate, not through economic clout or institutional position-taking.” But we cannot simply choose to ignore the consequences of the economic power held by the University — in addition to our $25.9 billion endowment, we generate an annual economic output of $1.58 billion into New Jersey’s economy. The choices made by PRINCO and the University itself carry real economic consequences, which implicate our investment and contract decisions in upholding those companies with a vested interest in perpetuating mass incarceration.
As Claire Wayner deftly observed in her March op-ed, when we choose not to divest from an industry, we are not remaining neutral — we are making a fundamentally political and moral decision that the concerns raised about a particular industry are not far enough out of line with “University Values” to outweigh our economic interests. In effect, the University is saying that the investments growing our giant stockpile of institutional wealth that primarily serves to build itself is more important than what those investments are doing and more important than preserving a system that keeps 2.3 million lives in cages.
The University can do far more than simply divest from the Prison-Industrial Complex. Student coalitions like the Princeton Reconstruction Project are calling for the active reinvestment of the University’s resources in repairing the harm that the University has caused to marginalized communities throughout its history, led by representatives from directly impacted communities, rather than reliant on the institution’s assumptions about their needs. The University can eliminate its use of the racist, classist criminal punishment system in determining who may benefit from our educational resources, and counter the collateral consequences of incarceration by introducing the affirmative hiring practices toward formerly incarcerated applicants for employment at the University.
Given the massive extent of the entanglement between the profit motives of private companies and the industry of incarceration, the task of disentangling this institution from the Prison-Industrial Complex may seem herculean. But precisely because the University is so wealthy and financially solvent, it is in a position to lead other institutions in reducing the harm enabled by our economic leverage. Princeton, with the largest per-student endowment of any institution of higher education, can afford to be held to a higher standard.
Amanda Eisenhour is a second-year student from Alexandria, Va., and a co-president of Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR).