Breaking: Princeton Student Group SPEAR leads #PrisonDivest effort

By William Liu | April 13, 2016

Princeton Students for Prison Education and Reform has submitted a referendum calling for the Council of the Princeton University Community and the Princeton University Investment Company to divest from private prisons.

The referendum reads that the University should “dissociate and divest from corporations that draw profit from incarceration, drug control and immigrant deportation policies.”

These corporations include Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, G4S and financial entities that exclusively contract correctional facilities like Global Tel Link, JPay, Securus and Corizon, according to the referendum.

Julie Chen ’17, co-president of SPEAR, noted via an emailed statement that when prisons are privatized, correction companies often lobby the government for higher mandatory minimums and bed quotas to keep more people in prison.

“While we can’t change the system right now, we can decide that it is against our university’s values to invest in a corrupt system of incentivized incarceration,” she added.

According to data reported by the Department of Homeland Security, there have been rapid increases in the number of inmates held by private prisons. In 2005, 25 percent of immigrants in custody were held by private prisons, increased to 62 percent today, with a total 80 percent increase in the number of people held by private prisons since 1999.

However, Jonathan Burns, a spokesperson at Corrections Corporation of America, stated that his company helps keep communities safe and enrolls thousands of inmates every year in reentry programs to reduce recidivism.

“It is CCA’s longstanding policy not to draft, lobby for or in any way promote policies that determine the basis or duration for an individual’s incarceration or detention,” Burns said.

Chen noted that though SPEAR is the referendum’s sponsor, the divestment movement is represented by a broader coalition named Princeton Private Prison Divestment, since the privatization of prisons and detention facilities is an intersectional issue.

“They consist of the DREAM Team, the Muslim Advocates for Social Justice and Individual Dignity, the Alliance for Jewish Progressives, the Black Justice League, the Princeton University Latinx Perspectives Organization and the Princeton College Democrats,” she said.

The coalition is the organizer behind everything, she added.

Safa Syed ’17, a member of MASJID, said in an emailed statement that private prisons violate the tenets of social justice and individual dignity that MASJID advocates for.

“While some incarcerated people affected are Muslim, the fact that any people are incarcerated for profit is abhorrent to MASJID… MASJID supports the divestment campaign because we refuse to let our university be complicit,” she wrote.

Kennedy O’Dell ’18, a member of the Princeton College Democrats, similarly voiced support for the referendum.

“Students should be aware when human suffering and punishment are used to make a profit,” she said, “Students should ask themselves whether they are comfortable with the money they are paying in tuition being used for human punishment and containment for profit.”

Money is a powerful capital that the University can use to send a message, she said.

Burns, however, stated that divestment campaigns are increasingly shown to have no impact on the value of companies.

“It’s unfortunate that activists would advocate against those benefits without themselves providing any solutions to the serious challenges our corrections systems face. Overcrowding and skyrocketing costs aren’t solved with politics and posturing,” he said.

According to Undergraduate Student Government Chief Elections Manager Sung Won Chang ’18, should the referendum pass, a formal resolution will be drafted by the USG senate and submitted to the Princeton University Resources Committee by the USG president. This resolution would be submitted at some time between now and fall 2016.

A fact sheet released by SPEAR notes that private prisons often fail to comply with detention standards upheld by government facilities. These practices often result in “difficulties in healthcare, violence against LGBTQ people, food availability, access to legal services, and sexual abuse,” according to the sheet.

Additionally, the fact sheet notes that SPEAR is opposed to the intensive lobbying system that has placed so many politicians on the side of major for-profit prison corporations. In the past decade, the three largest such corporations have spent $45 million to support the passage of laws that have doubled revenue for these ventures, including mandatory sentencing minimums and bed quotas that increase the number of inmates and the duration of their sentences, the sheet reads.

In July 2015, Columbia University became the first Ivy League school to divest from the private prison industry following lobbying by the student group Columbia Prison Divest. A total of $10 million was pulled out of the university’s estimated 220,000 shares in private correctional corporations. Following in Columbia’s stead, the University of California system divested $30 million in December 2015 from the same companies.

Despite movements across college campuses, Burns stated that CCA has a greater share of investors who are thoughtful about his business.

“Critics can continue to engage in ineffective tactics all they want; we’ll continue to do the hard work in our facilities of addressing the serious corrections and detention challenges America faces,” he said.

So far, there is no opposition party for this referendum, according to Chang.

The referendum will be voted on by the student body next Monday, April 18. In order to pass, a majority vote with a turnout of at least a third of undergraduate students is necessary.

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