Leaders of a campus organization advocating for Yale’s divestment from the private prison industry met with members of the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility Tuesday evening.
The groups met to discuss demands that the Yale Corporation sell any current investments in private prisons, publicly denounce the industry, and not invest in private prisons in the future. The meeting marks the latest development in a yearlong campaign led by the Yale Students for Prison Divestment that has seen the organization circulate an open letter last spring, lead a public meeting detailing their stance and release a 22-page report in December.
“Investments in the private prison industry promote an industry broadly engaged in cost cutting at the expense of human lives,” the YSPD report noted. “The time to act was yesterday.”
With nearly 200,000 inmates currently held at private facilities, the American private prison industry has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years in light of multiple reports of abuse suffered by prisoners. In an August 2016 memorandum to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates acknowledged that private prisons “compare poorly” to correctional facilities run by the bureau, and announced the Department of Justice’s intention to end its use of privately operated prisons.
According to YSPD co-founder Joseph Gaylin ’19, advocating for Yale’s divestment from the industry is all the more important now given the unexpected election of Donald Trump. With Trump’s stated support for the industry — at a town hall last March, he said that private prisons seem “to work a lot better” — and an anticipated increase in the occupancy levels of private prisons such as immigrant detention centers, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that financial services firms are referring to the industry as a “compelling investment opportunity.”
“The atrocities of the private prison industry are just so obvious and political conversation is nonexistent at this moment,” Gaylin said. “This is a chance to challenge what is going on in the political arena.”
This is not the first time that the advisory committee has considered student demands for divesting from the private prison industry. A similar effort in 2005 saw the advisory committee declare that investments in the Corrections Corporation of America, one of the organizations named in the YSPD report, did not constitute a “grave social injury.”
Since 1972, the Corporation has responded to requests for divestment on nonfinancial grounds using guidelines outlined in “The Ethical Investor,” a book written by Yale professors following their analysis of the University’s investments.
“A security will be sold where the company is committing grave social injury and where all methods of correcting these practices have failed or appear doomed to failure,” the book notes, further defining social injury as “activities which violate, or frustrate the enforcement of, rules of domestic or international law intended to protect individuals against deprivation of health, safety or basic freedoms.”
Over the past five decades, the Corporation has used these guidelines to divest from 17 companies doing business in South Africa from 1978 until the end of Apartheid in 1994, as well as seven companies doing business in Sudan upon allegations of genocide in 2006.
In 2014, though, the Corporation decided against divesting the University’s assets from fossil fuel companies, noting instead that Yale should emphasize that companies take into account the effects of climate change as a matter of sound business practice.
According to YSPD co-founder Vinay Basti ’18, the nature of the private prison industry requires more drastic action.
“There is not just an issue with any one particular company — the business model of private prisons is the problem,” he said. “This is an industry that is profiting off human incarceration. Yale cannot be a shareholder that is profiting from a practice like that.”
While the YSPD report cites divestment in Sudan and South Africa in claiming that the advisory committee has an obligation “to remain consistent with their previous convictions” and divest from the private prison industry, Basti also noted the importance of the precedent set by the actions of prominent national universities in the recent past.
Columbia University became the first higher education institution in the country to divest from private prisons in June 2015, with the school’s trustees stating at the time that the “action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum.” The University of California soon followed suit, selling $25 million worth of investments in private prison corporations later in 2015 — though a spokesperson said that the sale was based on an assessment of financial risk.
“When our peer institutions such as Columbia have divested there is an effective template for divestment at Yale,” Basti said. “This is an exciting opportunity to reshape what our university stands for.”