Princeton’s ugly history lives on in its investments

Via the Daily Princetonian | By Max Grear

“Divestment from for-profit prison companies will help to repair historical entanglements from the slave economy, with which [Princeton] is deeply and directly implicated.”

In a panel last week organized by Students for Education and Reform and Princeton Private Prison Divest on the privatization of prisons and immigration detention centers, Christopher Petrella offered the argument above as a reminder of the University’s historical legacy and consequent contemporary responsibility. Petrella, a lecturer at Bates College who focuses on race and criminalization, compellingly linked past iterations of institutionalized white supremacy to the modern-day private prison industry. A clear line emerged between the slave holdings of the first eight University presidents and the institution’s current investments in private prison and detention centers.

The participants in “Incentivizing Incarceration: A Panel on Private Prisons” made a strong case for the troubling continuities between the slave economy of Princeton’s past and today’s investments in prison and detention corporations. As Carl Takei of the American Civil Liberties Union has emphasized, the private prison industry today is concerned with the literal trafficking of disproportionately black and brown bodies. The comments of Takei, Petrella, and Judith Greene, director of the criminal justice research organization Justice Strategies, illustrated the degree to which private prisons and detention centers devastate communities of color while subjecting individuals to dangerous, isolating, and dehumanizing conditions.

The well-attended panel was a clear indication that many individuals within the Princeton community are paying attention to the issue of prison privatization and to the University’s financial links to this modern-day form of institutional violence against communities of color. The event served as another measure of campus consensus in support of divestment from private prison and detention corporations such as the GEO Group and the formerly-named Corrections Corporation of America. Despite the lack of transparency on investments made by the Princeton University Investment Company, it remains imperative that the University divest from any and all holdings in eleven companies outlined by PPPD’s divestment proposal, including the CCA and the GEO Group.

As a part of the PPPD campaign, the panel built upon many months of organization. Following last spring’s overwhelmingly positive undergraduate referendum vote — despite changed referendum campaign rules limiting campaigning to only a week, 89 percent of respondents voted yes — PPPD has communicated with administrators and circulated a faculty petition that has garnered over 170 signatures. Later this month, graduate students will vote on whether to support the call for divestment.

The parallels between Princeton’s ugly slave economy history and its investments in the private prison industry should make this issue difficult for community members to ignore. As Petrella pointed out, for example, many thousands of prisoners have been shipped out of their home states to private prisons around the country. By creating such distance between incarcerated individuals and their families and communities, policymakers and private prison operators together strip these people of contact with loved ones while greatly increasing the risk of recidivism. This situation disturbingly recalls an era when people of African descent could be bought and sold as slaves and shipped far from their family members and communities — a historical parallel which strikes especially close to home in Princeton.

In fact, as Petrella further noted, slaves were sold on Princeton’s own campus. Professor Martha A. Sandweiss writes that slaves owned by the University’s fifth president, Samuel Finley, were auctioned off by the President’s house near Nassau Hall. Today, the University’s involvement in institutionalized forms of human trafficking is more oblique, but undeniable nonetheless. As long as the University holds investments in the private prison and detention industry, it actively upholds a racialized system of mass incarceration — what Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow” — and continues the harm done by white supremacists like Woodrow Wilson. Although Wilson’s deeply reactionary and racist attitudes were brought to public attention by the Black Justice League, much remains to be done by the University administration to materially address this legacy, particularly in terms of ending financial ties to the private prison industry.

Wilson was remarkable even for his time, not only because of his vehement anti-black racism, but also because of his intense xenophobia. As a result, Princeton has a particularly urgent responsibility to discontinue its complicity in institutionalized anti-immigrant violence. Petrella argued that divestment from corporations that run immigration detention centers would serve “as a powerful first step both symbolically and materially in pushing back against former President Wilson’s xenophobia and racism.”

Each year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are detained indefinitely in harsh conditions and denied access to family and legal counsel. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the detained immigrants are held in privately-run facilities. President Eisgruber has recently signed a letter to the Trump administration denouncing his executive order on immigration. It remains to be seen, however, if the University will move beyond words, even as Trump’s policies threaten to greatly increase the numbers of incarcerated immigrants and broken families and communities.

Will our institution, we must ask, take material action to address its ugly history and divest from the private prison and detention industry? Will our community see institutional accountability at a political moment of such urgency?

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

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