This column is the second part in a series focusing on a student campaign for private prison divestment as a lens for examining questions regarding historical and present injustice, institutional responsibility and accountability, and mechanisms of change. This series reflects my personal involvement (not as a spokesperson) in the Princeton Private Prison Divest coalition (PPPD).
This week, graduate students will have the opportunity to express support for the campaign to divest from private prisons and detention centers. The issue of private prison divestment will appear as a referendum question in the Graduate Student Government election, and a “Yes to Divest” majority would be pivotal as PPPD’s campaign continues to build momentum. Voting begins tomorrow, Feb. 23 and ends on Mar. 1.
Divestment from the private prison and detention industry is an incredibly urgent matter given the current political landscape, particularly given the fact that 90 percent of immigrant detainees are held in private facilities. Just this past week, a massive escalation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids has spread fear among immigrant communities, making it abundantly clear why stocks in private prison and detention corporations have soared since Trump’s election. Even DACA recipients are now vulnerable to detainment.
University President Christopher Eisgruber ‘83 recently promised in an email to the community that the University would “stand with other members of our community on behalf of DACA and the rights and well-being of all our students, faculty, and staff.” There is a flagrant contradiction between such a statement and the status quo of PRINCO investments in private prison and detention and corporations. Currently, the University is directly financially tied to facilities in which members of our own community could conceivably be incarcerated indefinitely and denied contact with family and legal counsel — thereby bankrolling a very real threat to the safety of our peers, friends and neighbors. If the University administration truly intends to follow through with Eisgruber’s promise, then it will move to discontinue the institution’s financial ties to the eleven corporations outlined in PPPD’s divestment proposal.
Moreover, divestment is also a crucial step in addressing the University’s historical implications in the slave economy, pervasive racism, and xenophobia. At a moment when even Yale is taking steps to address its ugly racial legacy by changing the name of Calhoun College, Princeton risks falling behind its peers by remaining complacent. Given the evidence that private prisons disproportionately incarcerate people of color even beyond the enormous racial disparities in the prison system in general, divestment from this industry is an obvious reparative act.
Despite the preponderance of evidence of abuse and violence pervading the private prison industry — with reports of rates of sexual abuse, self-harm and drug-taking higher than those in publicly-run prisons — industry-funded studies continue to defend private prisons and detention centers as alternatives to public prisons that cut costs and provide the same quality service. While it may seem strange to evaluate various options for incarcerating human beings purely on the basis of cost, private prison advocates do so frequently — despite the complete lack of any conclusive evidence in their favor.
It’s worth deconstructing this largely unsubstantiated but all-too-common case for prison privatization.
Arizona’s own Department of Corrections — a state with a particularly poor record on prison policy — conducted a study in 2011 that found that private prisons operated at costs comparable to those of state-run prisons, while providing levels of quality of service at best comparable to or below those of their public counterparts. The Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah found that “cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal” while publicly managed prisons have fewer inmate grievances.
Far more importantly, however, the privatization of incarceration incentivizes cost-cutting measures which maximize profits. Typically, this entails reducing staff, undermining safety measures, and cutting back on rehabilitative programs. These operations directly endanger the immediate and long-term physical, emotional, and mental safety and health of incarcerated human beings — even beyond the low standard set by publicly-run prisons.
Private prisons barely offer even the flimsiest pretense of rehabilitation. Unsurprisingly, given the poor quality of services and programs and the phenomenon of shipping prisoners far from their communities and families, rates of recidivism (when individuals are released from prison and then incarcerated again) are higher for people incarcerated in private prisons than for those held in public facilities. A study conducted in 2013 by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that “offenders who had been incarcerated in a private prison had a greater hazard of recidivism in all 20 regression models … which may be attributable to fewer visitation and rehabilitative programming opportunities for offenders incarcerated at private facilities.” At the same time, prisoners in private facilities are more likely to see their sentences increased. In direct opposition to the notion of rehabilitation which is central to our justice system, private prisons instead inflict greater short-term and long-term harm upon individuals and communities.
Facing such evidence, the US Department of Justice decided over the summer to phase out the use of private prisons. The Office of the Inspector General found that “contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP [Bureau of Prisons] institutions.”
Since the election, however, the prospects of the private prison and detention center have reversed. The private prison and detention industry plays an essential role in the violence which the current administration is preparing to undertake or already enacting upon communities of color, whether through ICE raids or proposals to escalate the heavily racialized war on drugs. At such an urgent moment, institutions like Princeton must step out or remain complicit in Trump’s deeply racist and destructive political agenda and a broken system of mass incarceration.
Graduate students: please vote before Mar. 1 and help demand accountability.
Max Grear is a Spanish and Portuguese major from Wakefield, R.I. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.