When prisons disappear human beings in order to convey the illusion of solving social problems, penal infrastructures must be created to accommodate a rapidly swelling population of caged people… [This] work, which used to be the primary province of government, is now also performed by private corporations…
—Angela Davis (1998)
With the highest prison population rate in the world, private prisons were already big business in the U.S. before the election of Donald Trump. His election, though, has been good news for the industry. Indeed, the expectation that a Trump presidency will see growth in the size of the for-profit prison population has already shown “gains” in that market. Some of the projected growth is tied to the expectation of a dramatic increase in the detention of undocumented residents. But this is not the only source from which the industry aims to find new business. The increase in the incarceration rate over the last 30 years is largely the result of the passage of legislation that both increased the likelihood of jail time and the length of sentences for non-violent drug offenses. With at least 45 million dollars spent on lobbying and campaign donations, the prison industry has played no small role in seeing this legislation enacted. The pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has long lobbied—successfully—for laws that would increase prison population sizes. Furthermore, these laws, such as the Truth in Sentencing laws enacted in twenty-five states in 1995 alone, disproportionately affect black and brown communities, as well as immigrants.
As individual academics, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of this and other urgent problems Trump’s election has brought to the fore. We don’t have the power politicians do. Few, if any, of us has the ear of a politician. Neither do we have the financial resources to influence elections. But we do have considerable influence over entities that have such resources.
If the 80’s South African divestment movement has taught us anything, it is that universities’ financial resources are a source of significant political influence. Many universities and colleges have enormous endowments, at least ninety in the U.S. have endowments over $1 billion. These endowments give universities leverage over the companies they invest in. If enough universities divest their holdings in companies that profit from injustice and human suffering, those companies have a powerful incentive to change their behavior. Several universities have already shown that for-profit prison divestment is achievable. Columbia University, Hampshire College, and the entire University of California system have all divested in the last two years.
Moreover, universities not only can divest, they should. Their mission is not merely the dissemination of truth, but the development of informed, engaged, and responsible citizens and leaders. Institutions whose ultimate aim is to contribute to a flourishing society should not undercut that goal by profiting from, and hence promoting, human suffering.
To achieve this, much work remains. How to get started? My university, Syracuse, is among those universities with endowments greater than $1 billion. Some of us in our philosophy department have created a group, Phil Action, dedicated to investigating our university’s investments in the for-profit prison industry. Although working for divestment is time-consuming, so far our tasks have not required any special expertise. The beginning we’ve made here could be replicated on many other campuses. To help others think about how they might get started, here is a brief description of what we’ve done so far.
Educating yourself on the divestment strategies others have successfully pursued is a good place to start. Enlace, an organization dedicated to racial and economic justice, has a webpage devoted to divestment resources. There you can find a toolkit for campus organizers, which include sample student resolutions and demand letters from other universities that have successfully divested. The ACLU of Ohio also has several good resources, including a film, a downloadable report, and facts sheets.
The first goal of any divestment movement is to secure the release of the needed investment information. To this end, we contacted our university’s chief financial officer and treasurer. We found email to be a more effective method of communication than the phone; it has the additional advantage of leaving a record of the request that is easily shared with others. We also found that we received our speediest response by cc’ing our chancellor’s chief of staff.
At the same time, to supplement our efforts to obtain the needed information, we’ve begun an effort to educate ourselves, our university community, and the broader Syracuse community about the for-profit prison industry. For our first event (last night at this writing), we chose to show the Ohio ACLU’s short film “Prisons for Profit”, followed by a discussion led by two local experts, Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, the Director of the Central New York ACLU, and Barrie Gewanter, Executive Director of the Onondaga County/Syracuse Human Rights Commission and Administrator for Justice Center Oversight. At the close of that event, we offered our audience an opportunity to take home two fact sheets, add their emails to our group’s ListProc, and sign a petition asking the university to release the requested information. (Enlace’s webpage has a downloadable fact sheet, though it is a bit out of date and needs supplementation. Although we choose to show a short film that focused just on the private prison industry to leave more time for discussion with our invited experts, there are other good, longer films on mass incarceration that have segments on the industry. “The 13th” (2016) and Frontline’s “Prison State” (2014), for example, are both excellent.)
In addition to educating ourselves and the community, our hope is that the event will help us recruit new group members who will be energized to participate in future events and actions. The petition, in turn, helps put pressure on the university to release the information we need to go forward. We’re now continuing to gather signatures for our petition, which can then serve as a basis for both faculty senate and student government resolutions, calling for the release of that information. In the meantime, we’ll continue to draw campus attention to the issue by keeping in touch with the reporter for the student newspaper who attended our event. We hope, of course, that resolutions and continued public attention will not be needed to secure the release of the information we need. But as of now, that remains to be seen.
Universities and colleges have a responsibility to promote the flourishing of all members of their communities and must invest in ways consistent with that mission. If the power of the purse is properly exercised, universities have the ability to become real agents of change.