Princeton Private Prison Divestment held a walkout and rally today at the Council of the Princeton University Community meeting. The protest was in response to the CPUC Resource Committee’s announcement of their decision to reject PPPD’s proposal that the University divest from private prisons.
The 22-page divestment proposal stated that the University “has clear reasons to move forward with divesting and disassociating from corporations that draw profit from incarceration, drug control and immigrant deportation policies.” It included a list of corporations from which the University should divest.
Yet, the University Resources Committee decided in a March 10 meeting that “the proposal, in its current form, did not meet the high bar to recommend action,” according to the committee chair, University Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Michael Littman.
According to University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, the University does not have direct holdings or investments in private prisons. However, it may own aggregate funds or mutual funds that invest in private prisons indirectly — it is this possibility that PPPD opposes.
PPPD stated in a Monday press release that it would “publicly reject the legitimacy of the decision.”
“At this point, we have no option but to continue the campaign on our own terms and ask that the University act in accordance with the demands of its constituents and its own articulated standards and values,” a campaign spokesperson stated in the press release.
Eisgruber began the discussion in the CPUC meeting by stating that the University does not normally reveal what is in its investment portfolio.
“I can tell you that we do not hold investments in the companies that are the current subject of this petition,” he said. “There is no intention to invest in those companies.”
Today was the first time the University has specifically stated that it does not have holdings in private prisons; the University normally does not discuss what PRINCO, the firm that manages the endowment, invests in.
Eisgruber said that the question before the Resources Committee was whether to place a “filter” preventing future investments in for-profit prison companies.
Littman then formally presented the committee’s decision not to pass the proposal onto the University Board of Trustees, which has the authority to make divestment decisions.
“All [eight committee members] came to the same conclusion. All of us had different reasons,” he said. “The reasons we’re going to put together is going to be the basis of our report that will come forth at the end of May.”
The committee’s next two meetings will deal with producing complete feedback on the proposal, Littman said.
“We felt that the proposal that was on the table was incomplete, and that further evidence was needed,” he added.
Guidelines for divestment adopted by the Trustees in 1997 maintain that, “considerable, thoughtful, and sustained interest on campus” and “consensus on how the University should respond to the situation” are required for divestment, taking into account “the magnitude, scope and representativeness of the expressions of campus opinion.”
According to Littman, the University has previously divested in two cases: one investment was related to apartheid in South Africa in 1987, the other to genocide in Darfur in 2006.
Recent divestment proposals have dealt with Israel, the Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative, and gun manufacturers, Littman said. “All three of these are now off the table, as far as I understand,” Littman noted.
Before turning the podium over to PPPD, however, Littman added that the issue remains “under active consideration.”
A spokeperson for PPPD responded next. “Make no mistake, the decision that was just communicated to all of you sitting here was a rejection of the movement that many of you in the crowd have been working on and contributing to for the past year,” the spaker noted. “I don’t know what President Eisgruber is talking about when he says we’re not invested in private prison companies, because that is a question we’ve been asking the Resources Committee for over a year.”
“What is going on in this room right now is a charade,” the speaker, a student representative on the Resources Committee in the last academic year, continued. “[The committee’s actions] are entirely consistent with the tactics of this University in countering student protests more generally. They include delaying, being unpredictable, obstructing, not following their own procedures.”
Another PPPD speaker said that the student body has shown considerable support for divestment.
In an April 16 referendum presented to the undergraduate student body by the University Student Government, 89 percent of respondents, or 1,457 students, voted for divestment from private prisons, with a turnout of 1,639 students, or 30.1 percent of the undergraduate student body. 85 percent of voting graduate students also supported divestment. In addition, PPPD circulated a faculty petition which garnered approximately 180 signatures.
The speaker added that the Resources Committee’s concern about a lack of empirical evidence in their proposal is “a very flimsy argument for a number of reasons.”
“We have never been able to engage substantively with the Resources Committee on the actual evidence that we’ve brought to the table, and have instead been repeatedly … dealt with in a condescending way,” he said.
“The point is that throughout this past year the Resources Committee has been intentionally vague about the empirical standards that we need to meet because they know that if they are specific we’ll satisfy them.” he added.
“After the past years of evasions and delay tactics, we have taken the stage to say this movement is not over and it will not be stopped,” another PPPD spokesperson said. “To this end, we refuse to discuss this issue any further with the Resources Committee.”
The spokesperson also encouraged faculty members to “follow through on President Eisgruber’s … decision to support DACA students” and was met with snaps from the audience.
“Princeton was years late in divesting from apartheid South Africa and Darfur,” she added. “History remembers this mistake and will remember this one.”
PPPD then stated its demands: University divestment from private prisons and detention corporations or the provision of proof that it is not invested in these companies; increased accountability and transparency from the Resources Committee; and an immediate meeting with the Board of Trustees to discuss divestment.
Rather than continue with the scheduled question-and-answer session, PPPD held a walkout from the meeting, as students chanted: “What do we want? Divestment. When do we want it? Now.”
The group then held a rally in the lobby of Friend Center, directly outside the meeting. Members of various student groups, as well as faculty members and professionals, addressed the crowd.
“We are facing a revolution, because we have to put it in those terms,” said Serges Demefack, an employee of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization with a mission of peace and social justice.
Several graduate students also expressed their support for the group and stressed the high turnout among graduate students in the Graduate Student Government election, which included a referendum on divestment.
“We’re not just calling for divestments because we want to divest from prisons,” said Heath Pearson, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology and Department of African Americans Studies. “We’re calling for divestment because we want to abolish prisons.”
“The prison system is modern iteration of slavery by this corporate state,” said journalist and University Professor Chris Hedges. “Prisoners not only go into prison owing thousands of dollars, but fines are imposed upon them so they leave owing thousands of dollars.
“The only way we will break this system of neo-slavery is to break the possibility for profit,” he added. “The only way we are going to break this now is by not cooperating.”
New Jersey attorney Jean Ross, who works with incarcerated people, talked about the lack of communication that prisoners have with their family members due to the profit-making structure of the mailing system.
“If you’re a prisoner in a New Jersey facility or county jail, your ability to communicate with families and loved ones depends on your money,” she said.
“In the service of humanity we must divest,” an alumni representative read from a statement signed by over 250 alumni.
PPPD is a coalition consisting of Students for Prison Education and Reform, 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, Progressive Christians at Princeton, and the Princeton College Democrats.
The CPUC meeting was held at 4:30 p.m. in 101 Friend Center on Mar. 27.