Syracuse Divest has asked Syracuse University to make a public commitment to not directly invest in companies that supply services to for-profit prison companies.
The campus organization, formed last year among various members of the philosophy department, has started circulating a petition calling for this commitment. It currently has more than 160 signatures from students and faculty.
“What we’re asking is for the university to publicly commit to refusing to directly invest in any for-profit prison companies — so those would be facility operation companies,” said Janice Dowell, a philosophy professor and one of Syracuse Divest’s founders.
Syracuse Divest is a group separate from Divest SU, a student group that previously pushed the university administration to end direct investments in fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy.
Dowell has asked SU’s Student Association to draft a resolution urging the administration to make the private prisons commitment. She presentedinformation about Syracuse Divest at an SA assembly meeting before Thanksgiving break.
SA has offered to gauge student opinion and if students support the idea, will draft a resolution to university administrators.
“My hope is that seeing that this is something our undergraduate students support will help (the administration) to realize this is an issue they really need to grapple with,” Dowell said.
Dowell said Syracuse Divest is asking for this action against private prisons because the organization believes private prisons perpetuate a motivation to incarcerate people for extended periods of time.
More than 2 million people, primarily black and brown people, are incarcerated in the United States, Dowell said, when addressing SA. That’s five times the global incarceration rate, she said.
“The problem is, because for-profit prisons exist, we have this perverse incentive in the criminal justice system to lock people up for more offenses and for longer periods of time,” Dowell said.
There are more than 100 companies the organization wants SU to announce a divestment commitment for, including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Aramark, a dining distributor. These companies provide health care services, transportation or food to private prisons and detention centers.
Dowell said SU Treasurer David Smith sent Syracuse Divest an email stating that the university had no direct investments in any company on the organization’s private prison list, as of February 2017. She said the university official offered no indication of future investments.
The professor also said she has tried to contact members of the administration, including Chancellor Kent Syverud, three times over the past seven weeks and has not received any other replies.
“(Private prisons) treated (prisoners) like they had no rights … they lobbied state governments to lengthen prison sentences. They were trying to profit off of human activity. It’s pseudo-slavery,” said freshman SA member Ryan Golden. “I just think that if Syracuse University can … show ‘Hey, we don’t want this, this is not in line with our values,’ then we should.”
Dowell met earlier this semester with SA Chief of Staff Andres Laguna to talk about Syracuse Divest. Laguna then presented his analysis of the organization and how he thought SA should react at a meeting.
He said it was not SA’s place to draft a resolution, adding he thought it could potentially be detrimental to students’ job prospects. By divesting, he said companies would be less likely to hire SU students.
Many members of SA disagreed with the way Laguna introduced the topic, and that meeting’s discussion became contentious at times, with students raising their voices at one another.
“A lot of the concerns about (Syracuse Divest were) about job opportunities,” Golden said. “No company is going to deny a student a job just because of one investment choice by the university. It wouldn’t make sense.”
Will Pritchett, an SA member, said he visited Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey several times this summer through an internship and described it as “awful.” He said he is very much in favor of divestment.
Whether a resolution is eventually drafted is up to an SA Assembly vote, which is waiting for further research on student support of the initiative.
SA President James Franco, who would not vote on a resolution because he’s not in the Assembly, said he supports private prison services divestment but will stand behind SA in what they decide democratically.
“I think that’s exactly what SA can be used as a vehicle for — furthering certain initiatives faculty, staff or students feel like aren’t getting enough attention,” Franco said. “I know there are certain student voices that are in strong support of it, some that had some questions or doubt about it, but that’s the point of an assembly.”