The Yale Students for Prison Divestment panel began with a simple question: “How many of you don’t know much about private prisons?” Most hands went up.
Yale Students for Prison Divestment, a group that advocates for Yale to divest from private prison corporations, held the panel discussion on private prisons and mass incarceration in the Davenport College common room on Friday afternoon. Director of the Corrections Accountability Project Bianca Tylek, American Civil Liberties Union National Prisons Project Staff Attorney Carl Takei and Eli Hager, a staff writer for the Marshall Project, answered questions moderated by members of Yale Students for Prison Divestment. But before the panelists tackled issues ranging from private prisons in the age of Trump to the dynamics of how private prisons lobby the government, the group had to introduce most of the audience to what exactly private prisons are.
“People who are not familiar with this industry might think of it as something that is private industry and competition, and it’s really not — this is government outsourcing the function of incarceration to private companies,” said Takei at the start of the panel. “This is still money that is being paid for by taxpayer dollars, and the nature of the market is not one that is competitive or that serves the people who are inside prisons, because people who are inside prisons are essentially the product.”
In 2005, the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility made a public statement defending investments in CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers, because the committee said the company did not meet the high standard of “grave social injury” required for the University to consider divestment.
Yale indirectly divested from a private prison in 2006, although the decision was made for financial rather than ethical reasons. Farallon Capital Management, a hedge fund that invests a portion of Yale’s endowment, sold all its stock in the Corrections Corporation of America. Farallon cited a lack of profitability, rather than the corporation’s alleged human rights abuses, as the reason for divestment.
It remains unclear the extent to which Yale remains directly or indirectly invested in private prisons. University spokesman Tom Conroy could not be reached for comment on this story over the weekend, but Yale generally does not comment on specific investments.
At the talk, Takei noted that regular laws of market efficiency do not apply to private prisons because the legal agreements and practical restraints surrounding the prisons often make it difficult for governments to end their relationship with private prisons if they grow dissatisfied with their service.
As an example, Takei brought up a private prison near Kingman, Arizona, where inmates escaped and killed an elderly couple in 2010. After the government decided to remove prisoners from the facility, Takei explained, they were accused by the private prison company of violating their contract, which required the government to keep the prison at least 97 percent occupied at all times.
To the audible concern of the audience, Takei explained that this ultimately meant the government paid the prison $3 million to manage empty beds leftover from prisoners removed from the facility by Arizona because of security concerns. This was one of many anecdotes shared by the panelists to underscore their criticism of private prisons.
“Each panelist brought a specific perspective with them that gave the discussion good breadth,” long-time Yale Students for Prison Divestment member Travis DeShong ’19 explained. “The panel was informative regardless of your previous knowledge surrounding these issues. … It’s amazing to have stellar people like these doing important work, and it’s gratifying that we could share some of that with the Yale community.”
Tylek, for example, covered topics such as expensive resources for prisoners, the “revolving door” relationship between private prison lobbyists and government workers, and the ubiquity of private prison investments and noted that many Americans end up invested in the private prison industry through large retirement account companies, such as Fidelity and Vanguard, that own significant portions of private prison companies.
The student moderator eventually asked the panel if regulation was a realistic option for improving private prisons.
“Regulation doesn’t work, that’s the short answer,” Tylek said. “One reason that regulation doesn’t work is because people don’t care about people in prison. … There are so few legal regulations in this space because it’s not something that people pay attention to and care about.”
Hager answered questions about his role as an investigative journalist working to reveal information about the private prison transport industry. Arrested people are transported in cramped vans, sometimes for weeks, to be delivered to states where they have open arrest warrants, he explained.
He also discussed, more broadly, the role of journalism in giving a human face to prisoners in private prisons and in challenging the lack of transparency maintained by private prisons.
“This whole system operates behind such a veil of secrecy that I think just expanding the knowledge base of what we know about this system would be a huge step forward and would hopefully be of service to advocates and other folks who are actually working on the problem,” Hager said.
After the panel, Tylek and Takei met with students over dinner in Davenport to discuss their own career paths and offer advice on advocating against private prisons. The Yale Students for Prison Divestment will meet with Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility this Tuesday, and DeShong said that touching base with the panel speakers was helpful preparation for the meeting.
The Yale endowment is worth $27.2 billion.