On August 21st, the same day Yale announced its divestment from assault weapons retailers, prisoners across the country went on strike. They were protesting inhumane conditions, the inability to address their grievances, racial discrimination and prison slavery. The strike was announced following the preventable deaths of seven inmates at the Robert E. Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security public prison in South Carolina. Inmates in private prisons, public prisons and immigrant detention centers withheld their labor, organized peaceful sit-ins, went on hunger strike and boycotted prison commissaries. Yes, prisoners making twenty cents an hour decided to withhold what little they had from the commissaries in order to impact their exploiters’ bottom lines.
For three years, we have petitioned Yale to show even a fraction of that moral courage. The Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility has said they would engage in a dialogue with Yale Students for Prison Divestment about the role of private prisons and other prison-related industries in Yale’s investment portfolio. They have not listened. The divestment group has been calling on the Yale Corporation to divest from private prisons and prison related industries. We want Yale to not only divest from certain companies with known human rights violations, but to take the positive step of publicly refusing to reap the profits of mass incarceration. Instead, the Yale Corporation decided to invest even more in private prisons and related industries, adding investments totaling $72.1 million in iShares Core and iShares MSCI, mutual funds containing CoreCivic, Geo Group, G4s and Sodexo, according to the Yale Corporation’s most recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
In response to our meetings in March and April, the investor responsibility advisory committee has released proxy voting guidelines, in which they agree to vote for proposed changes in company policies that purport to improve conditions for prisoners or increase corporate transparency. If they think these guidelines will satisfy us, they’ve fundamentally misunderstood the message we’ve tried to convey. No company that profits from increases in incarceration can be anything other than an obstacle in the fight against mass incarceration. No change in company policy can make incarceration both profitable and humane. The fact that these guidelines call for a particularly passive means of engagement is just icing on the cake.
Private prisons optimize profits by filling every bed and cutting costs in areas that impact prisoners’ health, nutrition, and safety. They have been consistently shown to have even lower safety standards and higher rates of violence than their public counterparts. They have been shown to house Black and Hispanic inmates at even higher rates than their public counterparts, according to a study by Christopher Petrella, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. They rely on the labor of inmates, who perform tasks necessary to the upkeep of the prison for less than a dollar an hour, if they are compensated at all. This is not an accident. This is their business model. This is slavery, legalized under the caveat in the 13th amendment that allows for slavery as punishment for a crime. And Yale is profiting from it.
The fundamental inhumanity of private prisons is what has motivated many other institutions to divest, including Columbia University and New York City’s pension fund. We agree that it’s wrong to reap the benefits of societal harm. Mass incarceration is undeniably a grave social injury — this is accepted across the political spectrum, and it’s inconceivable that our University doesn’t accept it too. The privatization of mass incarceration, with its perverse incentives to incarcerate more people, to spend less money on their health and safety, and to coerce their labor for profit, is a particularly odious example of that societal harm.
Now is the time for moral courage. Let us follow the example of the participants in the national prison strike. With even a fraction of our $28,500,000,000 endowment, we have the power to make a big difference. And with the Yale name, we have the power to delegitimize prison profiteering by divesting from it.
Let’s do the right thing. Let’s take the same step we took with assault weapons retailers on August 21st and say that just because something can be profited from does not mean it should be. Let’s refuse to invest in incarceration, exploitation and human rights violations. Instead of promising to vote “yes” on positive tweaks to a system that profits from brutalization, let’s refuse to lend our social and economic power to that system in the first place.