Harvard Students Push for University to Divest From Prisons

Via Colorlines | Shani Saxon

Black person's hand shown through prison cell bars.
A a brown hand in a cell at a prison in Louisiana.
Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Despite disappointing early efforts, student members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign (HPDC) say they are committed to pushing Harvard University to stop investing in funds that support prisons and other related companies.

Back in February 2019, five of them—three of whom have family members who have been in prison—confronted university President Larry Bacow, NBC News reported Tuesday (September 3). They wanted him to quantify how much of Harvard’s nearly $40 billion endowment is invested in companies that profit from mass incarceration and commit to withdrawing those investment funds from prisons and the companies that profit off them. 

According to NBC:

All believed their school should not benefit financially from investments tied to America’s criminal justice system, which incarcerates more than 2 million people, about a third of them Black. Private prisons have faced criticism for being less safe for prisoners than government-run facilities and for having a financial interest in people being locked up for long stretches of time.

But the students say Bacow did not comply, and instead said that the school’s endowment—the largest in American academia—shouldn’t be used as a “political statement.” NBC reports. He went on to say that students want the school to divest “from all sorts of industries these days, including fast food and corn sweeteners.” 

Student Xitlalli Alvarez told NBC that Bacow’s response was “dismissive.” She continued, “It was as if he was equating our concern for the suffering of people in prison with corn syrup.”

A spokesperson for Harvard told NBC that Bacow “appreciated the opportunity to meet with advocates for prison divestment” and offered to connect the students with the committee that makes decisions about Harvard’s endowment. The students say that meeting still hasn’t happened, but they have continued to organize and plan to hold protests about the issue during the fall semester.

Other college campuses around the country have taken more concrete steps to divest from prisons. Per NBC:

In 2015, Columbia University announced a policy of divesting from companies involved in the operation of private prisons and to stop making new investments in the industry, becoming the first U.S.-based university to do so. The pledge came after the Ivy League school created its own Center for Justice, tasked with reducing the nation’s reliance on incarceration by advancing alternative approaches to public safety.

Similarly, the University of California system fully divested from private prisons in 2015, and officials from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, California State University, Los Angeles and Georgetown University told NBC they make a conscious effort to avoid investing in private prison corporations.

In a statement released to NBC, The GEO Group, the nation’s largest private prison firm, insisted that recent divestment efforts “are based on a false narrative and a deliberate mischaracterization of our role as a long-standing government services provider.”

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