By Claudia Kania
The nationwide debate over private prisons came to the Princeton campus this year, with students speaking out against corporations contracted by the federal government to house inmates.
For-profit prisons came to center stage in February, after the Justice Department under President Trump’s administration opted out of the previous administration’s plan to gradually discontinue the practice.
Former Princeton student Daniel Teehan devoted much of his time as an undergraduate to fighting for prison reform. Teehan was the co-president of the Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) and served as a spokesperson for the Princeton Prison Divest Initiative (PPPD). Both projects call on the university to divest from detention centers and privatized prisons.
While Princeton says it does not currently invest in private prison corporations, Teehan’s groups wanted a guarantee that it would not do so in the future. But after students submitted a proposal on future divestment to the Princeton Resources Committee, it was unanimously rejected and not passed on to the Board of Trustees.
In response, Teehan and a coalition of activists, including members of Princeton’s Black Justice League and the Asian Students Coalition, staged a walkout and teach-in. In an interview, Teehan said that the referendum review process “had broken down” and was “not responsive.”
But engineering professor Michael Littman, who now chairs the Resources Committee, called the walkout “counterproductive” and “rude.” He explained that any divestment proposal must meet three sets of criteria before it reaches the Board of Trustees: win a campus consensus, present a sustained interest, and show a conflict with the university’s core values.
In 1978, the university withdrew a portion of its endowment from corporations with ties to South African apartheid. Neither Littman nor University Treasurer Carolyn Ainslie believed that Teehan’s proposal mirrored the urgency of that case.
Teehan said he was especially concerned about the length of time it took for Princeton to state on record that the university does not invest in private prisons. Teehan also expressed wariness over what he described as extreme secrecy surrounding investments that contribute to the school’s endowment, now more than $22 billion total.
Ainslie disputed the claims of secrecy, saying Princeton does not reveal its investment portfolio in order to maximize its potential return. In addition, the university does not directly invest its money, instead hiring third parties to serve as intermediaries between the school and the corporations it invests in.
Now, the issue of Princeton’s future investment in private prisons remains at an impasse. Princeton’s Resources Committee will continue to review new proposals as they are submitted on divestiture — not directly because of the group’s actions, “[but] because it’s our job,” said Littman.