Student activists push for private prison divestment

By Cynthia Guerrero
Chicago, IL

On a spring day in 2016, cries echoed throughout Princeton University’s Alexander Hall as students and faculty members chanted, “What do we want? Divestment. When do we want it? Now.”

Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) had organized the protest to demand that Princeton divest from private prison companies, a practice which they claim makes the university complicit in one of the greatest civil and human rights violations of our time.

However, their demand for divestment might not be necessary: Princeton University officials say that the school doesn’t invest in private prisons at all.

But the potential of future investments leaves open the possibility that Princeton will support mass incarceration and thus “perpetuate the system of control and domination,” said Daniel Teehan, SPEAR’s former vice president and a recent Princeton graduate. He points out that other powerful universities have previously invested in private prisons: In 2015, Columbia University became the first Ivy League school to divest from private-prison companies, under pressure from a similar student activist group.

Princeton has rejected multiple divestment proposals from SPEAR because the university, which has a $22 billion endowment, has no direct investments in private prisons. However, activists from SPEAR are still demanding confirmation from the Board of Trustees and want the university to be more transparent about its individual holdings. 

Carolyn Ainslie, Princeton’s treasurer and vice president for finance, says the university does not list its individual investments and holdings because they’re “continuously changing.” Providing such details would also jeopardize Princeton’s endowment, as other institutions could try to replicate its financial investments, Ainslie added. The Council of the Princeton University Committee, which helps oversee the university’s financial resources, will continue to investigate the issue in case there are secondary investments in private prisons, said engineering professor Michael Littman, chair of the Resources Committee in the Council of the Princeton University Community.

When asked about SPEAR’s pressure campaign, Littman looked visibly frustrated. “I like the idea that they are socially active students,” he said, “but they staged a teach-in. That was rude. I was not impressed by that one action.” The teach-in happened outside of Alexander Hall during last spring’s protest, and Littman believes activists only presented one side of the issue. He acknowledged that mass incarceration is a serious issue in the U.S., but “the real problem is somewhere else.”  

Like Ainslie, Littman said Princeton has no investments in private prisons. But even if it did, he added, “you can’t change laws of mass incarceration” through divestment.

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