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Student organizers are forcing universities nationwide to reckon with troubling parts of their histories and terminate current relationships that stand at odds with the educational institutions’ purported values. At Harvard University, students have been calling upon university leadership to draw the connection between its past complicity with chattel slavery and their present-day investment in the prison industry.

Formed in 2018, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign (HPDC) is a coalition of student organizers who are demanding that Harvard University disclose more information about its private investments; divest its holdings in companies engaged in prison profiteering; and reinvest those funds into Boston-area organizations and initiatives led by people directly impacted by mass incarceration. Now HPDC has escalated its action by filing a lawsuit in Massachusetts state court last month asking the court to force the university to divest from the prison industrial complex, or the web of corporations that provide goods and services to the carceral system, allowing for its rapid expansion.

The campaign was born out of a class project conducted by Jarrett Drake, a HPDC organizer and doctoral student at Harvard’s Department of Anthropology. Drake’s work began to uncover ties between the university and the prison industry. In March 2019, the campaign publicly pressured university leadership to sever those ties by delivering a petition outlining its demands, along with more than 3,000 signatures of support.

However, in the year since, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow has refused to acquiesce. In response, the coalition filed suit against the university on Feb. 19, alleging that the university has breached its fiduciary duty and engaged in false advertising. Harvard University leadership did not respond to a request for comment on this story. HPDC’s latter claim is rooted in the idea that the school’s leadership has boasted about its efforts to address its own history of profiting from American chattel slavery.

“We’re waiting to hear Harvard’s response when it comes to defending their investments in the prison industrial complex and defending their self purported public reputation as a university that wants to ‘address and reckon’ with its legacy of slavery, but refuses to divest from what is somewhat of today’s present day slavery,” said Amanda Chan, a Harvard Law School student and organizer with HPDC.

$3 million and counting

The exact nature of the university’s relationship to the carceral system is difficult to fully ascertain, since 96% of the college’s $4 billion endowment is invested in private, undisclosed holdings. Despite the obscurity of so much of the college’s investments, the sliver available to the public has revealed relationships that student advocates find troubling.

HPDC created a list of top companies involved in the prison-industrial complex using reports such as Worth Rises’ The Prison Industrial Complex: Mapping Private Sector Players, a comprehensive outline of the more than 3,000 corporations that provide privatized services and goods to the carceral system. They then cross-referenced it with the companies that Harvard has publicly invested in.

Through their analysis, HPDC found that $3 million is invested in companies that profit from incarceration. They expect that number is even higher, though, given that only 1% of the college’s entire endowment is publicly disclosed. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow has disputed that analysis, arguing that only $18,000 of the university endowment is invested in private prisons.

The disparity between the HPDC’s analysis and Bacow’s statement is where the gaps in our conversation around the prison industrial complex emerge.

Advocates like Amanda Chan explain that Bacow is only looking at a small slice of how the university engages with the carceral system and his undercount reinforces a false dichotomy often made between private and public prisons.

“We are very critical of this discourse around private prisons being bad and public prisons being okay or good. We are an abolitionist group. We believe in a world without prisons,” Chan said. “This technical divide between private and public prisons doesn’t really make sense. Because even public prisons are privatizing so much of these services that they provide within the prisons themselves.”

In fact, only 8% of all incarcerated people are held in private prisons, but an overwhelming majority of incarcerated people are impacted by the privatized services within their facilities that can leave them and their loved ones financially burdened.

Thus, the companies that HPDC is demanding Harvard divest from extend beyond just the major private prison operators like GEO Group and CoreCivic and into companies like CenturyLink, a prison telecom provider, and Fairfax, a bail bonds insurer.

Other notable targets for HPDC are the major banks that the university has invested in. While U.S. banks like JPMorgan Chase made a splash when they divested from private prisons last year, what is less often talked about is how banks continue to fuel the carceral system through the provision of police brutality bonds.

“When a city has a police force, and a particularly violent one, they will often buy bonds from banks. It’s kind of like an insurance policy,” Chan said. “If they have to settle with a victim of police brutality, the bank provides a service that allows them to balance their budget better. These police brutality bonds make having a violent police force more affordable.”

Being in community

The HPDC is currently awaiting the university’s response as the lawsuit gets in motion. However, the group continues to engage the school community through events like Saturday political education sessions, as well as a book club it has formed between Harvard students and incarcerated people at Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk.

As an Ivy League campus set apart from many of the communities most deeply impacted by the very problems that HPDC is seeking to dismantle, developing relationships with organizers in the Boston area has proven to be crucial.

“We knew we needed to be in solidarity with the community,” said HPDC organizer Jarrett Drake.

After reading about Derrick Washington, an activist fighting to enfranchise currently and formerly incarcerated people and who is currently incarcerated in Massachusetts’ maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, Drake reached out to him. Since 2018, HPDC has been active in the initiatives run by Washington’s organization, the Emancipation Initiative, particularly those that aim to end life sentences without parole in Massachusetts and restore voting rights to incarcerated people.

Drake cites the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by the activist group INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence as giving him a model for how and why organizers—particularly student organizers—might develop connections with the community as they fight against injustice.

“People who are outside of mainstream institutions make the conditions possible for radical change,” Drake said. “Those inside need to take direction from those outside.”

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.