GESO calls for divestment from prison corporation

Campus activists renewed their calls for the University to divest from investments in Corrections Corporation of America at a rally and a meeting with the Advisory Committee for Investor Responsibility on Monday afternoon.

Approximately 150 protesters gathered on Beinecke Plaza Monday for a rally supporting divestment from CCA, the country’s largest private prison operator. After the rally, which was organized by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, two representatives for the group spoke at a public hearing of the ACIR, which proposes investment resolutions to the Yale Corporation on ethical grounds.

Earlier this month, Farallon Capital Management — the hedge fund through which Yale invests in CCA — sold about two-thirds of its holdings in the prison company, reducing the value of Yale’s indirect investment in the company from approximately $1.5 million to approximately $500,000. But opponents of the investment in CCA said the University should pressure Farallon to divest fully from the company in light of a reported history of prisoner abuse and cost-cutting at CCA facilities.

“We all remain participants as long as we refuse to turn a blind eye,” said Tasha Eccles ’07, who spoke at the protest.

After the rally, about half the crowd marched up Prospect Street to the School of Management for the annual open meeting of the ACIR. The 34-year-old ACIR has only recommended divestment twice before, from energy companies in Sudan last month and previously from companies with interests in South Africa under apartheid. The committee’s chairman, SOM professor Geert Rouwenhorst, said divestment should be used only after attempts to encourage a company to change its policies have failed.

“Divestment is an action of last resort for the endowment,” Rouwenhorst said. “We believe that selling the shares to someone who cares less than us [does] not necessarily [make] a good world.”

In December, ACIR concluded that CCA did not meet its standard of causing “grave social injury” that would prompt divestment, based on the standards set out in the 1972 book “The Ethical Investor,” which the committee uses as a guide.

But Sarah Haley GRD ’09, who authored GESO’s report about CCA, “Endowing Injustice,” said divestment is a moral imperative for the University based on the prison company’s record. Along with GESO chair Melissa Mason GRD ’08, Haley presented the case for divestment to ACIR.

“Ultimately, I think the only rational, sane, humane thing to do is to divest,” she said.

In their presentation, Haley and Mason described the July 2004 death of Estelle Richardson, who died following a skull fracture, four broken ribs and damage to her liver sustained while she was a prisoner at a CCA facility. The Nashville medical examiner, Dr. Bruce Levy, told the Nashville Tennesseean after her death that the injuries might have been expected from a car accident or a fall from a high building.

Alex Friedman, the associate editor of Prison Legal News and a former CCA inmate, said the abuses reported at private prisons stem from the company’s impulse to maximize its profit, which results in cost-cutting measures such as reducing salaries and training — as well as the total number — of prison employees.

“We’re treating people as commodities,” Friedman said. “We’re not just giving prisoners numbers, we’re giving them numbers with a dollar sign in front of them.”

At the ACIR meeting, committee members and GESO members clashed over questions about legislators’ responsibility for problems with the prison system. In their presentation, Haley and Mason argued that CCA’s lobbying for stricter sentences, mandatory minimums and “three strikes” is immoral because the company stands to profit from more prisoners serving longer terms. But several ACIR members asked the presenters whether legislators, who voted to support the laws, are actually responsible for their consequences.

“What we’re trying to get at is, is it clear that there is a strong connection between this company and the passage of this legislation?” said committee member John Mayes, Yale’s chief procurement officer.

Other ACIR members questioned how CCA’s practices compare to those of other private prison companies, and how private prisons in general compare to public prisons. They also suggested that engagement with the company, rather than divestment, would be a better tactic to spur policy changes toward improving prison conditions.

At times, audience members expressed anger and frustration with the committee’s questions, particularly when Rouwenhorst declined to provide a timeline for the committee to make a recommendation about investing in CCA. After the meeting, Rouwenhorst said the next step will be for the ACIR to meet and discuss the information they received at this year’s presentation.

Yesterday’s rally was coordinated with actions at 10 other campuses nationwide, including the University of Michigan, Duke University and Case Western Reserve University.

Comments