Last semester I spoke with Amanda Ciafone, a fellow graduate student in American studies, about her paper for the working group on globalization and culture. The seminar’s theme for the semester was the politics of neoliberalism in education. Her essay examined Farallon, the hedge fund that invests a portion of Yale’s endowment. She told me that Farallon invests in Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest owner and operator of private prisons.
As a student who entered graduate school to pursue prison-studies research, I was disgusted by Farallon’s investment in the private-prison industry. Amanda’s work, and that of the entire working group on globalization, depends on a rich intellectual environment. Yet such research is undermined daily because it is facilitated by an endowment amassed, in part, through investment in CCA.
I decided to research Yale’s investment in CCA, and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization released this research two weeks ago in its report, Endowing Injustice. In 2000, Amnesty International described reports of abuse in several of CCA’s facilities that constituted torture: “One prisoner said that he was handcuffed, stripped, forced to kneel on the floor, sexually assaulted with a shampoo bottle by a guard and shocked with a stun gun.”
As Human Rights Watch revealed in 1999, “Violence, escapes and sexual abuse also further darkened the record of private prison operators.” Yet CCA’s abuse is far from a historical relic. Consider the death of Estelle Richardson. After Richardson was beaten by CCA prison guards, the prison’s medical examiner found that “she was slammed into an object with such force that it fractured her skull, broke four ribs, and damaged her liver,” as if she had “fallen from a high window or if she had been hit by a car.”
I believed that divestment from CCA was an issue that should be part of GESO’s program, and I approached both my organizer and union researchers about making divestment from CCA one of GESO’s issue campaigns. We sifted through CCA’s extensive record of human-rights violations. Our researchers determined that Yale’s direct investment in CCA was over $1.5 million.
I had numerous discussions with my colleagues in the American studies and African American studies departments about CCA. Every person I talked to, GESO member or not, agreed that this was an affront to humanist scholarship. Overwhelmingly, they thought the divestment demand should be incorporated into GESO’s agenda.
Divestment from CCA is a quality-of-life issue for graduate students. Approximately 30 percent of Yale’s operating budget comes from its endowment. This means a portion of our paychecks are derived from investment in CCA. The operating budget also supports the resources we utilize each day in our research and teaching. Our intellectual work, then, is being funded by Corrections Corporation of America.
Moreover, it should not be difficult to believe that many graduate students have been personally affected by the unprecedented expansion of the prison system. CCA plays an influential role in this expansion — what scholars have termed history’s first prison society. CCA measures financial progress by how many people in America are prisoners. The company imbues this ethos of “progress” in American politics by pushing draconian criminal laws. Legislative influence has been one of CCA’s most successful projects.
For many, GESO is part of a larger struggle in academia — that is, the fight to reinvigorate higher education with the voices of its teachers. As a recent YDN article noted (“Ph.D. students plan for a difficult job market,” 10/10), the Academy is facing a crumbling job market. Increasingly, adjuncts and other non-permanent faculty members are performing teaching work at universities and colleges. Such casualization excludes teachers’ voices and devalues teaching generally by shifting resources from the maintenance of a stable professoriate.
Similarly, the veiled accumulation of endowments through unethical investments devalues teachers’ voices in university governance. Graduate students are expressing outrage and demanding changes to administrative practices that privilege corporate models over academic values including critical inquiry and open dialogue.
CCA has a shameful record of abuse in its private prisons. CCA also attempts to structure society based upon the dehumanizing project of entrepreneurial mass imprisonment. Graduate students have an unquestionable stake in ensuring that these values are not the ones that the Academy propagates.
Sarah Haley is a third-year graduate student in African American studies and American studies. She is a member of GESO’s coordinating committee.