A fledgling group of Yale undergraduates is demanding that the University divest from for-profit prisons — the latest attempt by students to use the endowment as a tool for social justice.
Founded last semester, Yale Students for Prison Divestment — a branch of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project — wrote an open letter to the University administration and Yale Corporation over the weekend highlighting the injustices committed by private prisons and outlining the ways in which continued investment in the industry does not align with Yale’s ethical investment principles. The letter claims that private prison facilities have limited government oversight, are free to offer substandard living environments, and are especially susceptible to corruption. According to the YUPP website, the number of inmates in private prison facilities is nearly 130,000 nationally.
The letter had over 289 signatures from undergraduates, graduate and professional students by press time Monday night. Although students who signed the letter said they would be willing to take more direct action, such as protests or sit-ins, to push Yale to divest, the fate of YSPD remains murky as it follows in the footsteps of groups like Fossil Free Yale that have unsuccessfully demanded divestment.
“We find the practice of investing in the private prison industry to be morally incompatible with Yale’s mission,” read the open letter. “We therefore demand … that the Yale Corporation immediately divest from the for-profit prison industry, publicly denounce the for-profit prison industry and affirmatively state that it will not invest in the for-profit prison industry in the future.”
This is the second time since 2005 that students have exerted significant pressure on Yale to divest from for-profit prisons. In 2005, the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, a group of students, faculty and staff members which advises the Yale Corporation on investment decisions, made a public statement defending investments in the Corrections Corporation of America — a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers — because the ACIR said the company did not constitute a “grave social injury.” According to Yale’s investment handbook, “grave social injury” is one of the thresholds that should prompt the University to consider divestment.
The University indirectly divested from a private prison in 2006, although the decision was made for financial rather than ethical reasons. Farallon Capital Management, a hedge fund that invests a portion of Yale’s endowment, sold all its stock in the Corrections Corporation of America. Farallon cited a lack of profitability, rather than the corporation’s alleged human rights abuses, as the reason for divestment. At the time, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization took credit for successfully pressuring the University to divest, although Yale administrators said Farallon had made its divestment decision independent of Yale.
To date, the ACIR has made no public amendments to its 2005 policy statement. Letter co-author Joseph Gaylin ’19 said the YSPD has contacted the ACIR, and the committee has agreed to meet with YSPD after spring break, although no specific date has been arranged. ACIR Chair and Yale Law School professor Jonathan Macey LAW ‘82 did not respond to request for comment on Monday.
YSPD was founded with the support of YUPP, and although YUPP Advocacy Co-Chair Korinayo Thompson ’18 said the two groups are nominally distinct, there is some overlap in their membership and missions. YUPP hosts a page for YSPD on its website.
The open letter said since 1970, the number of incarcerated people in the United States has increased by 700 percent. A large percentage of the country’s black population is imprisoned — more than were incarcerated in even apartheid South Africa. The YUPP website describes private prisons as “dangerous, damaging and altogether horrible institutions.”
Student signatories said private prisons are often out to make money and are not in business of rehabilitation.
“Cutting costs isn’t a good thing if it undermines the purpose of the prison from the outset,” said Ben McCoubrey ’17, who signed the open letter.
Paul Eberwine ’18 said he signed the letter because he sees something perverse in the idea of an elite university profiting off imprisoned human bodies.
Students also expressed frustration with what they increasingly view as dysfunctional channels of communication between students and University administrators.
Gaylin described the University’s current process of making investment choices as “secluded and opaque,” and he said YSPD’s larger mission, beyond divestment, is to force students to question Yale’s investment strategies.
But students were split over what direction YSPD should take if Yale is unresponsive to the open letter. Some, like Eberwine and Scott Remer ’16, said they would be willing to participate in protests that called on Yale to divest from the private prison industry. Jade Chowning ’19, who signed the letter and has helped organize with YSPD, said she anticipates that “increased student action will be scaled to match increased resistance from the Yale Corporation if and when we face it.” Likewise, Eberwine said the recent efforts by Fossil Free Yale — which advocates for divestment from the fossil fuel industry — to communicate with the University administration, including a sit-in inside Woodbridge Hall, demonstrate that “sometimes stepping outside the normal boundaries of communication is a necessary step.”
Gabriella Martin ’19, a member of YSPD, said that if the Yale Corporation is unresponsive to the open letter or does not meet YSPD’s demands, the advocacy group will put its efforts toward protesting as well as educating the Yale community about incarceration in the U.S.
It is unclear whether YSPD will follow in Fossil Free Yale’s footsteps, and Thompson said YSPD will wait for the University to respond to its open letter before making a move.
“Our plans right now are to get in contact with the Yale administration and really work through the official channels that are set up,” Gaylin said. He would not say whether YSPD would be willing to take direct action on the issue. That will depend on what happens in the future, he said.
Although Eberwine said he doubts Yale’s divestment would significantly impact the profits of the prison industry, he added that responding to the open letter with divestment could rebuild students’ trust in the administration.
“Divestment would demonstrate that students actually have some power to shape the Yale they want to see,” Eberwine said. “After the events of this past year, such an affirmation would be very encouraging. This could be a significant step towards building student trust.”
In total, there are about 130 private prisons in America, and the industry makes roughly $3.3 billion in revenue annually.
Correction, March 8: A previous version of this article misidentified the gender of Jade Chowning ’19; in fact, she is female. It also misrepresented the views of Gabriella Martin ’19.