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Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign Hosts 'Free-Them Week'

Law School alum Derecka Purnell and organizers for the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign discuss prison abolition at an event Thursday evening.
Law School alum Derecka Purnell and organizers for the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign discuss prison abolition at an event Thursday evening. By Amanda Y. Su
By Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign hosted “Free-Them Week” this week to promote prison divestment at the University through a series of seminars, office hours, and workshops.

HPDC launched the week’s events by delivering a 64-page report — released last Wednesday — detailing what they say are the University’s investments in companies with ties to the prison industry to Massachusetts Hall Monday.

The report estimated the University has at least $3 million invested in companies with such ties. It also demanded the University divest and disclose all endowment holdings in companies connected to the industry.

On Wednesday night, students gathered at Harvard Law School for a seminar about connecting Jewish values to calls for divestment and dismantling the U.S. prison system. Participants drew parallels between contemporary prisons and the historic confinement of Jewish people as a basis for solidarity.

Event organizer and graduate student Gabriel L. Schwartz said he feels that Jews had a “moral obligation” to protest racism in the prison industry.

“Our faith as Jews is deeply wrapped up in the fate of other marginalized people in the United States,” he said. “Anti-semitism and anti-black racism are historically and concurrently intertwined.”

The following day, Law School graduate Derecka M. Purnell led a workshop about prison abolition, during which she described divestment as a “tenet” of abolition.

“What these student organizers are trying to do is get Harvard to remove some of its billions of dollars from profiting off the caging of human beings,” she said in an interview after the event. “There are so many other things to invest in. The fact that they are committed to investing and profiting from the caging of human beings is immoral.”

The week’s events also included a seminar about socially responsible investing, a session about restoring the right to vote for prisoners in Massachusetts, and office hours for people to learn more about prison divestment and abolition. The last event, planned for Friday, will feature an immigrant who spent time in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement prison.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain referenced previous comments in response to calls for the University to divest from companies with ties to the prison industry.

“[University] President [Lawrence S.] Bacow has met with advocates for prison divestment,” Swain wrote in an emailed statement. “He has also invited them to meet with members of the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility and looks forward to further discussion.”

HPDC is scheduled to meet with Bacow and the Corporation’s Committee on Shareholder Responsibility Oct. 28. The CCSR is a subcommittee of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — that advises the University on matters related to social responsibility in its investment decisions.

HPDC organizer and Law School student Anna L. Nathanson said HPDC is committed to prison divestment for the “long haul.”

“We'll have to see how the meeting goes on Monday,” she said. “The ball is really going to be in the court of Lawrence Bacow and the rest of the administration.”

— Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @amandaysu.

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