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Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign to Sue University over Prison Investments

Students involved with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign speak at the Harvard Law School in October 2019.
Students involved with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign speak at the Harvard Law School in October 2019. By MyeongSeo Kim
By Ellen M. Burstein and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

Members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign announced Tuesday afternoon that they plan to sue the University over its alleged investments in companies tied to the prison industry.

The five student plaintiffs, who are representing themselves, wrote in a draft of their complaint that the University has benefitted from those alleged investments when it should be trying to help break down a “system of human caging,” according to NBC News, which first reported on the students’ plans. The complaint is set to be filed in Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County.

"Instead of helping to dismantle the entanglement of profiteering, government interests, and the system of human caging, Harvard makes profit off of it," the plaintiffs wrote. "That money funds the opulent lifestyles of Harvard's top administrators who are prison profiteers."

University Spokesman Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the planned lawsuit.

The plaintiffs have argued they have grounds to sue based on the fact that all five have donated to the University during the past year. They argue that the Harvard Management Company has violated its commitment to them as donors.

"This is one way to hold Harvard's feet to the fire," one plaintiff— Xitlalli Alvarez, a doctoral student in Anthropology — told NBC.

Representatives for HPDC declined to comment on the suit.

In a report released in October 2019, HPDC estimated the University has at least $3 million invested in companies with ties to the prison industry. University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in April 2019, however, that Harvard’s total prison-related financial holdings amount to roughly $18,000.

University administrators have resisted previous calls to divest from the prison industry.

This new legal push does not mark the first time student divestment activists have filed suit against the University. In 2014, a group of seven Harvard student activists filed a lawsuit against Harvard alleging that the University's investment in fossil fuels was in violation of the school’s original charter.

More recently, HPDC held a series of events promoting prison divestment, titled “Free Them Week,” in late October. Harvard’s divestment movements more broadly made national headlines in November, when protesters disrupted the 136th edition of the Harvard-Yale Game in New Haven. Demonstrators from Harvard and Yale occupied the field during halftime, calling on the two Universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry and from Puerto Rican debt.

Harvard has previously elected to partially divest from companies profiting from apartheid in South Africa and genocide in Darfur, Sudan, and to fully divest from the tobacco industry.

HPDC announced in an email to supporters Tuesday that the plaintiffs plan to hold a press conference at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning on the steps of the Supreme Judicial Courthouse in Boston.

—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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