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Dissent: We Shouldn’t Stop Listening — The Case for Prison Divestment

By Salma I. Elsayed, Guillermo S. Hava, Hana M. Kiros, Gabrielle T. Langkilde, Daniel L. Leonard, and Marcus B. Montague-Mfuni
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

Last Tuesday, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign filed a lawsuit against the University for its investments in companies connected to the private prison industry. In the lawsuit, HPDC argues that Harvard — specifically naming University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72, and the Harvard Management Company — has failed to “manage the endowment in good faith” and has violated “its legal duty to consider the charitable purposes of its investments.

We acknowledge that the legal basis of this lawsuit is tenuous at best. That said, we laud the lawsuit’s effectiveness as a means to heighten awareness of the often sidelined prison divestment movement. Most importantly, we agree with the moral gumption of its cause.

Investments in companies managing private prisons are deeply immoral and signal a willingness to profit from the inhumane practices these institutions perpetuate. As such, the conversations HPDC has sparked on the morally reprehensible state of private prisons in the United States are valuable and urgent.

The list of injustices profit-motivated, privatized incarceration perpetuates is depressingly long. Inmates of color are disproportionately represented in private prisons where they are then unjustly housed in inhumane, unsafe conditions. The pursuit of profit encourages private prisons to delay the release of their inmates by actively reducing their likelihood of obtaining parole.

Beyond this, stakeholders in the industry erode democracy and decency. They have spent millions lobbying state and federal governments in favor of harsher and longer sentencing. Private prison operators such as CoreCivic and GEO Group — which HPDC asserts the University is connected to through a related Mid-Cap ETF fund — are also known operators of immigrant detention centers that, according to the New York Times, contain “barely edible food, indifferent health care, guard brutality and assorted corner-cutting measures,” including those that house immigrant children separated from their parents.

We recognize that there is a large discrepancy in the amount HPDC and the University estimate Harvard has invested in companies tied to the prison industry. Regardless of whether this figure is as large as the $3 million that HDPC alleges or the much smaller $18,000 that Bacow claims, we believe there is still a strong moral rationale for divesting. Either way, Harvard has effectively turned a blind eye to or, worse, signed off on these egregious injustices.

But any fact-friendly person should be able to recognize the well-documented harm private prisons perpetuate. The issue, then, is not whether the private prison industry is highly unethical (it is) nor whether it actively hurts marginalized communities (it does). That much is beyond doubt. The question is how we, as a university community, ought to confront that reality.

Adopting a complacent, pessimistic stance, as this Editorial Board has, is tempting. It might even seem logical. Under an economic and corporate status quo in which child labor and environmental destruction remain commonplace, why even bother with ethical investment? Isn’t divesting from anything ultimately futile?

Yet cynicism has never been a friend of social change. In cases where the moral alarm is resoundingly, successfully raised, we believe it is the job of all University affiliates at large, and The Crimson Editorial Board, to listen. Though, in our campus’s divestment spring, dissecting all the arguments and movements calling for divestment may be overwhelming, dismissing all of these movements because they are numerous is ham-fisted. To adopt such a mindset obfuscates the University’s and our campus community’s responsibility to consider how to best address injustice and other complex moral quandaries.

In the spring of last semester, our Editorial Board articulated, in an overturning of long-held precedent, why it now supports fossil fuel divestment. The basis of this opinion was made clear: “Simply put, we should not allow our educations to be funded by the destruction of the environment and degradation of human life, particularly those who are already systematically disadvantaged.” To us, arguing that the conditions in prison prisons do not reach the standard of degrading human life or harming the systematically disadvantaged is illogical and facetious.

Harvard, because of its economic and institutional heft, enjoys a privileged position — one that allows it the unique fiscal flexibility to choose its investments responsibly and to nudge society in a positive direction. Pushing our university to do so, to avoid the most morally abhorrent investments from a field of tainted options, is far preferable to simply accepting that ethical perfection is unattainable; applying these moral standards — demanding that the food we eat and the buildings we live in are not partially subsidized by outright cruelty — is infinitely superior to indifferent resignation.

Our investments might never be perfect. But that doesn't mean they can’t be better.

Salma I. Elsayed ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Stoughton Hall. Guillermo S. Hava ’23, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Hana M. Kiros ’22, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is an Integrative Biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. Marcus B. Montague-Mfuni ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.

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