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Prison Divestment and the Pitfalls of Moral Comparison

By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Private prisons only make a bad justice system worse.

Last week, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign filed suit against Harvard in Massachusetts state court over the University’s alleged investments in companies with ties to the prison industry. Arguing that the University’s refusal to investigate the scope of potential investments in the prison industry amounts to a “violation of fiduciary duty and break of the Harvard Charter,” the five student plaintiffs asked the court to prohibit Harvard from investing in the “prison-industrial complex” and to make “such practices” illegal.

Private prisons take advantage of the overcriminalization of people of color for monetary gain. People of color are disproportionately stopped or arrested by the police, charged by prosecutors at higher rates, and sentenced to longer terms for the same charges. The mistreatment of people of color by the criminal justice system is the result of an abominable combination of racialized socioeconomic disparities and race-driven legislation. For example, when Congress chose to differentially punish crack and powder cocaine, the sentencing disparity between black Americans and white Americans for drug-related crimes more than quadrupled. Increased sentences increase private prison profits.

Moreover, private prisons pervert the very principles of justice that should underpin the carceral system, creating structural incentives for disregarding and undermining these principles. For example, in 2009, two Pennsylvania judges were charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for sending teenagers to two private juvenile detention centers.

But even as we recognize the violence of private prisons against communities of color and American society more broadly, we find ourselves feeling uncomfortable with the nature of divestment politics and our own position, as an editorial board, within them.

When we opined in favor of fossil fuel divestment last spring, we wrote that we think supporting divestment is appropriate only in the most extreme cases. But since then, we have confronted a number of calls for divestment — from Puerto Rican debt, from indigenous and agricultural landholdings, from Israel — that have posed the difficult task of having to compare moral wrongs and degrees of existential significance.

The existential and moral importance of fossil fuel divestment remains clear, but a reactive approach to divestment does not instantiate a meaningful approach to addressing the sociopolitical significance of Harvard’s financial practices.

Divestment campaigns are but one means, championed by students, to raise alarm against a political economy that underwrites deeply troubling and exploitative practices of capital accumulation. In that light, the HPDC lawsuit represents the extreme (and justifiable) frustration — not least owing to the University’s often condescending indifference — that students have with the limited tools available to them to challenge such injustice. After all, the issue they protest does not appear to be particularly juridical — certainly not in the sense of the landmark social justice cases that have appeared before United States courts. Rather, these students would seem to be constructing a legal claim — donating to a university, the values of which they evidently disagree with — in order to pursue a case in the courts that might more typically be pursued on the street or, as they showed last semester, the football field. As one plaintiff said in light of his $12.24 donation, “moral standing” was more important than “legal.”

And while we share the frustration of these students, we believe that one-off editorials supporting the increasing number of divestment campaigns will tend not to constitute a meaningful critique of these structural problems or do justice to their activism. Just as it is not our place to pass judgment on each individual walkout and sit-in, so too it seems presumptuous to do so for divestment campaigns.

As such, though we continue to support divestment activism in its power to raise critical moral and social questions from students’ perspectives, private prison divestment does not meet our criteria for support. But that’s not really what matters. What matters is that students are heard loud and clear: It’s time to shut down private prisons for the sake of those whom they dehumanize and the justice system they pervert.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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