‘A Slow Motion Version of the Death Penalty’: Why Harvard Shouldn’t Invest In Prisons

What does it mean for the richest university in the world — one which has dedicated $5 million dollars to plumbing its relationship to the institution of slavery, and sent out countless emails affirming its anti-racist commitments — to continue to seek profits from, and therefore uphold, America’s last legal home for slavery?
By Hana M. Kiros

By John L. Spivak via Wikimedia Commons

In early 1971, Terrell Don Hutto was the warden on a cotton plantation the size of Manhattan. About a decade later, he’d use lessons learned on the plantation to create something new, crude, and often in Harvard’s portfolio — the world’s first corporate prison.

Hutto began his career in incarceration on the Ramsey Prison Farm in the 60s.

In many ways, Ramsey was a typical Southern prison. After slavery’s abolition, former Confederate states realized the 13th Amendment handed them a path forward. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” would exist in the U.S., it declared, “except as a punishment for crime.” So states with economies bruised by emancipation eyed prison labor as new fuel for the old slave economy. They purchased plantations, attached them to prisons, and began filling them with Black men — many for crimes, like selling crops without a white person’s permission, invented to incarcerate them.

When Hutto ran Ramsey, every Black person it imprisoned was forced to work the cotton plantation, plus a fraction of the prison’s few white prisoners. Dusk to dawn, they picked cotton across sprawling fields. None were paid. Slow hands in the field often meant solitary confinement or being fed a punishment diet, which one man testified he lost 30 pounds on. Academics flocked to Texas to document the old slave songs, reaching back to West Africa, that rang out on its prison plantations.

In the 1960s, plantation prisons brought Texas $14.7 million annually in today’s dollars. Hutto’s success running them like labor camps for startling profits led to every Arkansas prison being placed in his care.

In 1978, the Supreme Court Case Hutto v. Finney ruled that, under Hutto’s leadership, Arkansas’ prison system committed “cruel and unusual punishment.” Testimony revealed the cruelty reserved for those on his fields who missed cotton quotas: the “Texas TV” — you pressed your forehead against the wall, took several steps back, and were forced to hold that stance for hours upon hours, often after being stripped naked — and forcing cuffed inmates onto the hood of a truck, then driving them at breakneck speed across the plantation. Many fell.

Luckily, this history didn’t shake investors.

At Ramsey, Terrell Don Hutto learned to view incarceration as a lucrative industry. Like most successful founders, he was just slightly ahead of the curve.

By the 1980s, the war on drugs had engulfed state legislatures. Annual spending on prisons quadrupled and, in a decade, the prison population nearly doubled. America scrambled for space to incarcerate everyone it convicted.

To Hutto and his co-founders, this looked like demand. They wondered: Could they transfigure this influx of people behind bars into profit?

So on Valentine’s Day, 1983, Hutto co-founded the Corrections Corporation of America — a company whose product would be the imprisonment of people in detention centers it’d build, own, and operate. In 2016, after a scathing Department of Justice report declared private prisons unsafe, the company rebranded as CoreCivic.

Hutto’s cofounders were Tom Beasley — a former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party who brought political connections — and Robert Crants, a Harvard Law and Business School graduate with real estate know-how and the legitimacy Harvard confers.

They wooed shareholders with the pitch that, far from uncouth, explicitly introducing profit motives to incarceration would foster competition and consequently improve conditions. Beasley bragged: “We’re the best thing that ever happened to corrections since they stopped beating ’em.”

If only.


Since CoreCivic opened its door 40 years ago, prison privatization has been a race to the bottom — which, in this context, is torture.

Charles A. Fried, a Harvard Law Professor and Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan, is a vocal opponent of Harvard’s investments in private prisons.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on this article. A spokesperson for the Harvard Management Company did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.

Fried’s high-level post in the Reagan administration — the militant drug policies which helped birth CoreCivic — has led some to paint him as an unlikely objector.

But to him, the case against profiting off prisons is obvious.

Fried describes prison to me as “a kind of prolonged mutilation.”

When you incarcerate someone, “you take over a large part of a person's life, the totality of it, for a period of years, or months, or decades.” This degree of domination, he emphasizes, is “drastic.”

“What you're doing is, in principle, a very terrible thing. To do it right is expensive.”

He articulates the danger of for-profit prisons simply.

“Corporations have the obligation to their shareholders to be profitable. And that is inconsistent with the obligation which the government has to its prisoners and to wider society” — which is to behave humanely.

Prison operators fight tooth-and-nail to expand incarceration. The pursuit of profit leads them to imprison people, for similar sentences, months longer than their public counterparts. In the 1990s, CoreCivic began building prisons “on spec” — before a contract for a new prison was even signed, assuming need. Tellingly, prison operators have spent tens of millions successfully lobbying Congress for harsher sentencing laws, and block carceral reform.

Bribery is also on the table. In the infamous “Kids for Cash” scandal, judges were caught accepting bribes from private prison executives to imprison kids for offenses, including fighting in class, where lighter sentencing was warranted: inflating the population and profits of juvenile prisons.

“So, the private prison system encourages — and of course, its corporate rate on debt encourages — longer terms of imprisonment for more people” Fried tells me. “It's more business, which is exactly the opposite incentive that we want.”

He describes the for-profit prison as “a kind of slow-motion version of the death penalty.”

In 2014, while undercover in a CoreCivic prison, investigative journalist Shane Bauer saw a man lose both his legs and every finger to gangrene after his nine requests to visit a doctor were ignored.

Claudio Fajardo Saucedo, a man held in a Texas for-profit prison, complained at least 18 times over two years of ratcheting pain, only to be handed Tylenol and denied access to a doctor. Eventually, he collapsed and, at a local hospital, was instantly diagnosed with a treatable virus that killed him days later. This extreme medical neglect, highlighted by reporter Seth Wessler, was found to be pervasive.

“Essentially, the private prison system is a way for the state to ignore its moral obligations,” Fried tells me.

Most major banks, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, cut ties with private prison companies in 2019, citing these abuses. Columbia University divested from private prisons in 2015.

Still, Harvard has decided to hold on.


CoreCivic is now the country’s largest private prison operator; GEO Group is close behind. Both are publicly traded, and, alone, manage over half of America’s private prison contracts.

Through investments in these companies, Harvard’s $53.2 billion endowment grows each time their prisons fill a cell or cut a corner.

Or at least, it definitely did until the end of the last financial quarter. And might still. And surely will again.

It’s complicated.

CoreCivic, GEO Group, G4S, and Serco. These are the for-profit prison operators Harvard invests its endowment in, and consequently reaps returns from when they ink lucrative prison contracts.

Harvard’s investment in prison companies is contained within two exchange-traded funds — bundles of hundreds of companies any investor can place in their portfolio with a few clicks.

In a 2019 meeting with student activists, University President Lawrence S. Bacow admitted Harvard had $18,000 invested in private prison operators through two ETFs. This calculation excludes potential private prison investments contained in the 98 percent of Harvard’s portfolio it is not federally mandated to disclose, despite Bacow’s access to this staggeringly fuller picture.

Harvard’s most recent filings reveal that, in the last quarter of 2021, HMC sold every ETF it invests in. This means Harvard has sold the slim part of its endowment publicly known to be invested in private prisons.

Yet this ETF dump is not a moral statement or divestment, which implies a commitment to scrubbing an entity from your portfolio permanently.

As soon as they become profitable, Harvard will surely purchase ETFs again, including those containing for-profit prisons. It may already have. This coming quarter’s SEC filings will tell.

This moment — when whether Harvard bets billions on more people being imprisoned is a question and not dreadfully certain — begs: Why can’t Harvard just quit private prisons?

Since 2018, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign has called for Harvard to divest from the prison-industrial complex, which it defines as private prison operators and other players like bail bondsmen and taser manufacturers.

Harvard administrators have met with prison divestment activists but dismiss them. Rather, they hold the party line: How Harvard invests its money is apolitical and irrelevant. The endowment exists to feed itself and is beholden to no other aim. Bacow says students find many industries “offensive.” Do they really expect him to hear out the case against each one?

In a 2019 press release, Harvard Divinity School graduate and HPDC organizer Ismail Buffins wrote: “Harvard gets to look good by meeting with us. But of course, they’ll just dangle the carrot on the stick forever.”

The idea that Harvard’s endowment exists in a realm detached from societal consequences is directly contradicted by modern instances in which Harvard chose to divest.

In 1986, from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.

In 1990, from the entire tobacco industry.

In 2005, from a company tied to the Darfur genocide.

And, perhaps most famously, its 2021 pledge to halt investments in the fossil fuel industry.

On Earth Day 2020 Harvard pledged its endowment would be carbon neutral by 2050. To simultaneously announce, with fanfare, socially conscious endowment decisions while scorning the idea HMC managers should consider ethics is obvious hypocrisy. Clearly, the endowment is only apolitical when grappling with Harvard’s investments gets sticky.

Bacow has conceded that his endowment philosophy has given way to rare exceptions. Why doesn’t the cruelty of corporate prisons qualify?

Fried chalks it up to “a lack of imagination.”


Terell Don Hutto passed away in 2021 after dedicating much of his life to running CoreCivic. How long his company and for-profit prison model can outlive him is an open question.

“If private prison businesses were to be treated as a pariah, I think they would die,” Fried tells me.

“The fact is, of course, organizations like Harvard have a great deal of leverage over the mutual funds and the private equity funds, and generally how they do things,” he argues.

“If they said to a Fidelity, or Vanguard, or some other private equity groups, ‘No, we will not invest with you, as long as you have private prisons in your portfolio,’ they wouldn't have them. It's clear that that's what would happen.”

There’s precedent. Companies including BlackRock, which manages one of the ETFs Harvard has prison investments through, have created new funds that exclude other contested industries, including weapon manufacturers. It’s easy to imagine asset management firms providing investors the option to select ETFs which don’t bet on the profitability of incarceration.

The for-profit prison industry has already shown it’s susceptible to divestment blows. When major banks cut ties with private prison companies — cutting an estimated $2.4 billion in loans to industry giants GEO Group and CoreCivic — both companies' stock prices nose-dived. Their stocks similarly plunged over 40 percent when the Obama administration announced in 2016 it would restrict the Justice Department’s use of for-profit prisons, and again in 2021 when the Biden administration announced a similar measure.

So what’s been keeping private prison operators afloat?

The same thing that keeps any stock afloat: Faith.

Through investing in private prisons, Harvard actively affirms the idea that incarceration is a financially and morally viable industry to put money in. Divestment, then, is a wedge to erode that faith.

The divestment spring witnessed after Harvard announced its intended fossil fuel divestments — many universities and trusts followed suit — demonstrates that Harvard has considerable power to shape how others invest. Harvard pulling its investments in private prisons has the potential to deal the final blow to this kneeling industry.

Instead, Harvard is helping CoreCivic weather the storm.

Fried paints Harvard’s willingness to profit from imprisonment as the result of passivity. “Many institutions have refused, for instance, to have even a smidgen of tobacco stocks in their portfolios. So I think it's a kind of laziness, a moral laziness, which allows this.”

These portfolio decisions suggest our institution’s concern for the torture of prisoners ranks somewhere below our distaste for cigarettes and misleading advertising.

Yet the line connecting slavery and modern private prisons is straight and glaring. If we can see the evil in big tobacco, how can we not see the evil in profiting, however marginally, from the imprisonment and torture of the over 100,000 people held in America’s private prisons? Of propping up a model we could help erase?

Maybe we view the suffering of anyone convicted as justified. Or think of their lives as too foreign to our own.

What does it mean for the richest university in the world — one which has dedicated $5 million dollars to plumbing its relationship to the institution of slavery, and sent out countless emails affirming its anti-racist commitments — to continue to seek profits from, and therefore uphold, America’s last legal home for slavery?

It means we’re not being serious.

Hana M. Kiros ’22, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is an Integrative Biology Concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Harvard Everywhere,” runs on alternating Mondays.