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Harvard’s Prison Investments are a Divestment From Its Low-Income Students

By Jordan R. Robbins, Crimson Opinion Writer
Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.

What some Harvard students might not know is how Harvard’s investment in private prisons is an active divestment from the prospects of some of its current and future first-generation and low-income students.

At the age of five, many students begin to practice their writing skills by using guided exercises in a workbook. They follow the dashed lines that form the lip of a “P”; steady the lines at the top and bottom for an “I”; or lift before closing the circle to make a “C.” Meanwhile, when I was that young, I was writing full-page letters at my kitchen table for what seemed like hours.

The only way for me to communicate with my father from the ages of five to 11 was through old-fashioned pencil-and-paper letter-writing. He was incarcerated and living at the Marion County Jail, a private prison in Indianapolis, Ind. As a result, I learned how to write at a very rapid rate in an attempt to keep the relationship between us strong.

Private prisons across the United States of America disproportionately impact low-income families. The prison-industrial complex, a system that allows corporations to profit from prisons, sits at the intersection of poverty and mass incarceration, with nearly two-thirds of individuals detained in jails reporting an annual income less than $12,000. The prison system is insuperable. Not only does this relationship between poverty and punishment for crime make it near impossible for most individuals to post bail, but the legal and social ramifications of criminal charges can make it even more difficult to gain employment post-incarceration.

There is disagreement between the University and students surrounding the amount it invests in private prisons. The University claims to invest roughly $18,000 in the prison industry, while the Harvard Divest Prison Campaign claims the University invests nearly $3 million in the prison industry, including indirect investments, such as stocks in companies that fund the PIC. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is still at least some level of investment in private prisons. And any amount is unacceptable.

Harvard’s investment in private prisons is a willing denigration of its own core values, of supporting the flourishing of all members of the campus community, regardless of background, as well as addressing past inequities to create a strong foundation of inclusion. As an elite institution that espouses equity and inclusion in education, Harvard must have a misunderstanding of how its investments not only impact the safety and well-being of inmates, but also the message it sends to its own students with related lived experiences. There is a lack of consideration, and perhaps implicit assumption, that its community members would not be personally impacted by incarceration.

Money cannot be separated from meanings. Whether or not they admit to it, investments in private prisons make the statement that the University believes imprisonment is a viable solution to economic and social problems. And, even worse, that profit-based incarceration is a Harvard-stamped model. Investing in such a system is incredibly demoralizing to students whose families have been impacted by private prisons firsthand. The impact of incarceration on a family is manifold: It causes feelings of shame, results in loss of financial support, manifests in poor school performance, increases delinquency, and weakens ties between child and parent. Having experienced it first-hand, I know this to be true.

In high school, I watched as my peers followed the school-to-prison pipeline. During childhood, I grew up without a father truly present. Now a young adult, I admonish my father while simultaneously scolding the prison system that never worked to actually help him become free, but rather saw his imprisonment as a solution.

Of course, the University is not the sole contributor to the PIC; however, its financial support of the PIC is yet another way that it alienates its low-income students. More than just the University, Harvard’s student body must also understand the larger traumas with which low-income students enter Harvard. While it is not to say that prison cannot impact someone from a higher class, it would be extraordinary to see a man from a higher socioeconomic class be relegated to a similar sentence as a man from a lower socioeconomic background.

It is unlikely that a Harvard peer would not be able to post bail or have the financial ability to obtain a decent lawyer (or have some sort of influence or reputation that precedes them), while such privileges would be unimaginable back home. Having an awareness of how different the repercussions are for students at Harvard and someone like my father is a large imbalance some students at Harvard have not been forced to consider.

Altogether, my father spent 24 years and one month of his life in prison. His actions may have been questionable, but his actions did not warrant his sentence. I still loved him, as much as any individual would who has a loved one in prison.

I saved the letters my father wrote back to me. And I read them from time to time. And while I no longer have to write letters to him, I can now write for him. I can speak for him now and share our experiences at a place like Harvard, where individuals will listen to a perspective that would otherwise be left unwritten.

Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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