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Towards Divestment

Opinion | October 1, 2018

Students Against Incarceration is a resurrection. In 2015, a group known as “Students Against Mass Incarceration” (SAMI) worked as part of a larger Tufts Prison Divestment Coalition to push the University to abandon its investments in private prison companies. The coalition was a joint effort between United for Immigrant Justice, Students for Justice in Palestine, SAMI, and Tufts Climate Action. But the same year that it was created, Tufts Administration unequivocally denied any attempt to change its endowment and investment policies. In the following months, SAMI dissolved as seniors graduated.

While Tufts refused to divest from private prisons, student activists around the country have been successful in changing investment practices. Columbia University, the University of California system, as well as the entire pension fund for the City of New York have dropped investments from private prison companies. In the Boston area, radical organizers have continued this work—at Harvard University, Smith College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Brandeis University, students are working to push administrations to reevaluate their financial holdings and their impact on marginalized communities.

Divestment is especially important at this political moment. The heightened violence of police forces, as well as the constant abductions of people of color by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security, have inspired nationwide resistance. The National Prison Strike that ran from August 21 to September 9 of this year, which commemorated the 1971 rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility, is considered one of the largest uprisings against incarceration in history. In this climate of resistance, Tufts, along with other universities, has been clamoring to prove its commitment to social justice and civic engagement. Students Against Incarceration seeks to identify Tufts’ institutional hypocrisy.

Tufts University sits upon land that was brutally colonized in the 17th Century. The land of the Wampanoag people was converted into a 600-acre slave plantation owned and managed by John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Much of the land was ceded in 1731 to Sir Isaac Royall, the wealthy proprietor of an Antiguan sugarcane plantation, which would later become the Royall House and Slave Quarters—home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. The Royall House and Slave Quarters are still standing, only three blocks away from Cousens Gym.

Just as the land was converted into farmland through slave labor, much of the modern infrastructure of Tufts University can be attributed to prison labor. For instance, many dormitory couches are manufactured by Blockhouse Furniture, a Pennsylvania company with multiple Department of Corrections (DOC) contracts. These contracts allow the company to outsource labor to incarcerated workers. This labor is fundamentally coerced under the threat of solitary confinement, a practice which, although still used constantly in the United States, has been internationally condemned as a form of torture. Specifically, Blockhouse utilizes prison labor through contracts with Maryland Correctional Enterprises, as well as Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI). These facilities also rely on lockup quotas—mandates dictating to the state how full these prisons must be at all times. For ACI, the required quotas are between 95 – 100 percent occupancy.

Part of the concern of prison labor is its untraceability. It is extraordinarily difficult to ascertain whether or not an item was built in a prison. This is because while the effects of the Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC), a concept that describes how private prisons become a source of industry and profit for a variety of businesses, are widely felt, their inner-workings are almost invisible. While a couch may be manufactured and sold by Blockhouse Furniture, and Blockhouse Furniture utilizes a supply of prison labor, whether or not that couch was assembled in a prison is almost unknowable. At the same time, almost any object at Tufts—light switches, mattresses, desks and chairs, lab equipment, chain-link fences—may be a product of forced prison labor. The scope of prison labor is huge, and nearly every major American company has some form of involvement in it. Furniture thus demonstrates the seemingly mundane ways in which exploitation and prison slavery invades academic and domestic spheres, implicating the University as a complicit institution.

Beyond this complicity, Tufts actively benefits from incarceration and exploitation from its endowments and investments. In March of 2015, when SAMI requested information about private prison investments, Patricia Campbell, then-Vice President of the University, issued a statement indicating that it would be nearly impossible to determine that funds were not invested in specific firms. Rather, they were invested in commingled funds, which are large collections of money reinvested across thousands of smaller, direct investments. Because of their complexity, these firms would be nearly impossible to divest from. In an email exchange, Patrick Collins, Executive Director of Public Relations, explained that while Tufts holds no direct investments in private prison companies, its “exposure to private prisons through commingled funds is 0.01 percent,” amounting to approximately $180,000 in investments.

When asked what specific criteria was used to determine which companies were considered private prisons, Collins explained that NAICS and SIC codes were used. NAICS and SIC codes are established classification methods of describing the industry of a particular business. What is troubling about this is that very few­­ firms actually receive classification under corrections; case in point, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), the largest private prison company in the country, is classified as a “facilities support business.” The GEO Group, which operates most of the nation’s immigration detention facilities, is classified as a “management consulting firm.” What this means is that the 0.01 percent reported likely does not account for the full scope of Tufts’ investments in companies owning and operating prisons benefitting from mass incarceration.

Accordingly, Students Against Incarceration demands that the Tufts University Administration and Board of Trustees:

 

-Maintain high financial transparency regarding holdings and investments, and hold the Board of Trustees and their practices up to public scrutiny.

-Immediately divest all holdings from private prison firms and private companies profiting off of incarceration. These firms include CoreCivic, GEO Group, G4S, Keefe Group Commissary Network, Securus Technologies, Global Tel Link, and Trinity Services Group. Further, remove endowment funds from the control of investment firms which significantly support the prison industrial complex. These include Vanguard, Fidelity, BlackRock, Cohen & Steers, State Street, American Securities, Platinum Equity, and H.I.G. Capital. These companies are instrumental in the foundation and maintenance of the prison industrial complex.

-Generate a plan to begin divestment from companies profiting off of prison labor. These companies are detailed in the Correction Accountability Project’s April 2018 report, which exposed over 3,100 companies actively profiting off of incarceration.

-Significantly increase funding and support for faculty and departments engaging in Ethnic Studies, Critical Prison Studies, and other disciplines seeking a radical redistribution of political and economic power. This must include a focus on hiring formerly-incarcerated faculty as well as faculty of identities and communities targeted by incarceration.

These endowment funds must be reinvested to demonstrate Tufts’ stated commitment to its community. Tufts has played a large role in acquiring residential properties, admitting large numbers of high-income students while neglecting on-campus housing options, and generally decreasing the affordability of Somerville, Medford, and Chinatown. The displacement that occurs as families are forced out signals another link between the University and the prison industrial complex; the constant drive to expand comes at the expense of communityand the financial security of its residents. As families are displaced, they become increasingly at risk of incarceration. Accordingly, divested funds should be re-committed to supporting existing local business and affordable housing in these communities.

Public opinion both on and off campus overwhelmingly favors progressive prison system reforms. As incarcerated and free-world activists continue to make progress towards decarceration and abolition, private interests will continue to lose value as investments. It is time for Tufts to make the right decision in condemning slavery and investing in its communities.

Signed,

Students Against Incarceration