“Today we take an important step in the effort to explore the complexities of our past and to restore this painful dimension of Harvard’s history to the understanding of our heritage. The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore.”
Harvard University President Drew Faust spoke these words in 2016 as she stood alongside U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia in front of the university’s famed Wadsworth House. They unveiled a plaque in remembrance of enslaved people who served the university centuries ago. In 2019, current President Lawrence Bacow renewed the pledge.
But it would appear Harvard, which had a profitable relationship with slavery that began soon after the first slave ships docked here more than 400 years ago, had still not learned a critical lesson about another system of oppression in this country.
In February 2020, five students, members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, sued the Ivy League school for its failure to divest from a system that perpetuates slavery—the prison industrial complex, a system of imprisonment and private prison expansion put into place not long after slavery was abolished and is still in force today.
The lawsuit seeks to force Harvard to pull all its investments from private and public prisons and the systems that support them operating in this country. The university has a $40 billion endowment and claims that only $18,000 of it is invested in the prison system. It’s a claim the students dispute, saying they can account for at least $3 million but believe it’s a lot more.
In their lawsuit, the students and the campaign note that rather than helping to dismantle the “entanglement of profiteering, government interests, and the system of human caging,” Harvard is profiting from it.
And they address the school’s invocation of its slavery reckoning more than once over the years as false and disingenuous. “Time and time again, Harvard proves it only cares about the welfare of Black people when it benefits its Crimson reputation.”
The plaintiffs are seeking not just to hold the university to its pledge, but to also ensure that it pulls all its investments from any fund connected to the prison-industrial complex.
Jarrett Drake, one of the five plaintiffs, says Harvard is focused on the economics and “doesn’t understand the human toll.” That kind of thinking, he says, has allowed the system to grow into the behemoth it is today.
By now, Harvard’s history with slavery is no secret. But it became a real point of public interest when the university published Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History in 2011. Developed in part the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar, the report details the institution’s sordid history with enslaved Africans. It points to “Harvard presidents who brought slaves to live with them on campus, significant endowments drawn from the exploitation of slave labor, Harvard’s administration and most of its faculty favoring the suppression of public debates on slavery.”
Drake says the idea for the prison divestment campaign stemmed from a class project he did in the fall of 2017. And he was so moved by what he learned that he would later join a group of law students to form the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign.
Drake says the class was more than an awareness of how the prison system harms. It also explored the connections to the bail bond industry and other businesses that support and depend on imprisoning human bodies for profit.
He cited the case of Kalief Browder, whose 2015 death brought attention to the bail system, which the American Civil Liberties Union says, “punishes people for being poor.” Jailed for three years at Rikers Island on charges of stealing a backpack, the 16-year-old Browder had been held in solitary confinement for two of those three years because his family was unable to make the $3,000 bail. He committed suicide two years after his release.
A 2018 report by the Urban Justice Center estimated that about $80 billion is spent each year incarcerating people—from paying food vendors to providing health care to tracking systems, and even the bail bond industry. The money paid in and the profits coming out are what people tend to focus on.
But the problem goes deeper than that, says Amanda Chan, a plaintiff in the divestment lawsuit against Harvard. “The university is more of a hedge fund than it is an institution of learning,” she says, likening the university’s priorities to that of a profit-driven institution. “So, we thought we had no other choice. We had to go to court because they won’t listen to us otherwise.”
Drake and his fellow students in the Harvard Divestment Campaign created the Harvard to Prison Pipeline Report, using several studies and the work of scholars to connect the dots between prison and slavery. It details not only how prison has become slavery by another name, but also how Harvard has profited for it all along the way.
“Scholars and activists have traced the development and expansion of mass incarceration and mass criminalization to the historical origins and objectives of chattel slavery as a means of forced labor, social control, and subjugation,” the report says. “Subsequently, these same purposes were advanced through convict leasing, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, and now, the modern prison-industrial complex.” With this, the line from slavery to the prison system was clear and clearly laid out for the Harvard leadership, the students say.
While the prison population has declined in recent years, the sheer numbers are still tough to grasp. In 2011, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness said that more Black men incarcerated in America at that time than were enslaved in 1850.
The plaintiffs in the Harvard suit say the money isn’t just tied into housing people, but circulates in industries connected to the prison system – the bail bonds industry, the parole system, the courts, and the myriad of fines along the way.
According to the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, “companies, including the insurance giant Tokio Marine Holdings Inc., a key player in the $2 billion a year bail bond industry, make money off millions of people, like Kalief Browder, who are simply too poor to finance their freedom and turn to private bail bondsmen.”
Other companies, such as CoreCivic and GEO Group, operate private prisons, including the immigrant detention centers. A report by the Urban Justice Project called The Prison Industrial Complex: Mapping Private Sector Players, showed that in 2017 CoreCivic and the GEO Group were generating combined annual revenues of $4 billion on the more than 45 million individual nights that people spend incarcerated in their correctional facilities.
The students are challenging a claim last year by Harvard’s Bacow that the school’s total financial holdings in companies tied to the prison industry amount to roughly $18,000. A majority of the university’s $40 billion endowment is in private investments, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the campaign to investigate and examine that part of the endowment, says Anna Nathanson, another plaintiff in the Harvard lawsuit.
But, about $400 million is invested publicly, and the group counted that “dollar by dollar” and came up with about $3 million, she says.
Withdrawing investments from these funds and companies would force the prison system to seek other options for operation, the students say. It’s been done before. The global movement to pull investment funds from South Africa to protest the racial system of apartheid took decades to take root.
The first efforts began in the 1960s, but not until the 1980s did universities join the divestment movement, urged by student protests. Companies joined in the 1990s, and by the time South Africa finally ended apartheid in 1994, about $1 billion had been divested from the country.
Divestment has been used successfully elsewhere, too. The tobacco industry and more recently the fossil fuels divestment campaigns were popular with students, but they really gained traction once private companies and banks joined in.
In defending the university’s investment in prison, Bacow stated, “the endowment should not be used as a way, as an instrument of social policy. I think there are far more effective ways for us to influence social policy, public policy, as well, through our research, our scholarship, through our actions and through our teaching.”
However, Harvard has divested from political and social causes in the past, the lawsuit notes. It divested fully from tobacco products in the ’80s. When the university was pressed to divest from apartheid, it did so only partially, but nonetheless proving that Harvard has discretion over how the endowment investments are made.
Drake and the others say that, unlike other similar divestment efforts in the past, a lawsuit will survive long past graduation. Previous divestment campaigns, including ones aimed at fossil fuel, fizzled after those leading the efforts graduated, requiring the next cohort of students to start from scratch.
He says that in addition to divestment in prisons, there is a broader message for universities everywhere. “It’s time to examine how the university is financing itself,” he says. “Having problematic investments is no longer acceptable.”
Universities take money from “all sorts of nefarious places,” he says, citing recent disclosures about fossil fuel divestment and funds connected to the late Jeffrey Epstein. “We must push Harvard and other universities to find other ways to fund themselves.”
Jonita Davis is an Indiana writer who works regularly on social and cultural topics. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Fix, People’s World and more. You can read her work at www.jonitadavis.com.