Cornel West Signs Harvard Petition To Divest University’s Endowment From Prisons: Reparatory Justice

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Written by Dana Sanchez
divest from prisons
** CORRECTS NAME TO CORNEL, NOT CORNELL, IN AP PHOTO NJRS102 TRANSMITTED SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 2002. AP-NY ** Dr. Cornel West speaks at the Conference on the State of the African-American Professoriate hosted at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah, N.J., Saturday, April 20, 2002. Dr. West has left Harvard University where he held the position of university professor and has accepted an appointment at Princeton University. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

Harvard Professor Cornel West wants the university, considered the most reputable in the world, to stop making money off of prison-related investments, according to a tweet from the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign.‏

As of 2013, 8.4 percent of the overall U.S. prison population
is housed in privately owned prisons, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.


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More than 3,100 corporations—including 2,500-plus privately traded companies—profit from the U.S. prison system, according to a report released by the Corrections Accountability ProjectPS Magazine reported.

West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard Divinity School and teaches in the Department of African and African American Studies. He works to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., according to his bio.

The divestment campaign describes itself as a reparatory justice initiative that seeks to sever Harvard’s financial ties to the prison-industrial complex.

“We hope (Prof. West’s) endorsement encourages other thought leaders with Harvard affiliations to endorse their names on the right side of history!,” @HarvardPDC tweeted.

Harvard has publicly acknowledged and apologized for the university’s “direct complicity in the institution of slavery,” but it continues to profit from it, according to the petition:

“Beginning in early 2016, Harvard’s leadership took steps to publicly acknowledge and express remorse for the university’s direct complicity in the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, Harvard continues to profit from the caging and forced labor of Black people through its investments in the prison-industrial complex, through which the legacies of slavery persist.”

Prisons are sites for making profit, not for rehabilitation, West said, according to a tweet from the Prison Divestment Campaign.

“It is a moral imperative that Harvard divest from the prison industrial complex because the current mass incarceration regimes are sites of profit making instead of sites for rehabilitation,” West said. “We have to affirm the humanity and stand with our precious brothers and sisters who are calling on Harvard to divest.”

More than 75 percent of undergraduates who voted in the most recent Undergraduate Council election support divestment from the prison-industrial complex, according to the campaign. The divestment campaign defines “prison-industrial complex” as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to what are, in actuality, economic, social, and political problems.”

Almost 2.3 million people are in prisons and jails plus another 4.5 million are on probation or parole.

“We demand that … Harvard Management Company divest Harvard’s holdings from companies that profit from the prison-industrial complex and reinvest in communities disproportionately affected by mass incarceration,” the petition reads.

During its first public event in 2018, Prison Divestment Campaign organizers shared an audio tape of Derrick Washington, an inmate at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center maximum security prison in Lancaster, Mass. Washington was convicted of murder and described his experiences in the state prison system and his involvement with the Emancipation Initiative, a group that advocates for prisoners, according to a Harvard Crimson report.

“Because prison is all of misery and hopelessness — and Harvard readily profits from it — in fact I see Harvard endorsing every single prison suicide, murder, recidivist and fallen tear drop from the effects of 21st century slavery,” Washington said.

The Prison Divestment Campaign wants Harvard to:

  • Publicly disclose and release endowment holdings in all funds with stock in companies whose existence depends on the prison-industrial complex.
  • Be transparent about its endowment holdings.
  • Redistribute funds and invest “a significant percentage” of divested funds in companies, organizations, and initiatives in Cambridge and Boston that are led by people directly impacted by the prison-industrial complex or who have been the central victims of mass incarceration.
  • Research and teach creative ways to eliminate structural social harms that do not rely on prisons and police, for example, fund scholarships, centers, institutes, departments, and concentrations that employ formerly incarcerated people.
  • End discrimination against and create opportunities for current and formerly incarcerated persons.

West, a professor emeritus at Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies, has also endorsed divestment from Israel.

In 2015, West said Princeton had a moral obligation “to divest from Israel and its systematic injustices,” comparing the divestment movement on campus to the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s, Times of Trenton reported.

“The Israeli occupation of my Palestinian brothers and sisters is a crime against humanity,” West said. “They are killing hundreds daily — but where are the voices?”