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Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign Files Suit Seeking to Sever University’s Financial Ties With Prison Industrial Complex

On February 25, 2020, student members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign (HPDC) filed suit in the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, seeking to force the university to divest its charitable trust investments from entities that directly or indirectly profit from the “prison-industrial complex” (PIC) – a sprawling group of privately owned firms that provide management and staffing, as well as food and health services to American prisons and jails.

Prompted by a similar student action in 2015, New York City’s Columbia University became the first American institution of higher education to restrict its PIC investments. Since then, the University of California system, Georgetown University, and more than a dozen other prominent universities have followed suit.

With nearly $40 billion invested, Harvard University holds the nation’s largest endowment for a learning institution. Students have been able to uncover specifics related only to about $400 million of that amount, but it includes at least $3 million invested in an equity fund that owns shares in the country’s two largest private prison operators, Florida-based GEO Group, Inc. and Tennessee-based CoreCivic, with 2019 revenues of $2.48 billion and $1.98 billion, respectively.

“Both my own parents have been incarcerated,” Harvard theology student Ashley Lipscomb told Essence in a 2019 interview. “I’m at the crossroads of these two dynamics. One, having a personal stake here [at Harvard] and wanting to make my mother proud. But the very place that I’m in is complicit in her incarceration.”

Harvard holds itself out to be an institution dedicated to truthfully confronting its past association with and profit from slavery, as well as a place where research and anti-racist work flourish and are welcomed. But the HPDC lawsuit alleges that the university is instead enmeshed in a “deeply repugnant and ethically unjustifiable industry,” whose “immense web of financial, economic, and governmental actors and interests…use prisons, police, and surveillance to address issues arising from deeply racist social and economic systems.”

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery, but it made an exception for prisoners. Because they can be legally subjected to slavery, and because a disproportionate share of U.S. prisoners are Black, the suit alleges that any PIC-supporting efforts violate the 13th Amendment.

Before filing suit, HPDC members became benefactors of the university’s endowment, since the university’s charter dictates that its endowment must be invested “according to the will of the donors.” They asked Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow and Senior Fellow of Harvard Corporation William Lee to divest from companies with PIC ties. The two men not only refused to divest but also refused to consider the proposal.

The suit names Bacow and Lee as defendants and alleges their actions, and Harvard’s PIC investment, violate Massachusetts state law — M.G.L. c. 266 § 91 — because refusal to divest demonstrates that the university’s “statements promising to address its legacy of slavery were untrue and misleading.”

The suit also accuses Harvard of deception, citing the fact that the university has refused to return to Tamara Lanier the daguerreotypes of her enslaved ancestors. Lanier was forced to file a lawsuit seeking return of the daguerreotypes. The university is vigorously defending its actions.

Bacow had previously stated that he wouldn’t divest because Harvard has an anti-divestment policy and because students request divestment from things such as “corn sweetener.” Yet the university in the past has pulled investments from companies tied to tobacco, genocide in Darfur, and apartheid in South Africa.

“It was as if [Bacow] was equating our concern for the suffering of people in prison with corn syrup,” said HPDC organizer Xitlalli Alvarez, a graduate student in anthropology.

On May 30, 2020, Bacow issued a strongly worded denunciation of the fatal choking of George Floyd five days earlier at the hands of Minneapolis Police, calling it “the senseless killing of yet another black person” that happened “at the hands of those charged with protecting us.” The death of 46-year-old Floyd touched off a weeks-long series of nationwide protests demanding policing reforms.

Ironically, Harvard then filed a motion to dismiss HPDC’s suit on July 1, 2020, calling the PIC-slavery link on which its argument rests a “heartfelt opinion,” rather than a fact.

Several other university endowment divestment campaigns — Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Harvard Puerto Rican Debt Divestment Campaign, Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine – joined with HPDC on April 30, 2020, to create the Harvard Endowment Justice Coalition. The Coalition would listen “to the voices of every community who is structurally impacted by its investments,” said organizer Ilana Cohen, an undergraduate slated to receive a diploma in 2021.

See: Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Supreme Judicial Court of Suffolk County), Case No. 20-00510.

Jayson Hawkins contributed to this report. 


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Related legal case

Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign v. President and Fellows of Harvard College