For many years, Georgetown students have pushed for the divestment of Georgetown’s endowment fund from prisons and the adjacent prison-industrial complex, most recently through the Georgetown University Prison Divestment Campaign (GUPDC) this summer. In 2017, in response to a push by student activists towards prison divestment as part of a larger package of ethical divestment demands, the Board of Directors pledged to avoid direct investment in private prisons as guided by its Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) policy but stopped short of committing to a full divestment from all companies involved in the prison system. This Editorial Board strongly believes the university must also pursue the latter if it is truly committed to the “Do No Harm” principle of its SRI. Georgetown must divest from and sever business relationships with companies tied to the prison-industrial complex.
Despite repeated public denials by President Trump and his administration, America is a systemically racist country. Among its most reprehensible manifestations is the prison-industrial complex—a confluence of political, economic, and bureaucratic interests designed to reward the construction, outgrowth, and continuance of prisons in America. The result is a profit-driven justice system that seeks to imprison as many people as it can. Through aggressive surveillance and policing, the prison-industrial complex has fed into the most egregious mass incarceration problem in the world. As with many systems, the prison-industrial complex preys on the most marginalized members of society. Black, Latinx, and indigenous individuals are grossly overrepresented in prison systems as a result of racist law enforcement practices, making the prison-industrial complex itself a perpetuation of racism in this country.
Outside of their maintenance of racism, prisons are also exploited for profit through the use of forced inmate labor, feeding a billion-dollar industry. Prison laborers are widely underpaid (with wages often less than a dollar per hour), work in unsafe conditions, and receive no workers’ protection in an exploitative system that equates to modern-day slavery. The prison-industrial complex and the companies that participate in it thus functionally and systematically denigrate poor people of color to line the pockets of for-profit companies and executives.
Georgetown’s long history of practicing and furthering enslavement creates an even greater imperative to pursue divestment from the prison-industrial complex. By remaining invested in companies that utilize and benefit from modern-day enslaved labor, Georgetown is yet again financially benefiting from enslavement—just like it did two centuries ago with its widespread use of enslaved labor and the eventual sale of the GU272+.
Among the most visible signs of the prison-industrial complex is Georgetown’s contract with Aramark Corporation for its food services. Outside of providing food services to higher education institutions, Aramark is one of the biggest food service providers to prisons around the country, rolling in contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars and profiting from the growth of prisons. By sponsoring various corrections companies and their events—which policymakers attend—Aramark facilitates the ironclad relationship between private prison companies and lawmakers, protecting and driving its own profit. Numerous prison food safety issues and workplace harassment cases against Aramark point to a history of cutting corners at the expense of inmate well-being. To maintain a financial relationship with Aramark is to further a company based on exploitation and harm—far from the “Do No Harm” mission that Georgetown claims underlies its financial decisions.
Throughout Georgetown’s history, students have been a primary driving force behind pushing the university towards more ethical investments. Thirty-five years ago, a coalition of Hoyas demonstrated for total divestment of roughly $9 million in companies with holdings in apartheid South Africa. It took a three-year effort—with students facing severe risk of punishment—to achieve divestment. In 2008, Hoyas agitated for divestment with companies with ties to the Sudanese government, raising concerns around ethnic genocide and human rights violations.
Most recently, the near-decade-long work of Georgetown University Fossil Free and adjacent sustainability organizations led to the promise of divestment from fossil fuels in February 2020. Again and again, the student body has forced Georgetown to confront the morality of its investment holdings. With investments related to the prison-industrial complex, the Board of Directors should yield to the voice of the student body in pursuing a truly socially responsible investment model and avoid forcing students to continue yet another strenuous period of activism to achieve ethical investments. If Georgetown divests, it will join a small but growing number of schools like Columbia University in leading the movement to free higher education from the prison-industrial complex.
In any case, Georgetown must be transparent about the degree to which it is invested actively in the prison-industrial complex. Currently, the administration keeps the endowment and its investments confidential, so we are unable to know exactly how much is invested in the prison-industrial complex. Georgetown should publish their list of investments in order to be fully transparent with their students, who are made key stakeholders in the university finances with their tuition dollars.
The prison-industrial complex has created a system of modern-day slavery, and Georgetown must confront its role in the grossly unethical perpetuation of this system. Georgetown students have a history of driving more ethical investments, and every time the students have been right. This time is no different. Georgetown should listen to its students and divest.