Reparatory Justice: A Look at the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign

Harvard Prison Divestment CampaignPhoto by Sasha Pedro.

When Harvard University student Jarrett Drake worked on a class project regarding the school’s investments in prisons in the fall of 2017, he didn’t expect it to garner national attention and spark widespread campus action to spur divestment in the following three years.

The class had focused on incarceration, ending with a final creative project. Drake dove into the project with his classmate, Graduate School of Design student Sam Matthew. Throughout the course of their research, Drake and Matthew discovered that Harvard’s $40 billion endowment includes holdings in companies that profit from the prison-industrial complex. The result of their project was Harvard’s Investments in Prisons (HIP), an in-depth look at the school’s investments in the prison-industrial complex (PIC), which later grew into a full-fledged activist group: the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign (HPDC). 

A Movement Is Born

According to Rachel Herzing, co-founder of the grassroots organization Critical Resistance, the PIC is composed of “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.’” This means that private prison businesses gain profit from incarceration, rather than tackling the problems that lead to imprisonment at their roots. 

Most of the university’s investments are not public. However, of the holdings it does disclose, $3 million are invested in the PIC, the HPDC found. This number includes investments in private prison companies CoreCivic and GEO Group. It also includes exchange-traded funds (ETFs)—which are bundles of stocks and bonds—bound up in these private prison companies, as well as companies that profit from the PIC through bail bonds, surveillance, prison labor, transportation, and other services for public and private prisons. 

For the better part of 2018, Matthew and Drake took the data they had gathered about the PIC for the project and turned it into a movement. In February 2018, Drake, along with a group of other Harvard students, held a teach-in on Harvard’s investments in prisons, entitled “Challenging the Complex: Creating Coalitions for Prison Abolition, Reform, and Education at Harvard and Beyond.” 

“We asked if anyone was interested in joining this nascent, undefined situation,” Drake says. “Things have gone much further and much longer than I ever expected.” 

He says 10 people attended the first interest meeting on March 2, 2018, and meetings continued throughout the semester. 

Drawing on resources from a widespread network within and outside of Harvard, Matthew and Drake launched what would become the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign in the fall of 2018. At the time, it bore the same name as their project: HIP. 

Though he changed the group’s name to HPDC in October to more directly reflect the group’s mission, Drake’s definition of the organization’s goals at that time still stands. 

“We’re a reparatory justice initiative. We want to sever the university’s endowment from the prison-industrial complex. We want the university to repair the harm those investments have caused,” he says. 

The team had originally considered launching an exclusively educational campaign by publishing information and passing out flyers, Drake says. But then they reached out to activist groups in the Boston area like the Emancipation Initiative, a project with a goal of ending lifetime parole in Massachusetts; the Muslim Justice League, which fights for the rights of Muslim people in Boston; and Black & Pink, a prison abolition organization supporting LGBTQ+ incarcerated people. They also forged connections with other schools with flourishing divestment campaigns, including Georgetown, Yale, and the City University of New York. 

Though Drake learned that the problem of the PIC was a national one, with effects that spread far beyond Harvard’s borders, he also witnessed the movement’s growth within the undergraduate and graduate communities at Harvard—from the School of Public Health to the Divinity School to the School of Education, Law School, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, as well as the Business School and the Graduate School of Design. 

On Nov. 1, 2018, HPDC hosted an open forum at the Law School where they presented a more extensive breakdown of their research and mission. More law students were inspired to join the group at that point. 

“The law school is the only school where the students are like, ‘Wait a minute, I can take what I’m learning and actually apply it towards changing this situation,’” he says. “There are a number of Ph.D. students involved in this campaign, but the law school has been a really mobilized group of people.” 

The HPDC has now blossomed into a group of students actively working to sever Harvard’s financial ties to the PIC. 

Among HPDC’s ranks are Amanda Chan and Anna Nathanson, both third-year Harvard Law School students; Ismail Buffins, a third-year Divinity School student; and Drake, a third-year Ph.D. student in anthropology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. 

Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign
Photo by Sasha Pedro.

The Harvard-to-Prison Pipeline Report

Characterizing the campaign as a “leader-full movement” rather than one with a hierarchical structure, Chan says the HPDC has given her space to have “a hand in everything,” specifically in writing the Harvard-to-Prison Pipeline Report

The report outlines Harvard’s holdings in various corporations that profit from prisons. In the report, the HPDC demands that Harvard release its endowment information to the Harvard community, donate to local organizations that help victims of incarceration, and develop school-wide efforts to employ, and provide opportunities for, formerly incarcerated individuals. 

Chan says its chapter on industry profiles is particularly illustrative.

“That particular chapter really breaks down what it means to invest in a company that charges prisoners … 25 cents to write an email to their own families, … uses prison labor to create their products, and then turns around and won’t even give those prisoners healthcare when they get hurt in prison,” Chan says.

According to Chan, the report outlines how Harvard’s investments are exploiting and scraping money off the backs of prisoners.

‘The Right Side of History’

The Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign has been escalating its efforts during the past year. The group circulated a petition in February 2019 that garnered 3,000 signatures and presented it to University President Larry Bacow on March 1, 2019. They also held a rally of 200 people, mostly students, and asked the undergraduate student government to vote in support of divestment. When Bacow gave a speech at a gender inequality conference at Harvard, the HPDC came with a banner that communicated that gender inequality persists in prisons. 

“We’ve tried the civil discourse route,” Chan says. 

“We’ve checked all those boxes,” Nathanson agrees. 

Chan explains that the group met with Bacow and Senior Fellow William Lee in the fall of 2019, where the administrators gave their “usual spiel about how they’re not going to listen to us or help us or take us seriously.” The students followed up with a silent protest at a talk Lee gave at Harvard Law School’s 45th Annual Fall Reunion. “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings,” one sign read.  

“Harvard only fights for progressive causes when it benefits them,” Chan says, adding that Bacow and Lee are proud to have been on the right side of affirmative action because it was in their interest.

Bacow published an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson condemning the protesters who attempted to draw attention to PIC divestment at an event held in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School. In the op-ed, Bacow criticizes the HPDC for infringing upon his free speech.

“A university committed to truth cannot function if some members of our community shout down others,” Bacow says in the statement.

At one action, a Harvard University police officer asked Chan to take down a sign she was using to protest as Bacow watched it happen. She condemns Harvard’s administrators for repeatedly not taking her complaints seriously. 

“We even had that meeting with them in October. They all went around the table and agreed it was an important issue and they all said it was worth discussing,” Chan says. “But none of them—not a single one of them—stuck their necks out and said, ‘We should seriously consider this because we want Harvard to be on the right side of history.’” 

Nathanson shares this sentiment, saying that Bacow seems not to have picked up on the emotional resonance of this issue. Many Harvard students themselves have family members who are or have been incarcerated, and the PIC raises concerns for the safety and well-being of incarcerated people, Nathanson explains.

“Nothing he’s ever said has communicated to me that this is real for him,” she says.

Buffins shares a similar opinion of the university’s failure to galvanize support around this issue.

“Harvard has deferred and stifled our efforts,” he says. “Universities aren’t really democratic. It’s hard for students to have control.”

In response to the claims members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign have leveled against the university, Jason Newton, Associate Director of Media Relations & Communications in Harvard’s office of Public Affairs & Communications, refers to an article in The Harvard Crimson from October of last year. 

According to the article, the HPDC walked out of a meeting with Bacow and the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (CSSR) when the administrators did not provide a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether they would consider divestment. The CSSR is a sub-committee of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s highest governing body, which handles investments.

At the meeting, Lee, senior fellow at Harvard, said that he had read the report and requested to have a conversation to gain a deeper understanding of the PIC. He told The Crimson in an email that student activists had refused to answer his questions about the PIC. 

“We came into this meeting hoping to have an open and candid discussion about the views and perspectives of everyone around the table, but unfortunately the student advocates were unwilling to have such a conversation,” Lee told The Crimson.

Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign
Photo by Lilly Milman.

‘Where’s My Money Going?’

In response to months of inaction from the university administration, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign filed a lawsuit against various Harvard officials and the Harvard Corporation. They sued them on two counts. 

First, the HPDC alleges that the university is in breach of their fiduciary duty to the donors in considering the university’s charitable purposes.

Nathanson and Chan made small donations to the university, which means that Harvard has a fiduciary duty to listen to them, too.

“My $20 is somewhere in that pot of $40 billion. Where’s my money going? I need answers. I want answers, and I have a legal right to those,” Chan says. 

There is precedent for this in the world of Harvard student activism: in 2016, the fossil fuel divestment movement Divest Harvard filed a similar lawsuit that failed in a lower court and a Massachusetts Appeals court because the students had “no legal standing” to influence the Harvard Corporation, the Boston Globe reported. 

The second count in the HPDC lawsuit is that of false advertising. According to Nathanson, this count deals with the connection between the PIC and slavery’s legacy. Chan says the university profits from the same systems of oppression it appears to denounce.

“Harvard has a huge reputational benefit from being progressive-minded,” Chan says. 

In a 2016 statement, Harvard’s then-President Drew Faust invoked the school’s history of slavery. He sought to honor the importance of enslaved Africans, with the overall goal of understanding “the attitudes and assumptions that made the oppressions of slavery possible in order to overcome their vestiges in our own time.” 

“I mean, it’s just unabashed,” Chan says. “It’s unashamed. Harvard is profiting from the exact same systems of oppression that W.E.B. was against, the exact same systems of oppression that Martin Luther King would hate, and detest, and speak out, and fight against. It’s actually lying to the public and making money by positioning yourself as a pro-Black, antislavery, anti-racist institution, but it is one of the many institutional investors that actively profit [from] the opression of Black people.” 

To further elucidate how prisons scrape money from prisoners, Chan gives the example of modern-day debtors’ prisons that punish poor people for being unable to pay legal debts. 

Nathanson says the administration’s pledge to engage with its legacy of slavery is a hollow promise that extends to Harvard applicants. 

“When students apply to grad school here, they see those promises about fixing the legacy of slavery,” she says. “That might have been why they felt comfortable coming to this school. [Harvard] is getting all of this positive attention.” 

Nathanson says that the primary purpose of the lawsuit is to bring about a court order for Harvard’s divestment from the PIC. Another important goal is to spread information and education about the PIC, she says. 

“The PIC is an issue that affects almost everyone in this country, even though it’s hidden away,” she says. 

Buffins says the lawsuit is a good way to create more conversation around the PIC. 

Nathanson adds that she expects legal action to be protracted, saying that it could be a year before the case reaches summary judgment. 

Abolition Action Assemblies

Drake and Matthew used abolition as a theoretical framework for their work, seeing incarceration as an extension of the legacy of slavery. Ultimately, he is working for the abolition of the prison system at large. 

“People in prison … were saying these conditions are as severe as the conditions were for people under slavery,” he says. “We need to abolish the prison and all the different structures like police [and] jails that funnel people into prison. And they understood, like the people fighting for the abolition of slavery, that there’s no way to make a good prison. There’s no way to make these places something that they’re intrinsically not.” 

Drake’s words fall in line with an excerpt from The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign uses in their lawsuit. 

“We are legally slaves,” the excerpt reads. “If you’ve been to prison, you’d know we are treated like slaves.” 

Abolition Action Assemblies, a series of gatherings meant to educate other students on the PIC, further the legacy of Drake and Matthew’s initial teach-in. Each assembly highlights a different aspect of the PIC, covering topics from public health to gentrification to transformative justice. One focused on real estate, as Harvard is one of the largest property owners in Massachusetts.

“I want to explain the issue to people [and] explain to them that there’s something that they can do about it,” he says. “Ultimately, we can’t fully control what they do about it. We can correct them, we can pressure them, we can even scream at them, but ultimately, they have to use their own reasoning. At the very least, we are going to inform them.” 

Chan says the assemblies are an effort to shed light on the aspects of prisoners’ lives that are often hidden from people’s imaginations. She is planning to host one on prison food.

“There are just so many aspects of the world and the lives that we live that are actually deeply impacted by the prison-industrial complex. For me, like everything is controlled by this philosophy of punishment and control and torture,” Chan says. 

“I want to see more students at Harvard and more people in society have a critique of what prisons and what police are intrinsic to, which is to say, I want more people to understand and take active steps to organize under the political position of prison abolition,” Drake says. 

Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign
Photo by Lilly Milman.

Desired Outcomes

“I want Harvard to actually respond with some structural changes to this investment approach and … to commit to removing its holdings from any funds that benefit from human cages. I would say I also want to see Harvard take meaningful steps to remedy those harms,” Jarrett Drake says. 

That would look like making financial investments in cooperative housing and other prison alternatives, or offering more learning opportunities to share ways of addressing harm and violence that don’t rely on or reproduce structures of violence, Drake explains.

At a joint rally with other campus activist groups on Jan. 27, members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign called for PIC divestment alongside a Palestine solidarity group, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a reproductive justice group, the Graduate Student Union, the undocumented students rights group Act on a Dream, a group promoting ethnic studies, and other similar organizations. The conversations heavily focused around the idea of “Veritas”—the latin word for “truth,” which appears on the Harvard logo. 

“Our campaign [is organized] in the spirit of abolition, which I think envisions a safe world without prisons, borders, and cages of any kind,” Chan said at the rally. She did not use a bullhorn to speak, unlike the first few students who spoke, as Harvard employees asked them to put it away.

Chan was one of dozens of student activists who gathered in a semi-circle in the lobby of the Harvard Science Center lobby. All spoke of intersectionality, and the need to join forces to strengthen their respective groups. The rally ended with a triumphant march towards the John Harvard statue—an emblem of the university’s storied history. The fight for each of these groups is still in its early stages, however, with a much longer march ahead. 

”We haven’t won yet,” Drake says. “I’d like to see some glimpse of that victory.” 

To learn more about the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, visit their website at

Lilly Milman also contributed to this report.

A condensed version of this story appears in the March/April print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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