Private Detention Centers and Higher Education

Are the “Progressive” Private Schools of Higher Education Actually a Part of the Problem?

From their founding, private colleges and universities have elected to serve a select few of the population- typically the white upper class of the United States. But as colleges and universities have been the sight of historic political and social movements, many have begun to believe that institutions of ‘higher learning’ have adopted a more liberal or progressive ideology- and in many cases, that may be the case. The issue arises, however, once people begin to see an institution traditionally reserved for the white owning class as “radical”. This paper will deal with the consequences of privatization as well as the pervasive effect cooperation with these corporations has on so-called progressive institutions.

As these institutions come to the surface and begin recruiting students to their respective colleges, potential profits are at the forefront of the minds of administrators. Increased privatization has done nothing but increase dependency on and cooperation with large corporations. This dependency, in the case of Pitzer College in Southern California, has linked the once deemed radical school with the financial interests of oppressive systems and white supremacy as a whole.

So the question is: how do college impact the lives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people? And how can colleges that teach with a more liberal framework actually apply a lot of their ideologies in real life? In this paper, we will break down the goals and actual impacts of institutions of higher education and their both positive and negative impacts upon those affected by private prisons.

There are essentially seven links between the two: investing in the prison-industrial complex, donations from the Board of Trustees, contracting with campus security, job and internship fairs, foodservice and furniture production, and funding research and scholarships. Though I focus mostly on the financial entanglements and investments in the prison-industrial complex in order to make the issue easier to digest and in relation to Pitzer College especially, the other aspects of cooperation between the two are ever-important and will be briefly discussed.

The primary issue to be discussed in this paper is the financial relationship between private institutions of higher education and the prison-industrial complex and private prison managers through financial managers. The relationship between the two primarily lies in the investment of college funds in hedge funds, exchange-traded funds, mutual funds, and other investments. This paper will analyze a case study regarding Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont College Consortium, in their ties to financial giant BlackRock, one of the largest stockholders in both GEO Group and CoreCivic, who control much of the United States’ prison and detention center operations. The college is believed to have developed their relationship with the investment firm following their supposed divestment from fossil fuels, while the vice-chair of the multi-trillion-dollar company donated to the school and was selected to the board of trustees soon later.

Donald Gould, the Chair of the Finance Committee of the Pitzer Board of Trustees, has stated (at the Pitzer Faculty Meeting of January 30th) that the MSCI ACWI ex-Fossil Fuels ESG Focus Index Fund B, in which Pitzer invests and which Pitzer presents publicly as evidence of the College’s social responsibility, has holdings that meet one or more of the following criteria: (i) harming and destruction of the Amazon Rainforest and its indigenous peoples; (ii) nuclear weapons and/or nuclear power; (iii) the global arms trade; and (iv) private prisons and/or migrant detention centers, according to faculty member Dan Segal, who asked about the issue in a faculty meeting. Being the world’s largest financial asset manager, many colleges and universities invest in these issues, some without even knowing it. The above-listed issues are what is funded by the ESG (environment, sustainability, and governance)- deemed to be the most progressive in investing- a startling idea.

This brings us to an even more explicit form of financial entanglement and corruption: Board of Trustee members and alumni donations. Examining what it means when the college refuses to be transparent, and when they receive this money who do they shift their loyalty to? Their student body, or one donor and corporation?

Another connection between the two industries is contracting out of campus security services. Though it doesn't apply to the 5cs, many security groups on campuses across the country contract security with private prison companies, such as G4S. G4S manages prisons and policing that has come under fire in both South Africa and the Israeli apartheid state.

One of the more recent involvements between the industries that have come under fire by student activists is collegiate relationships with companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic for job and career fairs as well as internship funneling. This, paired with the funding of scientific and social research and scholarships, makes it all the more difficult for students and colleges to turn down opportunities in a scarce job market, overwhelming student loans, and in the wake of massive budget cuts to education. It's hard to tell a struggling student don't take that job, or that internship, or that scholarship. So rather than do that, create a system where students don't have to work for these corporations- so students can pursue a career in what they're interested in and not just what pays the most because they're in debt- because of the ridiculous cost of college. In order to create actual change and make the system of investing in things like prisons and detention centers.

Finally, as aptly described by a friend and ally, the “food service industrial-complex” has a major role in the prison industrial complex as well. As well demonstrated by organizers against Aramark and Sodexo, the companies have sought profit from underpaid and unpaid labor both domestically and abroad. These companies have sustained themselves on the labor and mistreatment- even at times the deaths of- people of color, illustrating the issues inherent to capitalism and the oxymoron of “ethical capitalism”.

In the case of Pitzer College and their specific financial entanglements, BlackRock is invested in every step of the process. From supporting surveillance software of Palantir and Amazon, technology services provided by Xerox, Microsoft, and Canon, food service of Aramark and Sodexo, and of course the management groups GEO Group and CoreCivic; BlackRock and other financial asset managers have knowingly aligned themselves with the institutions of evil propping up the prison-industrial complex. Vanguard and BlackRock are the two largest holders of CoreCivic and GEO, and as such are deeply involved in the political sphere associated with detention, policing, and incarceration.

As Dave Venturella, senior vice president of The GEO Group stated following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, “ice is beginning to implement their interior enforcement strategy. we'll start to see the benefits of that through increased apprehensions and increased detention in the interior part of the united states, not necessarily [just] along the southern border”. And in the wake of the 2016 election, the stock prices for GEO Group, CoreCivic, and Corrections Corp of America nearly doubled. As WorthRises, a nonprofit group aimed at immigration reform, “the largest financial winners at the border are, as many expect, the private prison companies that operate immigration detention centers, the most prominent of which are The GEO Group and CoreCivic. With more than 40% of their respective revenues stemming from federal contracts, these companies invested heavily in the outspoken federal, state, and local candidates interested in advancing harsh immigration policies like "zero tolerance" during the 2016 election cycle”. Companies like GEO Group, Corrections Corp of America, and CoreCivic have made their millions off the suffering of thousands, and in turn, have spent millions on lobbying and political spending. These companies are both the benefactors and creators of the inhumane policies we have seen plaguing the United States for decades.

GEOGroup investor presentations in June 2017 seized by activists found the corporation to have celebrated the end of “catch and release” policies in favor of Trump and Sessions’ more harsh policies guaranteeing more jail cells and detention beds will be filled. They speak about their great relationship with the head of the Department of Homeland Security, and as the monster they work for grows, has more power in government and therefore creates a cyclical vortex profiting from the policing, incarceration, detention, and free labor of people of color.

BlackRock is aware people are upset and protesting the corporations they fund. They have continually doxxed and called the police on activists and protestors, co-oped ideas related to climate change and sustainable investing without compensating. Beyond that, they are aware and illustrate to their clients that political and social changes will definitely impact their investments. BlackRock is in a unique position to create substantive change by choosing who they invest in and who they advertise the most, and yet they continue to fund their practices with unsustainable models of using Black, Indigenous, and Latinx migrants as disposable objects.

In investing in the prison industrial complex or through a management company that profits so greatly from it, many colleges funnel their endowments through financial planners and banks that choose to then use the money to fund industries such as private prisons and detention centers. Pitzer College, after investing their endowment through BlackRock in 2014, solidified itself as part of that group. As stated by the Backers of Hate campaign, responsible for revealing who profits most from racial and ethnic hate- in this case detention and deportation of Latinxs,- “BlackRock is one of the largest shareholders of private prison and immigrant detention companies CoreCivic and GEO Group, with an 11% stake in CoreCivic and a 12% stake in GEO Group spread across the firm’s subsidiaries. Together those shares are worth $728 million”.These prisons and detention centers are run by groups like Corrections Corp of America (CCA), GeoGroup, and CoreCivic. These groups in total control about 70% of the prisons and detention centers throughout the United States, with hundreds of thousands of people under the custody of a private company.

Though the quality of life and safety varies across state lines with different guidelines to be met and different private companies managing these sites, it has become evident that all three of these major companies have one obvious thing in common: making a profit. These companies are able to pay far less than government rates, receive major tax cuts and relief packages due to their private status, and under the 13th amendment of the United States are able to contract out severely underpaid labor and material production from the same people they incarcerate. CCA, GEOGroup, and CoreCivic all have major contracts with the US Department of Corrections and with ICE, as well as major power in congress and the presidential office due to their campaign contributions. CEO Larry Fink served on the President’s business council while managing director Craig Phillips helped manage their transition team. Even on the local level, GEOGroup has lobbied Adelanto city council to renew their contract before the law goes into effect and has sought to double the number of detainees at Adelanto On average, the state of California spends thousands more per year per incarcerated individual, juxtaposed to per student in the state’s public schooling system.

Time and time again, studies have shown access to higher education, adequate K-12 public schooling, and universal pre-k correlate on decreased crime rates and policing (though this statistic is flawed in and of itself due to the racist nature of our justice system), but in a system where policing, detention, and incarceration are the money-makers, there’s no reason why the state or the private corporations with the real power would want change. The United States contracts out corrections and detention in an effort to cut costs according to many, but there is an underlying cyclical effect of money being exchanged for political power, the same people advocating for the private prison industry typically either receiving political donations from them or having direct financial interests within them, such as investments through firms like BlackRock and Vanguard. In 2016 alone, presidential candidate Donald J. Trump received almost $300,000 from GEOGroup due to his harsh immigration policies and soon were found to have disregarded FEC guidelines. It’s extremely difficult to cover the full scope of political corruption and nature of revolving doors of Walls Street and Congress in just a few paragraphs, but the core of what must be understood by these partnerships is that those in power seek to retain their political and financial power at the expense of the broader population and poor people of color especially. Once Trump was sworn into office, GEO worked tirelessly to lobby Jeff Sessions towards even more inhumane immigration policies. Though a bill just signed into California law that outlaws private prisons and detention centers have passed, it doesn’t go into effect until 2028 and leaves much room for these companies to lobby local governments to allow them to double and even triple their housing capacities until then- meaning an overall increase in policing due to counties being contractually obligated to fill a certain number of beds.

But at times, the incarceration and detention of these individuals are the least of their problems- sometimes those under GEO, CCA, and CoreCivic’s reign are most concerned with simply surviving. Immigrant detention, from Adelanto to Mesa Verde to Northeast Ohio has been riddled with complaints of abuse, mistreatment, unsanitary conditions, and medical neglect. At Adelanto, only an hour north of Pitzer College, there were multiple deaths in 2011 and 2017 and over 20 deaths in the 2019 fiscal year. Death by suicide, failure to quarantine ill inmates, and overall refusal of medical treatment has become commonplace. With nooses hung from cells and guards teasing inmates who’ve survived suicide attempts, permanent damage to brain and facial structure due to beatings by guards, misuse of solitary confinement leaving a disabled detainee in a wheelchair for nine days unable to lay down or use the bathroom properly, it’s a wonder more people haven’t died. Ongoing investigations have found that migrants have been placed in solitary confinement indefinitely due to sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, and diagnosis with mental illness- solitary in immigrant detention meaning no contact with the other detainees, and oftentimes refusal of medical care and lack of natural sunlight due to confinement centers lacking windows. Even by the standards of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Inspector General, it’s bad. Detainees cooking food do not have access to hot water or soap, leading to dozens of cases of flu and food poisoning on any given day. According to a lawyer interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, “sometimes [detainees] agree to [deportation] because they’re afraid of just dying in a detention facility”. And with more than 73,000 people detained there alone since 2011, GEO Group has made $112 per day from their suffering. In the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, hundreds if not thousands of migrants have been infected in private facilities. And due to government guidelines, these private companies don’t have to fully disclose the number of cases in their custody- only the number of deaths.

In many cases, those with power have created the problem and sold us their version of a cure. Those with power have not only infiltrated the neoliberal system of academia- they have created and perfected it in forcing investments of million and billion-dollar endowments into the system they profit from. So at this point- just as we need major structural change in the US, we need major change to the institution of higher education.

And although Pitzer and the rest of the Claremont Colleges pride themselves deeply on the work they have done with the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco in developing and providing Inside Out programs- or programs in which both 5C students and those incarcerated take classes side by side, one has to wonder if the development of such a program and those being developed by the Justice Education cohort across the Claremont Colleges cancels out the financial sustenance the schools have provided for these oppressive institutions to exist at all. Providing courses within the center is a wonderful thing that should be admired in the work put into it by everyone involved, but in a better world, people wouldn’t have been over-policed and incarcerated to make a profit for shareholders in the first place. If true abolition and radical change is what’s sought after by these liberal arts institutions, they cannot continue to also fan the flames of policing for profit. It’s the equivalent of fighting on both sides of a war.

There are many pre-existing groups that have done wonderful work towards divestment, the abolition of prisons and detention centers, and greater anti-corruption campaigns towards the American capitalist system as a whole.

The group or campaign that really propelled me into researching the financial dealings of institutions I was involved in was the #NoTechforICE campaign of summer 2019. This campaign dedicated itself to understanding the financial relations of the United States’ Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)- essentially seeing who profited from the detention, separation, deportation, and deaths of thousands of migrants. This campaign was created in the wake of increased ICE funding by the US government, separation of families in 2018, and the publicized deaths of migrant children in ICE custody. The campaign focuses strongly on who profits from detention and removing institutional and personal finance from these groups. Activists have taken action removing Microsoft, Dell, Canon, and Xerox from companies they will partner with, and many individual citizens have ended accounts with BlackRock, Wells Fargo, and Chase, among others. The movement really hit home in illustrating that each and every person that is upset about an issue can help create change by removing their financial support, something far more important than democratic ideals or consumer satisfaction in the eyes of corporations. It was a means of “voting with your wallet” when your other vote really doesn’t matter at all.

Another major source of inspiration in leading a campaign against financial giants such as BlackRock was the Occupy Movement, paired with the unrests in London and the development of the Arab Spring rebellions of 2011. These movements helped bring about the idea of massive structural change in the twenty-first century rather than looking to examples of the 1700s and 1800s for understanding. The Occupy movement prided itself on fighting back against the oppressive socio-political systems present in the United States and across the globe- the group was revolutionary in the sense of uniting so many people while refusing to have a hierarchical system for leadership- something we would soon adapt in the Students Demanding Change coalition. Though Occupy eventually faded and those who have claimed to “create” it seeks to capitalize off of the labor of the protests, we found the uproar caused by the movements to be necessary and important. One of the alleged creators of the movement has now embarked on charging for talks, online courses, and books and believing that the protests led to no significant change- but from that, we as student activists understood that in order to have a productive movement that accomplishes what we set out to do, we must have a set list of demands and a common enemy.

That point leads to one of the major changemakers and inspiration in the work we set before ourselves: fellow student activists. From anti-war and civil rights activists to much more local movements of the Suspend Haifa campaign as well as Columbia students in 2008 and 2009 who successfully lobbied to remove the university’s endowment from private prisons, something thought extremely radical at the time. Additionally, we worked with those who had originally lobbied for Pitzer to divest from fossil fuels (something they actually have failed to do) as well as the ever-growing Sunrise movement to establish a climate-focused aspect of our coalition. According to BlackRock’s Big Problem, a coalition of five large environmental lobbying groups, The Sunrise Project, Divest-Invest Network, Amazon Watch, FOE, and Sierra Club, BlackRock is a top shareholder in companies drilling for oil in the Arctic with large stakes in ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips.

Once we had come together as a group- Students Demanding Change- we found hope and camaraderie with two major groups that exist outside of the student-sphere- BlackRock’s Big Problem and CodePINK, fellow financial dealing organizers that focused tremendously on the climate change and destruction of the Amazon rainforest fueled by BlackRock as well as the war lobbying and weapons manufacturing the wall street giant is complicit in. There were many groups already established or in the midst of growing that loosely fitted our goals, but as members of a small college we found it necessary to work on the ground ourselves and make connections with our student senate, professors, and fellow students.

Policies to be adapted must address both the institutional problems between prisons and academia as we currently know it. Compared to many other institutions of “higher learning”, Pitzer is deemed progressive and radical, but after looking below the surface it is evident that even the most forward-thinking institutions fall flat of dissociating from neoliberal and neo-colonial frameworks. In order to destroy these partnerships, we must destroy at least the parts of these institutions that allow for it. For one, making college more accessible and more diverse in people’s backgrounds and personal experiences will give way to a greater understanding of exactly who is harmed by what these colleges invest in. The immense disparity in wealth across those who have the ability to attend college and those who do not, as well as the major disparity between students at Pitzer College, where one student can have a family that profits from prison and detention while dozens of other students are actually affected by detention and incarceration.

“ But investing in a system that isolates Black people as cheap labor sustains the very societal problems and disparities that foundations, in their work to work toward the common good, attempt to correct. How savvy can an investment policy be if it undercuts a foundation’s goals?”

Upon my acceptance and enrollment at Pitzer College, I thought I was entering as a space of progressive, revolutionary, and radical community outreach and activism paired with top-notch academics. What I would be horrified to learn the summer going into my first year was that this so-called “progressive” institution aligned itself with a majority of companies profiting from the detention of migrants along the southern border, from Amazon to Microsoft to financial giants like BlackRock. I would also come to learn that below the surfaces of all liberal arts colleges lurked massive corruption and back alley financial entanglements, with multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns disguised as diversity and inclusion, progressivism, and activism.

The financial entanglements of colleges in the prison-industrial complex are of no accident. Many schools cozy up to donors from questionable companies or accept billion dollar donations from those that profit from major industries, exemplified perfectly by Pitzer having a BlackRock executive as a member of the Board of Trustees as well as the developer of the very group of stocks (iShares ETF) that the college diverted its investments to following their supposed attempt at ending investments in fossil fuels. Groups like BlackRock pride themselves on the ability to make money in nearly every situation, even going so far as to contact their top clients regarding how to make money during the COVID-19 pandemic by investing in pharmaceuticals and delivery giants such as Amazon, cautioning clients that supporting small businesses wasn’t as good of an investment. It is the blood-thirsty and vulture-like nature of these financial giants that propel profit to be the center of all that is set out to be accomplished. Their enormous power also leaves them almost immune to any government intervention or oversight- as they’re the ones funding the government once you forget about the taxpayers, as most politicians do.

The prison-industrial complex's connection to higher education acts as a great microcosm for the sort of neoliberal and neocolonial framework that we're allowing here in the United States as a whole. We've got half the people in this country living paycheck to paycheck, while a select few are able to make decisions and fund the worst things on this planet, but still having the gall to tell you what is morally right and wrong. Some of the activists may be heard for a moment or two, they may even make some changes, but power never really shifts hands to the people. You can have the masses- if you apply this issue to Pitzer for example- not wanting investments in incarceration and detention, but a select few at the top making these decisions because they have power and money, and because investing in the evils of mankind is deemed not only essential but steeped in a status-quo that we dare not break. There is the irony of an institution like Pitzer- or any university trying to play itself off as liberal and progressive while simultaneously acting as a contributor to the issues they pretend to be against- mirroring American intervention overseas while claiming they stand for freedom, or the hypocrisy of the American Democrats claiming peace for their party platform while blindly following leaders that engage in the killing of civilians across the globe. The entanglements of finance, politics, rehabilitation, and education are all symptoms of a much larger disease that must be eradicated: the structure of the United States economic- and therefore political- system.

In order to create substantive, positive, and sustainable change, systems as a whole must change. Otherwise, as demonstrated by the lack of oversight the Board of Trustees and Pitzer College administration had in redirecting funds following their “divestment” from fossil fuels and moving towards a company that invests even more in climate destruction and environmental racism. So as we see we need a student oversight committee and greater transparency of pre-existing institutions, changes within the system that with a bit of unpaid student labor in activism can be implemented. These institutional changes, in turn, can help produce more major and wide-scale change as fellow students and activists take action across the U.S. and financial ties to detention and prison are cut. However, it’s not enough to simply return your college, university, or other institution to one that is ‘neutral’, one must fight for a group that fights back against injustice and oppression as they advertise, and right the wrongs that they have financed for decades. This includes the establishment of even more Inside Out programs, outreach especially for students in detention whose families are detained without a court date and often face major adverse impacts on their education. Institutions like Pitzer that knowingly and willingly donated to these issues must provide educational and legal services to migrants and incarcerated folks at least to the same value as the amount of money they received from said industries as an attempt at remediation for the harm caused. As a whole, directly contributing to social services must be completely revamped and overhauled. Education, the abolition of policing, and services for those leaving mental illness treatment, incarceration, and detention must be the top priority for a society that wants to make prisons obsolete.

General resistance strategies for many issues include popular education, media expression, deep knowledge of the issues, and personal connections across demographics and constituencies each affected by the same issue. In dealing with the removal of private prisons and detention centers, media narratives matter greatly. With full-time students doubling as activists and doing the work that investment firms and economists get paid to do for free, supporting fellow students and not acting as pressure on fellow activists is of the utmost importance. For sustainable student activism, one must create a healthy blossoming community of activists, sustain it with new recruits, and expand the views of the group to think globally and act locally. Additionally, when going up against a major corporation or financial group with hundreds of times the money and resources you have, community media narratives and literacy on the issue are ever-important. These ideas tie in with popular education in bringing everyone to the table, supporters and not, and having each person provide their knowledge of the issue and their personal experience to the table with understanding and contemplation. As an example, the Students Demanding Change at Pitzer hosting over 24 hours worth of ‘office hours' for those interested in discussing the issue when it first came to public knowledge in the wake of the first free wall painting.

As with any activist or organizing group, creating a scene and gaining attention for the cause is another major aspect of creating change. As Pitzer College prides itself on the free wall available for all students to express themselves, I personally took advantage of some paint gifted to me by upperclassmen and made my voice heard only about a month into my first semester. Additionally, once we were in the midst of bringing our bill before the student senate, we plastered posters and massive painted banners across campus with eye-catching and inflammatory messages. Bad publicity for those participating in funding these issues is the main goal, and in the wake of the major outcries lead by ICEoutofLA and #NoTechforICE, we succeeded in making a scene. With an issue as impactful as Pitzer College’s investments being funneled through BlackRock, we extended our work to the general public and explained how these issues impact everyone. From student affinity groups representing populations hugely impacted by incarceration and detention to climate justice organizers and Sunrise movement proponents seeking to remove us from climate destruction to indigenous groups, prison abolitionists, pro-worker alliances, and pro-Palestine activists- we found BlackRock to be invested in just about everything people at Pitzer were angry about on campus or issues that inspired them to come to campus in the first place. Harnessing the impact of such a diverse and multifaceted set of constituencies helped bring hundreds of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents behind one cause.

As for advice for activists in similar fields, three words always come to mind: educate, agitate, and organize. Your role as students allows you to juggle your values with your privilege and approach problems from thousands of different backgrounds all on the same campus. For anyone involved in major companies or institutions such as a college, look into financial dealing of everything they’re involved in. One would be surprised how much they can dig up just on publicly-available websites with a search of your institution and keywords like “private prisons”, “immigrant detention”, etc. If you find something with the aforementioned keywords, chances are there are people on campus willing or already working to remove the institution from those dealings and would appreciate any support. If you fail to find something, don’t assume your institution is the poster child for a moral compass- you need to dig into the financial dealings and investments of the organization, as well as major donors and Board of Trustee members. These are the things and people that truly hold power, and though students entering Pitzer in the fall of 2019 had no clue their dealings included private prisons or detention centers, in a matter of months it became common knowledge and a major stain on the school’s “progressive” public image. This came through the power of student organizing and an understanding of modern collegiate social media, making the movement students want to be a part of. Once students understand what is happening, it is much easier to spread the information to staff, faculty, alumni, and even parents that disagree with the college’s dealings. Within a few months, we had support from everyone from CEC and CASA staff to tenured faculty conducting research. This mixture of perspectives and positions close to the students and close to the administration allows for greater distribution of resources on the issue, and delegation of direct action such as posters, banners, and murals for many students as well as faculty meetings with administrators and Board of Trustee members asking difficult questions. True action and progress come with a two-sided approach. Infiltrate systems like the alumni board and faculty meetings with powerful allies while also having students and staff on the ground striking, protesting, and making their voices heard.

As stated by the Finance Campaign Director of Amazon Watch, “BlackRock claims that its hands are tied by index funds. It is wrong. BlackRock can follow the lead of other global asset managers and make a change for the good of the rainforest, the climate, and of its customers by shifting investments out of companies wrecking the planet, and applying maximum pressure to change company behavior”; the question is, will higher education change their behavior as well?


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