Following months of research and collaboration, the Vassar College Prison Divestment Campaign—a partnership between the Black Students’ Union, Gradient (a men of color group on campus), and the Vassar Prison Initiative—released a final statement and petition last week outlining their demands for the college’s divestment from the prison industrial complex (PIC).
The statement, which organizers said was a product of collective effort between at least a dozen people and involved the voices of many more students and faculty, outlined a score of ways that the college has involved itself with the PIC. This includes paying $6 million annually to Vassar’s food service provider Bon Appetit’s parent company, Compass Group, which provides food services to prisons, to asking professional and student applicants about their histories of felony convictions—a practice that the Vassar campaign says other institutions, including Duke University and the SUNY & the University of California systems, have banned.
Campaign organizers Xade Wharton-Ali ’22, Chelsea Quayenortey ’22, Sulekh Fernando-Peiris ’22 and Jhujhar Sarna ’22 expressed an understanding that their holistic, diverse set of demands reflects the reality of the PIC’s far reaching, deeply-rooted consequences, especially for people of color. The campaign’s demands include divestment from private prisons and companies benefitting from prison labor, increasing student voice in monetary decision-making and reinvestment in companies that hire formerly incarcerated people and local programs benefiting minority communities.
Besides specific demands regarding financial divestment, community relations and diversified hiring, the campaign also admonished the college’s lack of transparency in these matters. “Vassar needs to come forth and let us know what we’re invested in,” said Wharton-Ali. “We think that’s really important because at the end of the day, the endowment is made out of Vassar family money, our money, so we have a right to know where it goes and have a say in where it goes.”
Speaking in regards to the college’s investment in Trinity Services Group (another prison food service provider the College invests in), Amanita Duga-Caroll, the college’s Vice President of Communications, commented, “Vassar has no control over this investment, as it is co-mingled with other investors and controlled by a common fund. The endowment exists to support the mission of the College and the primary goal of its management is to achieve the best risk-adjusted return. Our endowment’s portfolio manager is a signatory to the United Nations’ Principles of Responsible Investment.”
Quayenortey countered these concerns about the difficulty of financial divestment. She stressed that the college’s decisions must align with its claims that it cares for its communities of color. “It may be difficult to change regulations and institutional rules, but difficult doesn’t mean impossible,” she said. Similarly, Fernando-Peiris believes that none of the campaign’s demands are unreasonable, noting that previous divestment campaigns have succeeded at peer institutions such as Columbia University. Wharton-Ali also said,“It’s actually not as hard as they make it seem,” mentioning that Vassar previously divested successfully from apartheid after a strong surge of student-led activism.
Citing research done at Freecap Financial, the campaign’s letter asserts, “Having prison labor in a company’s supply chain, or having an active role in the PIC, poses a huge risk to businesses,” and that therefore, divestment is an effective risk-management strategy. For example, they reference the plunge in the reputation of Victoria’s Secret and its publicly-traded parent company, L Brands, after revelations of the company’s use of prison labor exemplifies the financial risk of investing in the PIC.
The campaign also recognized that New York State’s recent legalization of recreational-use marijuana has major implications for the deconstruction of the PIC. Quayenortey noted that legalization alone does not solve the problem, and that there are still major questions relating to the release of currently-incarcerated drug offenders, but said, “The criminalization of a lot of drugs that … are found in low income communities [has] been the source of getting prison labor, so this is a really good step in the direction of decriminalizing Black people as a whole, but also other people of color as well.” In fact, despite the fact that there are five times more white drug users than Black, 62.7 percent of drug offenders admitted to prison in the United States are Black.
These racialized characteristics of the criminal justice system, such as the criminalization of drug use, have also made Vassar’s hiring practices a central part of the divestment campaign. The organizers rebuked the college for its failure to “ban the box”—or remove the felony conviction question from professional and student applications.
“Professional and student applicants are not required to answer the felony conviction question, as they are provided with the ability to decline to answer. We are not in the practice of automatically screening out applicants who decline to answer the question,” Duga-Caroll explained. Nonetheless, Sarna said, “Banning the box is a preliminary first step, so the fact that they haven’t even done that says volumes.” The organizers expressed that they also hope to see increased transparency in regards to the hiring and admission rates for those with past convictions.
Fernando-Peiris lamented that the administration’s rhetoric on the matter falls into a broader pattern of unresponsiveness to student activism. “Vassar was so unresponsive to a no-fail policy, which, again, peer institutions instituted, and yet Vassar somehow is lagging behind. If this summer taught us anything, it’s that there’s a lot of talk going on, and very few people can actually do something about that. And I think Vassar’s primed to set an example of what a responsible institution would do when presented with these issues,” he said.
As the campaign moves forward, its organizers have stressed the importance of approaching the campaign with a pluralistic, inclusive vision—emphasizing their hope that even more people will come to speak with them and get involved in the work. Sarna hoped that regardless of whether each reader decides to sign on to the campaign, reading the document itself will be an eye-opening experience that will compel them to at least share the document and engage in conversation about its goals. At the end of the day, he said, “This isn’t about the four people here, this is about all of us, and all of our money.”