The University and Mass Incarceration

The rate of incarceration has more than quadrupled in the last four decades. Between 1973 and 2009, the number of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons increased from approximately 200,000 to 1.5 million with another 700,000 held in local jails. This unprecedented level of incarceration is severely racialized: 60 percent of the prison population is black and Latino. Universities have played a complex role vis-à-vis this social crisis. On the one hand, university research developed and endorsed the policies that have contributed to mass incarceration, they have themselves been involved in criminalization of surrounding neighborhood, and have benefited from endowments investments in private prisons. On the other hand, due to the efforts of faculty and students, universities have also hosted and supported the growing critical scholarship on incarceration and have pioneered prison education programs.


The crisis of mass incarceration reaches far beyond the domain of higher education, but universities can play an important role in rectifying this injustice.

Universities can model what decriminalization and decarceration looks like in their neighborhoods by divesting from private police forces and security apparatuses and investing in the community. This investment can take the form of providing full time work at a living wage and providing resources for public education. The tax-exempt status of universities often means that their surrounding communities are losing out on property taxes, which would support public goods including K-12 schools.  The recommendation for a city enforced payment in lieu of taxes should be combined with and enhanced through this divestment from policing.

From the 2005 Yale Graduate Employees and Student Organization’s report “Endowing Injustice” to the recent successful efforts of undergraduates at Columbia, students have directed attention to the ways that Universities financially benefit from investments in private prison. Universities should divest holdings from all private prisons.

Universities should extend access to higher education to those incarcerated and to the formerly incarcerated. Rather than simply a haphazard course offering, prison education programs must be tailored toward the aims of allowing students to receive degrees. Models of this kind include the Bard and NYU prison education programs. Universities should also offer job placement opportunities for those who leave the prison and have completed their coursework. Moreover, universities can also help reintegrate the formerly incarcerated, by ensuring equal access in the admissions process and providing adequate financial support that take into account their exclusion from Federal Pell grants.