Meagan Saliashvili of The Christian Century writes that students and alumni of Princeton Theological Seminary are raising awareness about the head of the Seminary’s trustee board, Chairman Michael Fisch, and his involvement in the private prison industry.
Fisch’s private equity company American Securities has a subsidiary called ViaPath, which has come under criticism for charging inmates up to $15 for 15-minute phone calls needed to call anyone outside of prison, including lawyers. The private prison industry has also come under heavy criticism for poor conditions and for using prisoners for nearly free labor.
Erich Kussman grew up breaking into homes in Plainfield, New Jersey, to steal food. His single mother was addicted to drugs. He began selling drugs himself and landed in jail in 2002 after stabbing a man with a box cutter. During his 12-year sentence, Kussman became a Christian.
Today, Kussman is the pastor of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.
“That was an institution that gave me a second chance when nobody else was,” he said.
Which is why, when fellow alum and New Jersey pastor Amos Caley started asking people if they were aware of the seminary trustee board chairman’s ties to a company profiting from the prison industry, Kussman supported the effort to demand his removal.
“Everything that man [Fisch] represents is antithetical to the seminary and the gospel,” Kussman said. “It’s like taking ice cream and horse manure. You know, the ice cream is not gonna taste good anymore.”
On its website ViaPath says its mission is to “help break the cycle of incarceration through transformative technology and services for incarcerated individuals, their support network, correctional agencies, and returning citizens.”
But Princeton alumni and students, many who have worked with imprisoned people and their families as chaplains, social workers, and counselors, say companies like ViaPath are predatory. Their letter cites research from the Ella Baker Center, an Oakland-based nonprofit that aims to shift resources away from prisons, which finds that more than one-third of all families who choose to remain connected with an incarcerated loved one accrue debt.