USC reinforces the carceral state

The University’s criminalization of students demonstrates its distorted sense of justice.


I don’t leave campus — and I never need to. I grab food at dining halls, get my check-ups at Engemann Student Health Center and buy what I want at USC Village. USC has designed an environment where everything we need is within arm’s reach, allowing us to dedicate more time to our academics and less to navigating the neighborhoods around us. 

But this convenience is simultaneously distracting us from the ways USC exploits our isolation. 

With our detachment from the surrounding city, USC covertly runs its own system of justice that preys on our seclusion through seemingly ordinary traits of college life. We don’t realize it, but we are being criminalized for our mere existence as students and disciplined for our mistakes. 

We live under surveillance. Scattered across campus, Allied Universal Security ambassadors, or “yellow jackets,” monitor and report activity to the Department of Public Safety, the University’s campus police force. While this relationship is intended to add layers of security, the ambassadors and DPS together only exacerbate issues of racial profiling on campus that disproportionately affect Black and Latine students. 

But surveillance isn’t only physical at USC; it extends to the digital world. Professors often use plagiarism detection software like Turnitin to inspect our work for similarities to other writings even when they wrongly accuse us of cheating. Nevertheless, our academic integrity crumbles under the scrutiny of faulty artificial intelligence, jeopardizing our education without recourse. 

We are also subject to searches of our homes without warning. Per our housing agreements, USC “reserves the right … to make unannounced and unscheduled entries” of student dormitories when investigating violations of University rules. Mere suspicion enables both USC and DPS personnel to invade our places of study, sleep, worship and leisure without permission.

Our bodily autonomy is controlled by the institution as well. Because USC receives federal funding, marijuana usage is strictly prohibited on campus. Our enrollment, housing and criminal record are contingent on following this policy, though California law allows adults aged 21 or older to possess and consume marijuana. We are evidence of the enduring legacy of the “War on Drugs” that sees substance use criminalized to satisfy private agendas.

The unreasonable fines — the tuition penalties, parking tickets and library fees — further expose USC’s primary concern: money. The University preys on our mistakes to pad its deep pockets despite having more than enough to support operations. We students are commodified by a system that prioritizes punishment over forgiveness. 

Although USC claims to value open communication and diversity, it cultivates a culture hostile to student voices. A college campus should be the single safest site of political discourse in society, yet USC — alongside numerous other universities across the country — sends police officers to bully and arrest peaceful protesters who accuse the University of being complicit in Palestinian genocide.

The events of the past few weeks only demonstrate that our values and opinions as students will forever come second to the institution. Until the administration decides to finally embody the core values it champions, we will continue to suffer pain and violence born of selfishness. 

We come to USC expecting a world-class education, but we are instead treated with suspicion, deprived of the benefit of the doubt, portrayed as people predisposed to breaking the rules and robbed of our fundamental rights. 

Our university may look isolated from the world, but USC’s system of justice resembles the worst parts of the United States. The carceral state, which uses punishment as a means to a political end, infects USC so severely that the profits of the institution have taken precedence over the dignity of its students. And our education, which we invested every part of ourselves into, now occupies the lowest rung on USC’s ladder of importance. 

USC’s resemblance to the carceral state contributes to the reinforcement of flawed justice in the U.S. Whether a public school or a private prison, every institution in American society plays a role in sustaining the marginalization of certain communities. USC is no exception. By making a habit of criminalizing student activity, the University actively preserves attitudes toward punishment and criminality that have disproportionately incarcerated Americans of color. 

We may be isolated, but we are not powerless. Together, we must demand that the University change the policies and procedures reinforcing the American carceral state and the subjection of the students it claims to support.

Alexis Mesa 

USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Class of 2025 

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