Activists stop food giant

By Mark Harrison, TNC staff writer

In response to demands made by activists on university campuses catered by Sodexho Marriott Services, the food service giant dumped its eight percent share in Corrections Corporation of America in June. The Young Democratic Socialists, Prison Moratorium Project, Not With Our Money and several other organizations and students staged a series of shaming protests that received national media attention. A 32-hour sit-in shut down the admissions office at Ithaca College in New York; during the international Students Day of Action in April demonstrations and protests erupted on 25 U.S. and Canadian campuses while solidarity actions were raging overseas. Food boycotts, guerrilla theater and public forums all had tremendous cumulative effect on the world's leading food caterer, now divested from CCA and private prisons.

Abuse, escapes, suicides and murders have identified and plagued the prisons operated by CCA. Company stock plunged 97 percent from a high of $45 per share in 1998. That's why CCA Chief Executive John Ferguson said he is looking for "other services our industry can provide" and has "developed a good substance abuse treatment program called Lifeline." The CEO is also "looking at the aging population and the mental health field as potential areas to expand."

CCA's competitors, including Wackenhut and Cornell, are building and planning entire treatment prisons, mental health clinics, psychiatric hospitals, schools for "juvenile delinquents" and nursing facilities for the elderly and infirm. Maximizing profit margins achieved by cost cutting and operating at full and sometimes overcrowded capacities are the economic principles these for-profit companies have followed.

The high turn-over rate among poorly-trained and underpaid staff resulting in abuse in prisons operated by CCA are not endearing qualities for a company seeking to capitalize on the health care industry. Managing a professional medical staff for an effective drug treatment center, a geriatric facility or a mental hospital is different than operating a revolving-door employment agency for guards with keys, clubs and stun guns.

From a public relations point of view, the image shift from a company capitalizing on crime to one capitalizing on care and treatment presents an improved corporate image and, believe investors, will improve CCA's performance in the market. The public relations battle was not won by Sodexho or CCA with their billions of dollars and high-priced public relations firms; but by the students and activists who caused a ruckus when their food dollars were spent building prisons for profit.