(The following article will appear in the forthcoming Prison Nation, from Routledge Press)
The 1990's was the golden age of the Prison-Industrial Complex in America. During that decade, the number of men and women behind bars nearly doubled, from 1.1 million in 1990 to almost 2 million in 2000, and spending on incarceration approached $40 billion. Recognizing an opportunity to make fortunes off the backs of prisoners and their families, Corporate America -- including architects, bankers, building contractors and telephone companies -- lined up at the prison trough.
And it wasn't just American companies. The sweet smell of profit attracted foreign multinationals as well -- among them Sodexho Alliance, a Paris-based catering company. Unlike the company's rivals in the food service industry, Sodexho was not content to make money by feeding prisoners. Instead, in 1994, Sodexho entered into a strategic alliance with the world's largest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America. Over the next few years, Sodexho became not only CCA's largest shareholder, but also the private prison company's partner in a joint venture to spread the gospel of private prisons across the globe. By the end of the decade, the ties that bound the two companies together included:
In 1998, it looked as if everything was coming up roses for the two companies. CCA's stock shot to an all-time high of $46, and the jointly owned Australian and U.K. subsidiaries were pulling down new private prison contracts. Then things started to go horribly wrong. As prison expansion slowed and opposition to privatization grew, CCA suddenly found itself stuck paying for empty prisons that the company had built "on speculation." Once shareholder and analysts realized that the company was cooking its books all hell broke loose, and the price of CCA stock went into a free fall, reaching an all-time low of 18 cents before bouncing back to just over a dollar.
During the next year, Sodexho worked with CCA management and other key investors to put the prison company back on its feet. But by this time Sodexho had its own problems. A national network of student activists working under the banner Not With Our Money! had launched a series of protests on campuses served by Sodexho Marriott Services. Within a year, the Dump Sodexho campaign had spread to more than 60 colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada, and the company had lost contracts at seven active schools. On May 19, 2001, the business headline in The Tennessean read, "CCA majority shareholder to sell stocks: French food catering giant pressured by college students."
The Dump Sodexho campaign was waged by college students who not only took the industrial part of the "Prison-Industrial Complex" head-on, but who also successfully linked prison issues to critical issues of campus democracy, workers' rights and corporate power through a medium that virtually every student (or former student) in America can understand -- the dreaded dining hall!
December 5, 2000. The cadence floats on winter winds across the campus of Buffalo State College, an urban, working-class school where more than a hundred students and community members have gathered to protest the school's catering contract with Sodexho Marriott Services. The marchers arrive at their destination and shiver in the cold as they listen to an unusual group of speakers -- including a member of City Council, a corrections officer and a former prisoner -- condemn both private prisons and those who seek to profit from them.
The administrators who need to hear the message are hiding in the brick fortress of Cleveland Hall, insulated behind locked doors and campus police officers, but the students are resourceful. At the appointed moment, the students slip into the building and up the stairs until they reached the locked door outside the President's office.
After a boisterous hour of chanting and door-pounding, thirty-five students get what they're looking for -- an opportunity to grill Vice-President Hal D. Payne. How, an African American student asks Payne, can an African American administrator of a public college, which is itself being drained of resources by prison expansion, defend doing business with a company connected to punishment for profit?
Payne tries to tell the students that they've got it all wrong -- it's the state's Rockefeller Drug Laws that are responsible for the shameful number of young men and women of color behind bars, not Sodexho. In theory, Payne is absolutely right. To paraphrase the NRA, "Prisons don't sentence people; people are sentenced to prison." Anyway, New York's prisons are public, so isn't Sodexho's involvement in the private prison industry beside the point?
But the student protesters are unmoved by Payne's words, which are too little and too late. Where were the State University administrators when a broad coalition began calling two years ago for the repeal of the Rockefeller laws? For that matter, where were they when governors Mario Cuomo and George Pataki shifted $600 million a year from higher education to prisons? And why the newfound interest in sentencing reform just as students have discovered an outpost of the Prison-Industrial Complex lurking on their doorstep?
Having made their point, the students retire to watch themselves on the evening news. Buffalo State will keep its Sodexho contract since, for reasons nobody can explain, Sodexho's is the only bid that met the school's qualifications, but the work that Buffalo students have begun will continue.
Sodexho executives are still struggling to understand how the largest food service provider in North America became better known for its relationship to the private prison industry than for its mystery loaf. Here's the inside story:
It's 1995. The best kept secret in America is that there are roughly one and a half million men and women living behind bars -- most young, poor and of color. Few are aware of the social costs, from the criminalization of a generation to the draining of funds from education and social services, and fewer still are aware of the social forces driving prison expansion, particularly the use of prisons as a form of "economic development" for poor rural communities. Twenty years of research and advocacy on alternatives seems like so much spit in the wind, and many have either given up or started to spit in the other direction.
But there are stirrings among a few progressive activists who are talking about the need to oppose a "prison-industrial complex" which functions much like the military-industrial complex. All of us believe that the fate American democracy depends on stopping the gears from turning. We just don't know how.
Over the next several years, prison organizing made slow progress while media coverage skyrocketed. In 1995, major papers ran a story about prison issues every few weeks. Soon it was once a week, then once a day and then we stopped trying to keep track. The coverage was driven in part by the work of Washington D.C.-based groups like Justice Policy Institute and The Sentencing Project but equally important were the sheer volume of fascinating and scandalous stories generated by the nation's vast gulag.
Racial profiling, racial disparities, mothers in prisons, rape in prison, costly prison expansion, corporate prisons; all of the stories that were reported by the media and reinforced by the consciousness raising efforts of prison activists, began to generate rage among young activists and unease in the public at large.
At the same time, there saw an activist renaissance on campuses and in the streets that had much (although not everything) to do with the new leadership of the labor movement. In the Fall of 1996, graduates of the AFL-CIO's Union Summer internship, who had learned to knock on doors and talk to strangers about social issues, took their newly acquired skills and into dormitories and dining halls. A series of labor teach-ins took place around the country, adding momentum to campus and community movements for workers' rights. The sweatshop movement exploded by providing students with an easy way to connect economic justice abroad to purchasing decisions made by their college administrators.
In November of 1999, the "Battle of Seattle" focused the nation's attention on growing opposition to corporate power and top-down globalization. But another battle happened in Seattle outside the media spotlight. A mile from the downtown "security zone" a peaceful march of a hundred or so people marching for political prisoner and death row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal was attacked by police who fired dozens of rounds of tear gas into a residential community. While not as well publicized, this incident was part of growing resistance to police brutality, racial profiling and other forms of criminal injustice in communities of color.
The Dump Sodexho campaign was launched in the wake of Seattle, on the day when, according to a report issued by Justice Policy Institute, the number of people behind bars in the U.S. was projected to reach two million (February 15, 2000). Dump Sodexho spread like wildfire across college campuses where the coalitions and campaign demands reflected a sophisticated understanding of the links between multiple forms of oppression and injustice.
For example, at Oberlin College, where every student is required to take a full meal plan, the Sodexho-prison connection was the catalyst for bringing together prison, labor, socialist, environmental and student co-op activists around a set of demands that included dumping Sodexho, including temporary workers in the bargaining contract and purchasing more organic food. At the State University of New York at Albany, the Sodexho-prison connection added fuel to a struggle for union recognition on the part of workers organized by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. At the University of California at Santa Cruz, students of color and members of student government waged a referendum campaign in which student voted overwhelmingly to kick Sodexho off campus.
At the same time, students have adopted tactics that directly challenge "business as usual" on campus while projecting a vision of how things could be different. As students discovered in the course of the campaign, campus food service is basically a scam in which one company is given a monopoly contract to serve in exchange for keeping the administration worry-free. The company often accomplishes this by providing the school with no-interest "loans" for capital improvements that are then repaid through the "contract" -- i.e. the money students pay for their (often mandatory) meal plans. In fact, students discovered an eerie parallel between the outsourcing of food service and the privatization of prisons -- in both cases, companies have little incentive to provide good service, because those most affected by those services have little or no voice in contracting.
Under such circumstances, sustained boycotts are counterproductive (the company just makes less food and more money), and students have taken to organizing one-day symbolic boycotts at which a food alternative is provided. On April 4, 2000, SUNY Binghamton and Earlham College used student organization funds to feed almost 1,000 people, while Hampshire College student organized a potluck that virtually shut down the dining hall. In May, 800 Oberlin students sat on the lawn and ate food cooked by activists, courtesy of the school's vibrant co-op system, while listening to music and speeches about private prisons. In every case, students find that free, good food reminds students why they hate bad expensive food -- especially when the company that makes it feeds prison expansion.
It's one thing to fight and quite another to win. Ninety-nine out of one hundred campus administrators agree: the fact that a company is 48%-owned by prison profiteers, or by the KKK for that matter, should have no bearing on contracting decisions. How else are we going to keep ensuring high quality food for a low, low price?
NWOM! activists soon discover what sweatshop and anti-apartheid activists learned before them. Administrators from across the political spectrum will fight tooth and nail to prevent students from having real power on campus; that's why they get paid the big bucks. On December 6, the day after the Buffalo State occupation, seven Ithaca College students took over the school's financial aid office. After 34 hours, during which time they were denied food, water and even the use of a bathroom, the students got what months of letters, meetings and protests had failed to deliver: a serious meeting with President Peggy Williams. The students won major concessions, including a public forum with national Sodexho representatives. As friends in the sweatshop movement say, "direct action gets the goods!"
On February 12, 2001, Sodexho Marriott Services' Senior Vice-President and General Counsel, Robert Stern, came to Ithaca College to face the music, in the form of a bunch of angry students and me, representing Not With Our Money! Stern quickly discovered that he had underestimated the activists, who grilled him with pointed questions, not only about Sodexho's ties to the private prison industry, but also about the company's poor record on workers' rights. Stern's most serious misstep came when he was asked what he, personally, thought of prison privatization. Stern replied that, as with any other business, he thought the private sector could "add value" to the operation. To students, Stern might as well have said that South Africa was "like any other country" or sweatshops were "like any other factory."
Ithaca College was the beginning of the end for Sodexho's partnership with CCA. In order to preserve his company's contract at Ithaca, Sodexho CEO Pierre Bellon personally wrote Peggy Williams in early March to inform her that he had received authorization from his board to sell the CCA stock. On campuses, however, the campaign continued to escalate. The Ithaca sit-in was followed by a similar action at Arizona State University, a pair of lost contracts at Oberlin and American University, a week long sleep-out at Xavier University, a sit-in at University of Texas (held after final exams!), and a lost contract at DePaul University, along with dozens of smaller skirmishes at more than 60 campuses where the campaign had taken root.
On May 19, Dump Sodexho, which had by now received coverage in major national and international publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Evening Standard, made it into CCA's hometown paper. Just eight months earlier, CCA spokeswoman Susan Hart had described the student campaign as "ineffective," but in the The Tennessean article, which bore the headline "CCA majority shareholder to sell stocks: French food catering giant pressured by college students", the CEO John Ferguson made no attempt to hide the truth -- the students had won.
The official announcement came on May 22, during CCA's shareholder meeting, when Ferguson announced that Sodexho had reached an agreement to sell its shares, and Sodexho executive Jean Pierre Cuny had resigned from the CCA board of directors. The news was greeted with great enthusiasm by the odd assortment of students, corrections officers and community activists who had come out to protest the gathering.
The Sodexho victory was a major step forward, but hardly a solution to the problem of prison privatization, much less that of the larger prison-industrial complex. While losing the company's largest shareholder was undoubtedly embarrassing and somewhat painful for CCA, the Sodexho loss couldn't make up for the helping hand provided by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, in the form of lucrative contracts, and Wall Street, in the form of forbearance on CCA's loans. Meanwhile Sodexho, which was forced to abandon its position with CCA, had not yet renounced its global private prison ambitions, which the company continued to pursue through wholly-owned subsidiaries in the U.K. and Australia.
After a series of discussions, including a national student strategy conference attended by more than 50 activists, the Not With Our Money! campaign made two decisions. First, we decided to work with allies in Australia, France and the United Kingdom to get Sodexho out of the private prison industry for good. Although Sodexho executives assumed that American students would lose interest once the company divested from CCA, activists have continued to keep the heat on the company here, while in Europe, the campaign has just begun to heat up.
In October, a group of more than one hundred immigrants' rights and prison activists occupied a Sodexho owned tour-boat launch in Paris to protest the company's involvement in a number of highly controversial privatization schemes -- including the operation of private prisons and detention centers as well as a voucher scheme that advocates say exploits refugees. A week later, Maximal (the French version of the men's magazine Maxim) published a major feature story on the Sodexho-prison connection. Sodexho's troubles are far from over, as European activists begin to connect the dots and build alliances with U.S. comrades.
Meanwhile, Not With Our Money! is taking the campaign against the private prison industry in the U.S. to the next level by going after Lehman Brothers, a global investment bank that has become the #1 deal-maker for the private prison industry. While the rest of Wall Street kept its distance from the troubled industry, Lehman Brothers helped Cornell Corrections, the #3 private prison company, set up stock offer and an Enron-esque "special-purpose entity" that netted the prison company $217 million in additional capital.
This year, Lehman Brother is trying to pull off the biggest-ever private prison by helping Corrections Corporation of America refinance a $1 billion credit agreement. The catch is that Lehman Brothers, like Sodexho, does millions of dollars worth of business with public and non-profit institutions where ordinary people have leverage.
Students at a half-dozen schools -- from North Carolina State University to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to the University of California at Riverside, kicked off the Lehman campaign with Valentine's Day actions (featuring candy hearts printed with messages like "Prison = $$ 4 Lehman"). Meanwhile in New York, where Lehman makes millions underwriting public bonds, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice has targeted Lehman for a Passover picket (complete with giant inflated frogs representing the plagues that may be visited upon Lehman if they don't get their house in order).
So far, Lehman has chosen to ignore protests against the company's involvement in the prison industry, but that may be a bad move on the part of the investment bank if history is any judge. As Sodexho is still discovering, feelings on prison issues run high. The food service company just lost a contract at Cabrillo Community College, where activists found the company's current global prison operations as repugnant as Sodexho's former investments in CCA. Two Jesuit campuses, Wheeling Jesuit University and Xavier University, are also reconsidering their own relationship to the company.
Clearly, the best strategy for companies invested in prisons for profit is to get out, before it's too late.
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