College Students Oppose Private Prisons

Carolyn Bigda

This article is from the September/October 2001 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the September/October 2001 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

Dump Sodexho Marriott. That was the message students at over 50 U.S. colleges sent this spring as they protested against university contracts with companies that they believe operate private prisons. According to the Prison Moratorium Project, a national campaign against private prisons, "greed, inhumanity and incompetence characterize the [prison] industry today. Private prisons tend to be poorly managed and largely unregulated, while private prison guards are underpaid, unorganized, and minimally trained. As a consequence, mistreatment of prisoners [is] all too common." In the last two years, student protesters have taken up the cause, pressuring university administrators to end their contracts with the food-service provider Sodexho Marriott, due to its corporate association with private prison operations. At a few schools, such as American University and Evergreen State College, the protest campaigns have succeeded.

Sodexho Marriott came under attack for being a subsidiary of Sodexho Alliance, a Paris-based food and management services company that owned over 10% of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA is one of the largest owners and operators of private prisons in the United States. While Sodexho Alliance sold its CCA shares this past June, the corporation recently acquired Australian Integrated Management Services and United Kingdom Detention Services, which contract with prisons in their respective countries.

Activists argue that their universities' exclusive and often mandatory meal contracts force students to fund the private prison operator. The Prison Moratorium Project argues that "each year, students and parents provide more than $1.2 billion in revenues to Sodexho Marriott, further enriching Sodexho Alliance."

The national umbrella group Not With Our Money: Students Stop Prisons-for-Profit has helped students organize protests on campuses across the country. In one of the largest collaborative efforts, activists held a Student Labor Solidarity Day of Action last April 4, mobilizing boycotts and organizing forums connecting groups from different universities.

Students at American University organized one of the most energetic anti-Sodexho campaigns. Chris Biggs of the university student activist group, The Movement, described months of "letters to the school paper, tons of flyers, banners, chalking on university property, and meetings with key decision makers in the university administration to get student support and educate the administration." American announced on April 9 that it would not renew its contract with Sodexho Marriott. The administration cited "social responsibility" as one of the reasons for its decision and Director of Retail and Leasing Operations Hillary Dell said that "student concerns were factored in" to the move.

Sodexho Alliance divested from CCA for equally vague reasons, stating that the investment was "no longer in line with our strategic objectives." Sodexho Marriott's Vice President of Public Relations, Leslie Aun, acknowledged that student movements did have some influence on Sodexho's actions. "We try to be responsive to clients. We heard that it was an issue for them. We're there to solve problems." Chris Biggs believes the real issue for the company, as ever, was the bottom line: "I do not think that the protests caused any kind of crisis of conscience among the corporate elite. The real question is whether or not Sodexho Alliance believed that the protests could equal a loss in profit."

Since Sodexho Alliance no longer owns stock in CCA, it technically does not own any prisons. Kevin Pranis, coordinator for Not With Our Money: Students Stop Prisons-for-Profit, however, argues that the company's services for prisons in Australia and the U.K. include operational and management functions. "The important issue from our standpoint," he says, "is that the prisons are privately 'operated'—not just food and groundskeeping, but also security and overall management—just as Corrections Corporation of America privately 'operates' some prisons that are publicly owned, with the same consequences in terms of human rights." Given the resolve at Not With Our Money to map out the "incriminating" connections between Sodexho Alliance and private prisons, the battle is surely far from over.

Carolyn Bigda is a Dollars & Sense intern and an undergraduate at Northwestern University.