At 10 colleges across the country, students boycotted their dining halls last week. It was not soggy vegetables, mystery meat, or too few cereal choices that had riled the students. Rather, their beef was with Sodexho Marriott Services, the campus food provider, and its ties to the private prison industry.
At the State University of New York in Binghamton, activists fed fellow students bologna sandwiches to deter them from purchasing meals in the dining hall. Protesters at Hampshire College in Massachusetts held their own potluck lunch outside the school cafeteria, serving hundreds of plates of rice and beans.
And organizers at Indiana's Earlham College encouraged boycotters by staging a free pizza party with 130 cheese and vegan pies.
"It was more than that they just wanted a free lunch," says Esly Caldwell III, a 22-year-old activist at Earlham. "The students knew what was going on, and they boycotted because of the private prison connection." This one-day boycott marked the start of the first national student campaign against the private prison industry. Student activists are targeting Sodexho Marriottwhich operates on 900 campusesbecause its parent company, Sodexho Alliance, is a leading investor in Corrections Corporation of America, the world's largest for-profit prison company. The "Not With Our Money" campaign is not only urging students to skip meals at Sodexho Marriott's dining halls, but also trying to persuade college officials to replace the company with another food service provider.
Leading this campus crusade is a Manhattan-based group called the Prison Moratorium Project. Earlier this year, the five-year-old organization released No More Prisons, a hip-hop CD starring Chubb Rock, Grandmaster Caz, and dead prez and featuring performances by Harvard professor Cornel West and actor Danny Hoch. In recent months, the Prison Moratorium Project has been staging campus hip-hop shows, shipping boxes of "Dump Sodexho" stickers, and steering students to its Web site, www.nomoreprisons.org.
Kevin Pranis, board member of the Prison Moratorium Project, sees the anti-Sodexho campaign as a way of publicly challenging not only private prisons, but also the nation's recent incarceration explosion. The U.S. prison population has more than tripled since 1980 and now includes close to 2 million people. "The fight against prison expansion and uncontrolled incarceration is the civil rights struggle of our generation," Pranis says.
Corrections Corporation of America manages more than 73,000 beds in 82 facilities around the world. Twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia have contracts with CCA. Sodexho Alliance, which owns 48 percent of Sodexho Marriott, holds 17 percent of CCA's stock as well as 9 percent of the stock in Prison Realty Trust, CCA's sister company.
The indirect nature of this financial connection has led Kathy Boyle, spokesperson for Sodexho Marriott, to insist that her company is being unfairly targeted. "We own no prisons," Boyle says. "We operate no prisons. We have no workers in any prisons. The Prison Moratorium Project has targeted us because of feelings they have about CCA. . . . I admire their feeling. They have a good issue. But it's not my company that has any prison business."
In their anti-Sodexho literature, Prison Moratorium Project activists detail "CCA Horror Stories," including allegations of CCA staff sexually molesting a female inmate and lax security allowing prisoners to flee. Such management mishaps have long plagued state-run prisons, too, but these same incidents at private prisons may be more likely to spark controversy.
"There's a certain greed element that doesn't feel right when you juxtapose it with justice," says Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., group that opposes prison expansion. "It sounds right when you're selling cars; it doesn't sound right when you're imprisoning bodies."
In recent years, antisweatshop activism has swept college campuses. The leaders of the anti-Sodexho movement hope to capitalize on this momentum, so they timed their boycott to coincide with the "National Student-Labor Day of Action" on April 4. That day, SUNY-Albany students marched through the college's dining hall, chanting "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Sodexho Marriott has got to go!" Seventeen students were arrested after occupying the college president's office for five hours. Among SUNY-Albany students, Sodexho Marriott already had a bad name. Recently, three students were infected with E. coli bacteria, forcing college officials to close the cafeteria.
At Oberlin College in Ohio, the Sodexho Marriott boycott was only part of an ongoing anti-private prison campaign. Recently, students invited state prison guards to campus to speak about the perils of privately run prisons. (Many correction officers at state-run prisons oppose private prisons, which are not unionized.) Posters plastered around campus advertise an anti-Sodexho message: "Did you know Oberlin College has made you an accomplice to the incarceration of people for profit?"
Already, the campaign's leaders have spoken with Sodexho Marriott's executives. "Sodexho Marriott is clearly very worried; they called us up before we really did anything," says Pranis. "It's a very competitive environment in the food service business, and I think they've seen the potential for a student movement to really take off around bad corporate practices."
The anti-Sodexho Marriott campaign is the latest example of students protesting the prison boom by aiming at corporate targets. Earlier this year, for example, hundreds of high school and college students in California rallied against Proposition 21, a ballot initiative formally known as the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act." Proposition 21, which voters approved in March, broadened the definition of a gang and lowered the age children can be tried as adults to 14.
Funding the campaign for this ballot initiative were a slew of corporations, including Chevron, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Hilton. They gave money to show support for former governor Pete Wilson, who championed Proposition 21 when he was planning to join the presidential race. Instead, executives at Hilton and Pacific Gas & Electric had to cope with students storming their premises. Proposition 21 ultimately prevailed, though the battle against it laid the groundwork for future antiprison activism.
Now, Prison Moratorium Project leaders are getting ready to go to Washington, D.C., where thousands of protesters will converge this week to rally against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Anti-Sodexho activists will hand out their pamphlets and stickers. "There is a growing anticorporate sentiment on campuses," says Pranis. "College students and young people are looking for a way to express their concern." With their anti-Sodexho campaign, Pranis and his allies are giving students another target.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.