Prison Labor

Prison Labor

Just about every aspect of collegiate life can be leased for corporate profit these days. Increasingly, universities subcontract to large companies services they used to provide themselves; on campuses nationwide, corporate logos are becoming as ubiquitous as backpacks, as Barnes & Noble takes over the student bookstore, and McDonald’s and Starbucks set up shop in the student commons. It is becoming more and more usual for behemoth management companies to run universities’ janitorial, laundry, and dining hall services.

These practices have, at many schools, met with passionate student resistance; at Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, SUNY-Albany, and elsewhere, students staged sit-ins this spring to urge their university administrations to stop tolerating contractors’ exploitation of workers on campus. Students objected to illegal union-busting practices and the failure to pay workers a living wage, among other abuses. And students at many more schools occupied buildings—some even went on hunger strikes—to protest egregious conditions in factories that make hats and sweatshirts bearing their school logos. University administrators that do business with Sodexho-Marriott—the largest campus dining hall management company in the world—are beginning to face student objections to yet another ugly kind of corporate profiteering—private prisons.

Sodexho-Marriott’s parent company, the Paris-based Sodexho Alliance, is, with a 17 percent share in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest investor in the U.S. private prison industry. Prisoners housed in private facilities make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison and jail population; that makes private prisons a logical target for activists who object to the current incarceration mania. (Although violent crime in the United States has been steadily declining since 1994, the incarceration rate has skyrocketed. With two million people behind bars, the United States is second only to Russia in its incarceration rate.) And many do. Students in New York and California have for several years been protesting what they see as public spending on prisons at the expense of higher education—as if the state, rather than investing in their generation’s future, is investing against it.

But there are other reasons to oppose private prisons. Though of course those objecting to the prison boom don’t like public prisons either, student activists find it particularly disturbing that corporations should be making a profit from policies that are not in the public interest—such as excessive prison sentences and the incarceration of nonviolent offenders. Furthermore, though they are relatively new, Wackenhut and CCA, the two largest management companies, already have a bad track record: they skimp on safety, guard salaries, and education programs. Such “economies” may save the company money, but they result in institutions that violate human rights and ...