Grassroots Leadership's roots in prison divestment, Part I: Kymberlie's story

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s students across the U.S. and Canada kicked off a student-led movement against prison profiteering and the Prison-Industrial Complex more broadly.  By coincidence, long before the trajectory of their professional lives as advocates against our country’s over-reliance on criminalization and immigration detention was clear, two Grassroots Leadership staff members got their organizing feet wet as participants in their respective campus’ campaigns to end university contracts that facilitated prison profiteering,    

We release this three-part series now to harken back to our own roots in the struggle(s) for true justice, and to spotlight the re-emergence of a flourishing prison divestment movement in which students, again, are playing  a central role.  It is in this context that Grassroots Leadership and our long-time partner Enlace, are anchoring major national actions against CCA and the GEO Group, the country’s largest private prison companies, in May 2015.  We hope  that this series will elucidate the historic power that individuals have had on challenging the for-profit prison industry, and to compel participation in the exciting events on the horizon.

Kymberlie's Story, Earlham College, Class of ‘02

When I entered college in 1997, all first-year students were required to live on campus and to enroll in a meal plan.  The sole dining hall at my tiny, midwestern, liberal arts Quaker alma mater continues to be affectionately known as “SAGA”, the name of a food service provider whose contract ended with the school in the 1960’s.  Despite numerous subsequent food service contracts, every Earlham College student knows the dining hall as SAGA, a physical place with a giant hearth and the words, “They gathered sticks and kindled a fire and left it burning,” inscribed on the mantle.  It is the site of countless senior pranks, cross-country team nude lunchtime sprints, and the (seemingly) eternal home of Jo the Bouncer, the elderly SAGA staff person who defends weekly meal limits on her little swipe machine like a hawk (I graduated in 2002 and she’s apparently still there). It is the physical and social epicenter of our campus where one discovers their Earlham family and dines with them three times daily.  “SAGA” is central to an Earlhamite’s lexicon; it is a cultural reference to the experience of our time together. When I was a student, “Sodexo”, the university dining services giant, also became part of our lexicon, and its presence on our campus happens to have informed the trajectory of what has ended up being my current career.

The Story of Sodhexho

Sodexo (also known as Sodexho, Sodexho-Marriott, Sodexho Marriott Services, and Sodexho Alliance) gained infamy when it was uncovered that in 1994 the company entered into a strategic alliance with the world’s largest private, for-profit prison corporation, Corrections Corporation of America.  The story of the alliance between the two companies is well-documented in the book Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor (2003, Routledge Press).  Through a series of mergers and international acquisitions, Sodexho and CCA cultivated a partnership that bound the two companies in a myriad of ways.  According to Prison Nation, “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…”  This relationship included:

  • Joint ownership of private prison subsidiaries in the U.K. and Australia.

  • Interlocking boards of directors. Sodexho was given the only contractually guaranteed seat on CCA's board of directors, while top CCA executives served not only on Sodexho Alliance's board of directors, but also on the board of Sodexho's U.S. subsidiary, Sodexho-Marriott Services.

  • Mutual membership in, and financial sponsorship of, the American Legislative Exchange Council -- a right-wing state lobby group that pushes prison privatization and "tough-on-crime" legislation along with a host of other conservative causes.  

Throughout the 1980’s and into the 90’s the private prison industry flourished, benefitting from “tough on crime” sentencing policies and the war on drugs. Rates of incarceration in the United States sky-rocketed, and the private for-profit prison industry grew along with it.  After tremendous growth during its early life, the convergence of three major factors facilitated what was a near-fatal fall from grace for the for-profit private prison industry in the late 1990’s. Mismanagement scandals at for-profit carceral facilities across the country led to highly publicized fines and lawsuits, poisoning the well for the private prison industry at large.  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."  The company’s closest industry ally, Sodexho, worked closely with the prison company to get it back in the black, but by the late 1990’s, student activists had already made the connection between their food service provider and the expanding Prison Industrial Complex.  

Within a single year, organized under the moniker Not With Our Money!, more than 60 U.S. and Canadian university and college campuses had launched Dump Sodhexo campaigns.  These coordinated campaigns proliferated the tactic of divestment, advocating that their respective educational institutions relinquish stock in the PIC, as well as end food service contracts with Sodexho due to the company’s deep ties to CCA.   

The (Incomplete) Story of Divestment as a Tactic

Unlike personal, individual acts to impact social change, divestment efforts focus on the large systems that undergird the status quo.  The theory of divestment is based on the notion of starving the monster, so to speak, in order to deflate its power.  Divestment is effective as a complement to other tactics, including grassroots organizing and direct action.  Many political movements of our time -- Apartheid South Africa, Fossil Fuels, Israeli Occupation to name a few -- have included divestment components in which activist groups have called on educational institutions, governments, and financial institutions to end relationships with corporations who are profiting from that movement’s targeted injustice (criminalization and incarceration, in the case of the PIC).

How student activism and divestment impacted my life

At Earlham, similar to our counterparts at other colleges and universities, Dump Sodexho was not a stand-alone effort, but was linked to a living wage campaign for our food services workers.  “[The campaign] waged by college students not only took the industrial part of the "Prison-Industrial Complex" head-on, but 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!”

Rooted in Quaker values of simplicity, the humanity of all people, and the obligation to “speak truth to power” against injustice, my classroom education at Earlham provided me with plenty of opportunity to engage deeply in questions of inequality, capitalism, corporate power, environmental stewardship, and global solidarity struggles.  Earlham’s Sodexho campaign allowed me to apply my classroom education as a Peace and Global Studies major to a student-led outcry to administrators and other holders of power that we did not want our tuition being used to line the pockets of CEO’s who relied on ever-increasing rates of incarceration and shortchanging workers to turn a profit.  It felt powerful, as a young person, to recognize the ability that we had to challenge the status quo, to advocate for our ethics and morals, and to know that we were part of a national movement to shine a spotlight on the atrocities of mass incarceration.

Stay tuned for Part II: Bob's Story, and Part III: the current student-led prison divestment movement.