The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Prisons and Popcorn

By Jennie Kennedy, June 1, 2001, News

Student activists at the University of Texas should know in the next few weeks if their protests against the possible renewal of UT's contract with athletics concessions provider Sodexho Marriott Services managed to convince the administration to drop their contract with the company.

UT students, allied with activists at universities across the nation, have been protesting the university's relationship with the food service provider for the past month because the company's major shareholder, the France-based Sodexho Alliance, is the largest shareholder of the Corrections Corporation of America. CCA is the nation's largest provider of corrections and detention management services to government agencies, with 65 facilities in 21 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. More than 53,000 prisoners are currently housed in the company's prisons, according to CCA. The activists say the private prison industry is poorly managed and largely unregulated, while private prison guards are underpaid and minimally trained.

On May 16, six students were detained by UT police and given criminal trespass warnings after they refused to the leave the Main Building, which students occupied after an Intercollegiate Athletics Council for Men meeting at which bids for athletics services were discussed. Bob Libal, one of the UT students who participated in the protests, said the students were frustrated because members of the council were not told which company made which bid. UT officials said information about the bids was kept separate from the list of companies because the university is still in contract negotiations, and releasing that information publicly could hurt UT's competitive position in the bidding process. Protesters were concerned that this process, used in many UT contracts, would not enable council members to take factors such as Sodexho Marriott's relationship with private prisons into account.

About 60 students took their complaints straight to the office of Patricia Ohlendorf, UT's vice-president for legal affairs, who will ultimately make the decision on the concession contract. The students demanded that Ohlendorf sign a statement promising that if the company was found to have committed human rights violations, she would stop the contract.

"Our position is that we are not going to fade away," Libal said. "The administration expected that this was summer, and the students would trickle away. But we can still maintain numbers of 60-plus."

At around 5pm that afternoon, UT senior student affairs administrator Cheryl Wood ordered the students to leave the building, since it was closing, and ordered the students detained. Police literally had to drag out a couple of the students from the building, but no one was arrested because the protestors left after being issued their warnings. Wood said the university followed appropriate procedure.

"[The private prison industry] looks for every opportunity to cut corners," said Kevin Pranis of the Prison Moratorium Project. "The prisons are violent, and people are more likely to leave prisons worse than when they came in."

But Sodexho Marriott has said the students, many of who are involved with the Prison Moratorium Project, are unfairly targeting the company. Bill Hamman, president of Sodexho Marriott's education division, said in a statement that many of the activists' claims against the company "border on the absurd."

"Frankly we believe Sodexho Marriott Services is being singled out by this group simply because we are the largest providers of food services to colleges and universities in North America," Hamman said. "As such we offer a convenient target for this organization as it seeks to use students at campuses across the nation to further its political agenda."

The protests, which have gone on since early April, may be having some effect: Last week, Sodexho Alliance announced it has found a buyer for its shares in CCA. Also last week, the company's member of the CCA board of directors announced he was stepping down.

But the students aren't backing down yet; even if the company does get rid of its CCA stock, students point out that Sodexho still has major holdings in the Corrections Corporation of Australia, as well as in detention services in the UK.

Ohlendorf said she expects to make a decision regarding the contract in the next few weeks after getting a recommendation from the athletics council.

"It is something we are looking into very seriously," she said.

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