President Bush, in one of his defining campaign speeches, titled "The Duty of Hope: Armies of Compassion":
"At Inner-Change - a faith-based program run by Prison Fellowship inside a Texas prison - inmates are up at 5 a.m. and fill their days with work and study rather than soap operas.
"At Teen Challenge - a national drug treatment program - one official says, 'We have a rule: If you don't work, you don't eat.' This is demanding love - at times, a severe mercy," he said, which sort of contradicts something he told a different crowd less than two months later at the Dallas Center in Iowa.
""We are too good a people to use food as a weapon," Bush said.
Doublespeak notwithstanding, the former governor of a state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, said America's prisons are "institutions, at their best, (that) treat people as moral individuals, with responsibilities and duties, not as wards or clients or dependents or numbers."
A growing number of college students are learning to see through this deception after the French multinational corporation Sodexho Alliance took over the US operations of Marriott Management Services from the Marriot Group in March 1998. This move made SA the largest institutional food server in America, with $4.5 billion in annual revenues (including the Barnstable High/Middle School cafeteria).
The merger linked student meal plans to the prison-for-profit industry, since Sodexho Alliance owns the biggest block of stock in the Correctional Corporation of America.
For the past two years, college students across the nation have organized a national campaign to boot the Sodexho Marriott food service off their campuses. The Not-With-Our-Money campaign is calling on students to reject Marriott meal plans, and to organize sit-ins and protests. The goal is to compel college administrators and universities to cancel their contracts because of the prison link.
At American University, a successful student campaign has been mounted and last week the university announced it will not renew its contract with Sodexho Marriot.
The student campaign was "a factor in the decision but not the driving factor," said American University assistant treasurer Scott Byers. Byers, who met with student activists to discuss their concerns, said general student dissatisfaction with Marriott was the main reason the school will find another food service provider.
But with student activists on campus handing out flyers, collecting 800 signatures for a petition in less than two weeks and setting up information tables on the private-prison connection, the general student dissatisfaction that Byers describes can be at least partially attributed to student activism.
"We've shown that student activists can hold prison profiteers accountable," says American University junior Adam Choka. "People who profit off of people's misery will pay a price in lost student meal plan contracts."
According to one of the campaign's leading organizer's, Kevin Pranis of the Prison Moratorium Project, student activists have organized campaigns at more than 50 colleges across the country. As a result, five colleges have ended their relationship with the Sodexho Marriott conglomerate, including the State University of New York at Albany.
"People have always made money building prisons, but since the private companies have come into the picture, prison building is being used as economic development," says Judy Green, an independent researcher and a leading expert on the private-prison industry.
Private-prison companies are all about the bottom line, she says. "Their first obligation is to their stockholders." From 1995 to 1998, the Correctional Corporation of America was among the top five growth companies being traded on Wall Street.
Over the past two years, however, private-prison stock has plummeted. Yet, the federal government is offering more than $2 billion worth of new contracts for new private prisons, Greene says.
The utopian notion that the free market is the answer to all our social problems blinds many to the drastic harm it causes. Even John Gray, one of Britain's leading conservative intellectuals, warns: "In the United States free markets have contributed to social breakdown on a scale unknown in any other developed country....Social order has been propped up by a policy of mass incarceration. No other advanced industrial country, aside from post-communist Russia, uses imprisonment as a means of social control on the scale of the United States."
Meanwhile, our president says: "America has tripled its prison population in the last 15 years. That is a necessary and effective role of government." I suppose this is "compassion" in action.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist.
Copyright © 2001 Cape Cod Times