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PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann quoted in article on Sodexho

McGill Daily (Canada), Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann quoted in article on Sodexho - McGill Daily (Canada) 2007

November 26, 2007

McGill food service provider dips into for-profit prisons

Sodexho Inc. makes millions running private prisons, faces student boycotts since 2000

By Max Halparin

The McGill Daily

At Macdonald campus’s Centennial Centre cafeteria, students can purchase a classic two-egg breakfast all day for just $4.20, taxes included. Though the cafeteria is a relatively small operation, it is run by Sodexho Inc., a massive multinational food services company that also operates private, for-profit prisons and detention centres.

Sodexho’s presence at McGill is minimal compared to that of well-known food-service giant Chartwells, but with revenues exceeding $17.6-billion in 2005-2006, Sodexho is one of the largest food-provision companies in the world. Last year, "Correctional Services" accounted for two per cent of its total revenue.

In an interview with Vancouver-based Stark Raven radio last month, Alex Friedmann, Associate Editor of the magazine Prison Legal News, explained that the nature of for-profit detention centres facilitates poor-quality meals and services for inmates.

"[Companies’ that run private prisons] sole interest is to bolster their bottom line and to make profit for their shareholders,” Friedmann said. “If you have to do that by cutting corners, or by reducing benefits and wages paid to your staff ... or by skimping on food portions or quality, then that’s what you do."

Sodexho has faced student boycotts since 2000, and recent reports reveal overcrowding and hunger strikes at its Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre in London, England.

Friedmann said that professional corrections officials, like guards and wardens, understand the importance of food in prisons and the consequences it has on prison life, but that food-service companies like Sodexho – which make huge profits from corrections facilities – are not interested in the public good.

"Their interest is not in the welfare or benefit of the public, the prisoners, or even their employees, really," he said.

Incidentally, the 2006 Corporate Responsibility Report from Sodexho’s U.K. and Ireland faction stated that just 54 per cent of its employees actually enjoy going to work.

Similar reports from the last two years are filled with idyllic pictures, quotes from various executives championing Sodexho’s efforts toward sustainability and a greater diversity of employees, including affirmative actions plans.

In April of 2005, however, Sodexho paid out an $80-million settlement after thousands of its African-American employees sued the company on charges of racial discrimination, citing the company’s utter lack of African Americans in high-ranking management positions.

Boycott Sodexho

Two years ago, students at Laval University started a "Boycott Sodexho" campaign in protest of the school’s decision to award a large food contract to the company instead of accepting the student union’s offer. Boycott Sodexho is still active, although according to member Fadi Maalouf, it now focuses on encouraging students to frequent the 14 student-run coffee shops as opposed to one of the eight larger Sodexho-run cafeterias.

Maalouf explained that students were against the multinational corporation for reasons ranging from its high prices for mediocre food to its involvement in the U.S. military.

"When the campaign was on campus, we were just giving information about Sodexho’s involvement in the [Iraq] warzone, and that was frustrating for students to learn," Maalouf said. "They make millions of dollars and they cannot offer a good service to students?"

In 2000-2002, students from 60 campuses across the United States and Canada formed the "Not With Our Money" campaign. They succeeded in prompting Sodexho to divest its eight per cent stock holdings from Correctional Corporations of America, which runs private prisons in the U.S.

But Sodexho still owns private for-profit prisons, primarily in the U.K. – recent announcements on its web site boasts 20 and 25-year contracts to run prisons in Chile and Scotland, respectively – and it provides food and ancillary services for prisons around the world, including more than 450 in the United States alone, according to Friedmann.

Prison atmosphere

Rebecca Godderis, a PhD student at the University of Calgary who interviewed 16 prisoners as part of her research on food in prisons, echoed Friedmann’s comment about the significance of food, which can calm or excite inmates. She explained that food has a large impact on a prison’s atmosphere.

"Food is a constant reminder of the lack of control that these prisoners have over their lives," Godderis said, adding that one participant told her simply, "If the guys are well-fed, they’re more manageable."

Godderis did not comment about any specific corporations who run private prisons, but she maintained that because prisoners have very little recourse to take on mechanisms that control them, the general public should be concerned about what goes on inside the institutions.

"[Prisoners] are very marginalized, very controlled, and that means we should be more attentive to them," Godderis said.

Representatives from Sodexho Inc. declined to comment for this piece.