Olympics caterer cashing in on incarceration

Wednesday, September 20, 2000 - 11:00

Sodexho Alliance, a multinational based in France, and its Australian
division, Sodexho Australia, won the contract to cater for several Olympic
venues — Stadium Australia, the Olympic village (for sponsors and the media)
and the Sydney Opera House, the starting point for the triathlon. Sodexho
will also cater for the Paralympics.
 Picture

Both Sodexho Alliance and Sodexho Australia are involved in private
prisons, through their connections to Corrections Corporation of America
(CC-Am) and Corrections Corporation of Australia (CC-Aust).

The private prison industry is being vertically integrated. CC-Am and
its subsidiaries are world leaders in the design, construction and operation
of private prisons, while Sodexho Alliance and its subsidiaries provide
services such as catering, grounds keeping, plant operations and maintenance,
asset and materials management, and laundry services.


Private prisons


Founded in 1983, CC-Am pioneered the prisons-for-profits industry. Carefully
selecting the most lucrative prison contracts, slashing labour costs and
various other strategies caused the value of CC-Am's shares to soar from
US$50 million in 1986 to more than US$3.5 billion in 1997. The company
controls about half of the private prison industry in the US and worldwide.

Sodexho sometimes tries to distance itself from CC-Am. "We own no prisons.
We operate no prisons", said a spokesperson for Sodexho's US subsidiary,
Sodexho Marriott Services.

However, Sodexho Alliance owns 48% of Sodexho Marriott Services and
owns shares in CC-Am. Moreover, CC-Am and Sodexho Alliance openly acknowledge
that they have been involved in an "international strategic alliance"
since 1994 to pursue prison profiteering opportunities outside the US.

CC-Am and Sodexho Alliance each have 50% ownership of Corrections Corporation
of Australia and UK Detention Services and plan to participate in future
international joint ventures. CC-Am has also operated a private prison
in Puerto Rico since 1995.

Australia was an obvious target for CC-Am and Sodexho — the prison population
here increased by 300% for women and 150% for men from 1976 to 1998. And
where better to start than Queensland, with the fastest incarceration growth
rate anywhere in the world?

CC-Aust was incorporated in Queensland in 1989 and has operated the
Borallon medium security men's prison since 1990. Borallon was the first
privately managed prison in Australia.

CC-Aust has also operated, since 1996, the first private women's prison
in the world outside of the US and the first private prison in Victoria:
the Metropolitan Women's Correctional Centre. It has also run prisoner
transport and prisoner security in courts in Victoria since 1994.

In 1999, CC-Aust won a contract to build and operate a private prison
in Western Australia, the first private prison in that state, and it has
also won a contract to provide prisoner transport and certain security
functions in WA.

From architectural design to management attitudes and public relations
spin, many of the elements of Australia's private prisons are transplants
from the US. In terms of the percentage of prisoners in private prisons,
Australia is now the world "leader" by a country mile.


Deer Park


CC-Aust's most controversial prison is the Metropolitan Women's Correctional
Centre, at Deer Park in outer Melbourne, which has been the focus of heated
public debate since it opened in August 1996.

Four months after it opened, warders lost control of a violent incident
at the MWCC. Subsequent investigations found that the prison was operating
without adequate fire protocols, that staff were unprepared for unrest
and that details of the incident were kept out of the public eye for six
months.

On March 30, 1997, Cheryl Black, an intellectually disabled prisoner
on remand, was found dead in MWCC. The same year, CC-Aust was fined $100,000
because of problems with illicit drugs and the number of self-mutilations
at MWCC.

On September 11, 1998, the day after the state government launched a
review of prison safety, Paula Richardson, aged 23, was found hanging in
her cell at MWCC.

Freedom of information applications for reports on the numbers of attempted
suicides and incidents of self-mutilation at MWCC were refused on the basis
of "commercial confidentiality". Hundreds of freedom of information applications
have been lodged to gain information about CC-Aust's operations at MWCC,
and hundreds have been rejected.

On March 18, 1999, the Age reported that the Victorian government
had been singled out by the International Labour Organisation for forcing
prisoners to work against their will for low pay, after a Gippsland company
complained of being undercut by prison labour.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions said that women at MWCC who refused
to work were moved to less desirable quarters. According to the People's
Justice Alliance, the maximum wage a woman can earn if working full time
at MWCC is $6.50 per day.

In October, Victoria's Security and Emergency Services Group used tear
gas to control prisoners at MWCC.

A 1999 report by the Victorian auditor-general found that a number of
serious deficiencies in the prisoner management process existed, requiring
remedial action, and that the "limited" range of information dealing
with the prison industry communicated to the Victorian parliament fell
"far short of the level necessary to effectively meet its accountability
obligations".

The auditor-general's report found that, as at February 28, 1999, the
number of self-mutilations and attempted suicides at MWCC exceeded the
"acceptable" limit specified in the Prison Services Agreement by 91%,
and assaults on prisoners by other prisoners exceeded the "acceptable"
limit by 20%.

According to a July 2000 report in the Sunday Age, five women
were cut down after they attempted to hang themselves at MWCC in the lead-up
to Christmas 1999. A suicide prevention training scheme for staff at MWCC
was financed not by CC-Aust, but by a $75,000 state government grant.

In July 2000, the Victorian government asked CC-Aust to fix "widespread
systemic" management failures at MWCC or risk penalties including termination
of its contract. In the same month, the Victorian government issued a third
"default of contract" notice to CC-Aust, following security and contract
breaches.


Endemic problems


The problems at MWCC are not teething problems, as CC-Aust likes to portray
them. Nor are the problems peculiar to MWCC. They are endemic to prisons
in general and private prisons in particular.

Privatisation has exacerbated problems in the prison system and introduced
new problems. Private prisons frequently suffer from inadequate staffing
levels, inadequate staff training and deunionisation policies, all of which
exacerbate already high levels of violence and deaths.

Conflicts of interest abound in private prisons. For example, prison
authorities hold considerable influence over the outcome of parole hearings,
and private operators might find it profitable to extend a prisoner's sentence.
Private operators might also find it profitable to downplay problems, so
as to avoid penalty provisions stipulated in their contracts.

Prison privatisation also allows governments to avoid responsibility
for the running of the criminal justice system, while allowing private
companies to exert influence over law and order policies, through lobbying,
donating to political parties or whipping up law and order hysteria through
the media.

Any attempt by governments at genuine reform of the "law and order"
system might also be thwarted or limited by contractual obligations to
private prison operators. Public oversight is hampered by the greater-than-usual
secrecy in private prisons, justified by "commercial confidentiality",
and by frequent use of threats of defamation action against critics and
the media.

The US-based group Prison Moratorium Project is working with allies
in the student, labour and criminal justice reform movements to launch
the "Not with our money" campaign against private prison companies, focusing
on the link between CC-Am and Sodexho.

On April 4, students at 10 US campuses launched a national boycott against
Sodexho, timed to coincide with the "National Student-Labor Day of Action".
Seventeen students at the State University of New York's Albany campus
were arrested after occupying the college president's office for five hours.

Sodexho already had a bad name at the campus after three students were
infected with E. coli bacteria, forcing campus officials to close
the cafeteria.

Since April, the campaign has spread to another 30 campuses. "Sodexho
Marriott is clearly very worried; they phoned us even before we really
did anything", says Kevin Pranis from the Prison Moratorium Project. "It's
a very competitive environment in the food service business, and I think
they've seen the potential for a student movement to really take off around
bad corporate practices."

So far, the campaign against CC-Am/Sodexho has been limited to the US
and Canada, but since both the problem (over-incarceration in general and
the rapid expansion of private prisons worldwide) and the targets (Sodexho
Alliance, which operates in 66 countries, and CC-Am and its subsidiaries)
are multinational, the Prison Moratorium Project hopes to make links with
activists around the world.

For more information, contact the Prison Moratorium Project, c/- DSA,
180 Varick St, 12th Floor, NY, NY 10014. Email Kevin Pranis: <kpranis@igc.org>
or <nwomcampaign@hotmail.com>
or visit the web site: <http://www.nomoreprisons.org>.

By Jim Green

From GLW issue 421