Opinion: Scripps’ support of prison labor is shameful

Let’s talk about something I love: food. No, just kidding. Today, we’re actually talking about prisons, something I manifestly do not like. However, the special relationship between these two things might shock you. Reader discretion is advised.

The contractor behind Scripps College’s Malott dining hall, Sodexo, should be fidgeting right now. Our ‘friends’ in the multinational giant have other loves besides outdoor seating for those unfortunate nights when you make eye contact with your ex in the veggie line: private prisons.

The problem with prisons, of course, is that they are institutions that drive vulture capitalism, white supremacy, and slavery in the 21st century.  

These are quite bold claims, and thus some background is warranted before the Claremont Independent takes that quote way out of context. Though slavery was formally outlawed by the 13th Amendment, a market-friendly provision is made: Enslavement is legal “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

When a predatory private sector realized it could exploit this tiny clause in the constitution to swallow up human bodies for cheap labor (which it needed after abolition), it set its sights on the convict leasing system, a blatant iteration of slavery and a failure of Reconstruction. This, too, was done away with, but the market demand for such unfree labor did not disappear. From here, private prisons emerged.

The ensuing mass incarceration, which found its heyday in the ’90s (at a time when crime was actually decreasing), was fed by the fear of racial minorities so becoming of the cocaine-friendly business executives and pilates moms of white America. The main reason for a person’s imprisonment was, of course, drug offenses. People of color were targeted and nabbed and thrown into warehouses for doing the things everyone else was doing with impunity. When one in four black men can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives, it doesn’t take a W.E.B. Du Bois to fill in the dotted line of historical continuity from the slave trade to the chain gangs.  

Imprisoning poor people soon became a lucrative industry. (They are also exploitative to the nth degree, rife with sexual abuse and textbook-case extortion). Corrective institutions opened up a wide pool of cheap labor to private companies.

Guess which contractor got the bid: the one with a strong union and benefits for its salaried employees, or the one that uses modern day slavery? (Hint: It’s the bad one). The school-to-prison pipeline feeds this penal system, which shores up its investors’ assets. As any professor of economics will tell you, human behavior is all about incentives, and this time the incentive is coerced human capital.

As a classic example, the Corrections Corporations of America has spent millions on lobbying efforts to keep the law tough on crime, as leniency “could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for the correctional facilities to house them.”

That’s right, the bankers are bankrolling for-profit prisons in the inner cities, not schools. Schools simply just don’t produce workforces of politically impotent, easily exploitable laborers.

So, we now can recognize why the rich want to build more prisons. However, it’s curious that townies would allow, much less subsidize prisons being constructed within their city limits, as penitentiaries somewhat lack the charming aesthetic of small-town America.

As it turns out, there are other factors involved in municipal decision-making. I am, of course, referring to the inverse of the NIMBY principle, the somewhat less nimble-on-the-tongue YIMBYBMAWOLWRTNBAFPOTBDATDYSAPWBTJBTFSD (Yes In My Backyard Because My Hometown And Way Of Life Was Reduced To Nothing But A Flaming Pile of Tires By Deindustrialization And Those Damned Yankees Say A Prison Will Bring The Jobs Back To Fuckneckville, South Dakota) principle. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Which brings us back to the Scrippshank Redemption. Sodexo continues to hum along in the backgrounds of Malott’s administrative affairs. The conglomerate currently manages 122 prisons in a wide range of countries. Other fun factoids about Sodexo include its lax regulations pertaining to horses in the beef factory and their HMP Northumberland penitentiary in the U.K. apparently having devolved into some Lord of the Flies-esque dystopia.

The irony of ironies here is that Scripps’ core curriculum includes “Are Prisons Obsolete” by Angela Davis, a seminal texting breaking down the prison-industrial complex and the racism that is inextricable to its maintenance.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Sodexo’s contract with Scripps is coming up in 2020. We, as students, have purchasing power. When Pomona College students made a fuss, Sodexo was dropped. In fact, it is because of massive student protests in the ’90s that Sodexo sold its shares in the CCA and hightailed it to France, where it is now overseeing its massive operations with a cigarette in one hand and a baguette in the other.

Who knows? Maybe we can push Sodexo to terminate their operation of private prisons. We have a real chance to effect a genuine change again, and if we make enough of our voices heard, the powers that be will listen.

If they do not, then I hope you all will join me in the Frary omelette line.

*Important note: Sodexo manages the dining hall, but the cafeteria workers (all very lovely people) are employed by Scripps and thus unaffiliated. Remember to be mad at the right people.

Sean Burke PZ ’21 is a cranky id-machine from the North Shore of Massachusetts. One time, his old band, Rarig’s Kid, almost played at a Jill Stein rally, but she heard their music and summarily rescinded the invitation. He can be reached on Twitter @RachaelRaytheon.

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