The Prison Industry on Your Campus

By Elisa Oceguera and Maggie Sager, American Friends Service Committee

In response to escalating pressure from students and communities, both Columbia and the University of California recently divested from for-profit prison companies. But private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group aren’t the only ones profiting from mass incarceration. In fact, companies profiting from the prison industrial complex have found their way into almost every corner of campus. Here are seven unexpected places you might find prison profiteers in your classrooms, on your desk, and even in your wallet:

  1. Your school supplies

Everything from your post-its and scotch tape to your weekly planner and highlighters is likely produced by 3M. In fact, with almost 5,000 consumer products under more than 15 brand names, chances are most of your stuff is produced by 3M — including bandages, cleaning products, and even sponges.

Do you know what else 3M produces? It produces high-tech security and surveillance products such as ankle monitors. 3M plays a major role in the global electronic monitoring industry. The Israel-based subsidiary, 3M Electronic Monitoring, makes electronic surveillance products used in municipal, state, and federal correctional facilities. The company has been criticized for inaccuracy and false reports of its electronic monitoring products. 3M is also complicit in weapons manufacturing through its contracts with U.S. Department of Defense and its long partnership with the federal prisoner labor program.

2. Your meal plan

Do you have a meal plan, even one you never use? Have you ever eaten at your university’s cafeteria? Chances are you’ve crossed paths with Aramark. The food service company operates in universities throughout the United States and Canada. While no stranger to controversy over its food quality and treatment of workers, Aramark is also well known for being one of the largest prison food service providers on the continent. It operates in over 600 correctional institutions across the United States and Canada, and serves more than 1,000,000 meals to prisoners each day.

Aramark has been confronted for its severe health and safety violations by lawmakers, citizens’ groups, and the media. In 2015, prisoners filed suit about food safety in a federal court. In 2009, and again in 2014, Aramark food quality triggered prison riots in prisons, causing damage and injuries to both prisoners and guards.

3. If you thought Aramark was bad, you haven’t heard about Sodexo.

Another university food service provider, Sodexo, has made headlines for quality issues. The company has been responsible for listeria outbreaks and even the discovery of horsemeat in its food supply. What might shock you, though, is that Sodexo actually operates private prisons and immigrant detention centers around the world.

Up until 2001, Sodexo owned a large stake in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the notorious prison operator that now controls nearly half of the United States’ private prisons. After pressure from students at Pomona College to drop the university’s contract with Sodexo, the company sold its CCA shares. But Sodexo has only expanded the number of detention centers it operates abroad. Sodexo manages 122 prisons in at least eight countries, including Belgium, Chile, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, as well as prisons and immigrant detention centers clustered in the United Kingdom.

4. Your ATM

Having an ATM on campus can be convenient when you’re running from one class to another. But banks like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America (BoA) have embedded themselves into the prison industry.

Both BoA and Chase hold exclusive no-bid contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide correction facilities release cards. Prisons transfer amounts left in prisoner accounts onto release cards, which can be used as a regular debit card outside of prison. Release cards are controversial for their predatory lending practices. Prisoner rights advocates, such as the Human Rights Defense Center and Prison Policy Initiative, argue release cards “financially abuse” an already vulnerable population — forcing consumers to pay exorbitant fees in order to gain access to money they saved while incarcerated.

Wells Fargo, the U.S.’s largest bank, has an unsavory reputation for predatory lending aimed at people of color, and its role in the mortgage crisis. It is also deeply tied to the prison industry as a member of what activists call the “Million Shares Club,” a group of financial investors who each own more than 1,000,000 shares in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the largest for-profit prison corporations in the country.

5. Campus security

While some universities use actual police to monitor their campuses, to disastrous effects, others opt for private security firms instead. One such firm, with contracts across the globe, is G4S.

G4S is the largest security company in the world and it provides services to private companies, and public institutions like schools, banks, hospitals, and even the United Nations. At the same time, G4S is infamously known for its role in the prison industry, including: management of prisons, juvenile and immigrant detention facilities, transportation of prisoners and detainees, deportation services and electronic tagging and monitoring. The company is facing numerous lawsuits for reports of sexual abuse, use of excessive force, and recurring riots in their facilities.

6. Your Internet Connection

If you access the internet through your university, or even at home, there’s a strong possibility you are using CenturyLink. As the third largest telecommunications company in the U.S., CenturyLink has millions of institutional and private customers, including many college campuses. The company also provides television and phone services under names that might be more familiar to you, such as DIRECTV.

The problem? CenturyLink is one of the largest phone service providers to prisons in the U.S., “serving” over 250,000 prisoners nationwide in 13 states. CenturyLink provides Inmate Calling Services (ICS) and video visitation through commissions (aka kickbacks) in its contracts with each correctional facility. Phone call and video visitation services connect people in prison to the outside world. These services extract a very high cost (up to $1/minute) on the incarcerated individuals or their families, making it harder to keep in touch.

7. Your University

At this point, we’ve touched on your study supplies, your food, your bank, campus security, and even your internet connection. What could even be left?

Your university itself.

In order to maximize their funds and ensure their longevity, universities set aside a substantial amount of money for investment. Your university endowment is likely invested in anything from prison services profiteers to the prison real estate companies.

Students, faculty and community members are organizing around the country to demand transparency, accountability, and divestment. The recent divestment victories at Columbia and the University of California are just the beginning of what is needed to make sure our academic institutions are not bolstering the prison system and those who profit from it.

Educate yourself! Check out the American Friends Service Committee’s Investigate Tool to find out how your college or university is invested in the prison industry, and what you can do to organize for change.

Elisa Oceguera is the Joe Franko Economic Activism Intern at the American Friends Service Committee. She is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis. Maggie Sager is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. She is a former intern with the American Friends Service Committee.