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The people who organized the country’s biggest prison strike against what they call modern-day slavery have planned their next target: corporate food service giant Aramark.
The $8.65 billion company is one of the country’s largest employers and serves hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches and other food to more than 100 million people a year at hospitals, sports stadiums, amphitheaters, schools and other facilities. It also provides meals for more than 500 correctional facilities across the country and has been the subject of complaints about maggots and rocks, sexual harassment, drug trafficking and other employee misconduct.
While Aramark says these allegations are inaccurate, on Jan. 14, leaders of the Free Alabama Movement, which led a national prison labor strike that began on Sept. 9, will bus from Alabama to Washington, D.C., to join a civil rights march and protest the company.
“They are the biggest benefactors of prisoners,” said the movement’s spokesman Pastor Kenneth Glasgow. “And they have a history of neglecting prisoners, serving bad food, not enough food, or undernourished food … this is why we have chosen to boycott.”
Siddique Abdullah Hasan, an inmate on death row at Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, Ohio, for his role in the state’s worst-ever prison riot in 1993, has gone on hunger strikes because he said Aramark food was cold and the quantities were half the appropriate serving. Prison authorities agreed to address the issues after a month of starvation, he said. Now he is pushing for halal meals.
“They have no accountability,” he said. “This is part of the increasing privatization of prisons and ancillary services that we’ve seen over the past few decades.” — David Fathi, ACLU
Glasgow said inmates across the nation are also planning to stand in solidarity with the movement’s march on Jan. 14, by refusing to work — again.
Last year, in the lead-up to the anniversary of the historic uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York that killed 43 people in 1971, Glasgow and his allies called on inmates to stop the prison labor system, which they say amounts to slavery.
While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, it did not apply to people who committed crimes – an exception that enabled plantation owners to replace slaves with prison workers and still exists today.
And in recent decades, the incarcerated population has grown to more than 2.2 million, the majority of them black or Latino, all of whom can be required to work for a lucrative industry that often pays them cents to the hour.
Businesses such as Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Revlon, AT&T, Target and many more, as well as governments, which use inmate labor for daily operations such as laundry and janitorial services, have used the cheap or free labor. And private companies such as Aramark and Trinity Services Group, another major food vendor for prisons, are paid millions of dollars to take over government operations.
“It used to be that prison food was prepared and served by [government] employees, sometimes with prison workers assisting,” said David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “This is part of the increasing privatization of prisons and ancillary services that we’ve seen over the past few decades.”
Illustration by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper who is incarcerated at the Clements Unit in Amarillo, Texas.
The shift toward privatization has been called a “prison-industrial complex” by the Free Alabama Movement and justice reform advocates, who add that it has created an economic incentive to keep inmates in jail.
And on Sept. 9, the anniversary of the Attica takeover, thousands of inmates across dozens of state prisons went on strike to rail against it.
There were reports of pepper spray, teargas and zip ties at Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan before hundreds of people believed to be involved were transferred to other facilities. Inmates across the country were also censored, prevented from receiving newspapers and put in isolation.
“That was the first wave,” Glasgow said. “This is the second wave.”
In 2015, the state of Michigan canceled a controversial, $145 million, three-year contract with the company. In addition to complaints about the quality of food, more than 100 Aramark employees were banned from prison grounds for inappropriate behavior, according to state officials. That year, a judge also found an Aramark supervisor guilty of trying to arrange an assault on an inmate.
Aramark spokesperson Karen Cutler said in an email that rumors about the quality of food were planted by opponents of outsourcing and inmates.
“There were three confirmed cases of sabotage caused by inmates using maggots in Ohio, and one in Michigan,” Cutler said.
Saying her remark was a “blatant lie,” Hasan said he knew a prisoner who brought maggots to the attention of correctional officers.
Cutler also said, without referencing the case about the Aramark supervisor, that employee misconduct occurs regularly in most positions at every correctional facility in the country.
“Aramark has been a valued partner to the corrections industry for nearly 40 years, helping 500 facilities around the country maintain safe, stable environments for millions of offenders, officers and staff every day,” she said. “Our dedication to quality and service have made us a leader in our industry for more than 75 years.”
Fathi said he did not think Aramark was any better or worse than other prison food companies, nor does the ACLU have a stance on a prospective campaign against it. But he said that the Free Alabama Movement’s complaints illustrate the core problems of privatizing prison services.
“It’s a monopoly and the consumers have ultimately zero choice,” he said. “In the outside world, a company that provides bad service, whose employees commit misdeeds, will eventually go out of business.”
Regardless, he said he will be paying attention on Jan. 14.
“I think many of us were surprised by the magnitude of and coordination exhibited by the prison strike last year, so it would not surprise me if this turned out to be quite widespread,” he said. “Time will tell.”
Kamala Kelkar works on investigative projects at PBS NewsHour Weekend. She has been a journalist for a decade, reporting from Oakland, India, Alaska and now New York.
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