There is a unique type of anxiety that comes with being undocumented.
“It’s constant,” says Desiree Gonzalez, a Saint Peter’s University junior who moved to the United States from Peru with her family when she was three years old. “It can be incredibly overwhelming. It can consume you.”
Part of the reason Gonzalez chose Saint Peter’s was because of the resources offered to undocumented students— which is why she felt betrayed when she found out about the school’s connection to privatized prisons and detention centers.
For around ten years, Sodexo, a French company that is one of the world’s largest multinational corporations, has provided Saint Peter’s with cafeteria food. But Sodexo does more than just provide food services to universities— they also run private prisons and detention centers abroad.
Up until 2001, Sodexo owned one of the largest stakes in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a company that now controls nearly half of the private prisons in the United States.
After Sodexo’s ties with CCA were made public, six universities dropped their contracts with Sodexo, and continued activist pressure led Sodexo to sell its shares in CCA.
But since then, Sodexo has vastly expanded the number of detention centers it operates overseas. As of 2016, Sodexo managed 122 prisons in eight countries, including Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. They also run prisons and immigrant detention centers in the United Kingdom.
Abril Flores, a junior who has family and friends that are undocumented, wishes that Saint Peter’s would be more transparent about their alignment with Sodexo.
“It’s very shocking to me,” Flores says. “It’s hard to take in. You hear about corporations funding the privatization of jails and detention centers, but I didn’t expect it to be so close to home.”
Sodexo was unable to be reached for comment.
According to Sodexo’s website, the company manages prisons while providing them with a wide range of services, such as maintenance, catering, and industry workshops aimed to reduce reoffending. These services make up 3.3% of Sodexo’s annual revenue of 20.2 billion, which amounts to nearly 7 million dollars a year.
According to Dr. Marilou Marcillo, a business ethics professor at Saint Peter’s, private prison models are unethical because they are based solely on profitability.
“For every person who is in prison, companies get money,” said Marcillo. “If a prison’s profit derives from the number of people who are incarcerated, they’re going to look for ways to incarcerate more people, not rehabilitate them.”
Recently, Sodexo drew media attention for the conditions in their HMP Northumberland facility in the UK. An undercover BBC documentary shot in 2017 revealed that the prison had “descended into chaos, with failing alarms, prisoners calling the shots and a troubling drug problem sweeping its corridors.”
The prison was also plagued by dangerously low staffing, assaults and deaths of incarcerated individuals. According to the Chronicle, prison staff at HMP Northumberland reported being attacked around once every five days.
The problems at the prison were so bad that Sodexo offered experienced guards £60,000 (about $79,000 U.S) in severance packages if they wanted to quit.
Their relationship to the private prison industry isn’t the only time Sodexo has come under fire for questionable human rights practices.
In the past, they have also been criticized for their participation in the oil and gas industry, and for partnering with ExxonMobil and Shell— companies that actively promoted climate change denial for decades in order to protect profits, despite knowing the risks to the environment.
In 2011, TransAfrica Forum, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C, compiled a report detailing how “Sodexo’s workers were trapped in poverty by a powerful global company--and then harassed, threatened, and fired when they speak up for their rights.”
The report cited evidence and testimonials from Sodexo workers in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guinea, Morocco, and the United States. Workers reported long hours, low wages and poor working conditions. Interviews with international workers of Sodexo also revealed Sodexo’s antagonistic relationship with labor unions.
Sodexo workers in Colombia and the Dominican Republic reported being fired without stated cause after trying to organize unions or strikes to bring attention to workplace violations.
Sodexo workers in the U.S face similar issues. Many Sodexo workers live below the poverty line. One Sodexo worker, employed at Tulane University for forty years, revealed in the report that she still made less than $10 an hour. “I’m a proud woman, so I’m going to do my job no matter what,” she said. “But this isn’t fair.”
Revelations about Sodexo’s controversial ties and history of violating workers rights have left students and staff at Saint Peter’s University grappling with where to go from here.
Dr. Anna Brown, an activist and political science professor at Saint Peter’s, says that she is not in favor of alignment with any institutions that incarcerate people, particularly undocumented people.
“We really can’t be in the business of profiting off of human beings, especially vulnerable human beings,” she said. “There are more humane solutions than caging people and making money off of them.”
Christine Boyle, the director of campus ministry, believes Catholic social teaching could be a guide to discern whether or not the school should continue their relationship with Sodexo.
“Any institution that does not allow a person to live their whole humanity is a violation of dignity,” she said.“Even though you are a criminal, that doesn’t mean you’re devoid of God-given participation in this world. You’re still a child of God. And I think that’s a really hard one for us to reconcile.”
Although most students and professors were in agreement that the privatization of prisons was wrong, they hesitated to say that the answer was completely severing the contract with Sodexo. Many cited concerns about the Sodexo employees, who are contracted by Sodexo, not the university.
“We have to think about the impact divestiture can have on a community,” said Marcillo. “If we were to protest Sodexo and they left here, what would happen to those people’s jobs? They have families. They don’t have a say in what the big corporation does...but ultimately they might suffer the consequences.”
She also pointed out that because Saint Peter’s is a small school, divesting might not have as big of an impact as a larger university.
According to Dr. Eugene Cornacchia, the university’s president, if Saint Peter’s were to switch catering companies, most contractors have the right to hire the staff and employees of their choice.
“We would always insist they at least give the current employees a chance to apply for and demonstrate that they’re the kind of employee that the new company wants,” Cornacchia said. “But there’s never a guarantee.”
Sodexo’s contract with Saint Peter’s is about more than just serving food— the company also donated $1 million to the MacMahon Student Center to be constructed. In addition, Saint Peter’s gets a small amount of revenue from Sodexo’s operations, as they would for any company operating at the university.
Cornacchia stated that changing contracts would not necessarily mean that tuition at Saint Peter’s would go up, granted that the university could get similar pricing from another company.
Because contracts are rebid periodically, he recommends that concerned students take action through steps like petitions, or organizing an open discussion on campus.
“We always try to balance our desire to be true to our Jesuit values with the difficulty of operating a complex institution in a very challenging environment,” Cornacchia said. “And those are not easy things to do.”
Although opinions on Sodexo’s presence on campus vary, professors and students alike agree that the situation warrants the start of an ongoing university conversation.
“We can find ways to move organizations to do better,” said Marcillo. “They may not be able to fix everything, but they can do better. And every step becomes incremental.”
Brown believes that this news should serve as a wake up call for students.
“We’ve got to bring it outside the classroom— and one way of starting is by acting locally, by looking at Sodexo, and the food that you’re being served.” she said. “This is gonna bring in climate change, it’s gonna bring in inequality, and it’s gonna bring in really serious questions about how capitalism is working.”