Rattling the Bars: MIT Students Demand Divestment From Prison Profiteering Corporations
Eddie Conway speaks with two graduate student organizers who are working with the Ordinary People’s Society to take on Aramark, a company that has faced many human rights complaints in prisons
Eddie Conway: I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. Welcome to this edition of “Rattling the Bars.”
Last September, there was a nationwide prison strike around slave labor and the 13th Amendment, and the conditions that a lot of prisoners were living under. Over 40 prisons participated in 12 different states. It was basically organized initially by the Free Alabama Movement. At that time, we talked to the leader … the lead spokesperson on a national level, Reverend Kenneth Glasgow. And after the strike, which lasted about 3 weeks, they decided that they would take further action, but they would take that action outside.
Now it appears that action has manifested itself in one area at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The students have organized an activity to divest the school’s contract and business with Aramark. and this is one of the largest companies in the world that’s doing business with schools, hospitals, prisons, conferences, et cetera. It uses prison labor. It has been exploiting workers as well as prisoners, and so this action is taking place today. And I have with me two of the lead organizers. And so, I ask you to join me in welcoming them.
Priya Johnson: Sure, thank you. My name is Priya Johnson.
Speaker 3: And I’m [Name Muhammad Bergeron 00:02:01].
Eddie Conway: Okay, I would like to know why did you all take this struggle up in terms of working with the Free Alabama Movement?
Speaker 3: So, the Free Alabama Movement recently identified a specific target for their next action, which is to boycott Aramark, which is a giant corporation that’s serving food in over 500 prisons and jails around the country. So it’s in a number of prisons and jails, as well as giant universities. It has one of the largest contracts here at M.I.T., and for us it’s really important that our food comes from companies that are ethical, that are not committing human rights violations.
We have read dozens of reports online, and know personally from people who are incarcerated currently, the kind of food that Aramark has been serving in prisons. There’s food that has trash and rocks and maggots, and the company has also been exploiting people behind bars for free labor. And so it’s really important for us to separate ourselves as an institution from this company. And we think that there are better alternatives out there that we can contract with.
Priya Johnson: Just to add to that, I just wanted to make clear that this is kind of a shift. As you mentioned, the national prison strike was led from the inside by the Free Alabama Movement, and now from the outside, TOPS, The Ordinary People’s Society, led by Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, has been shifting the focus to target the main profiteers of the prison industrial complex – Aramark being one of the largest profiteers – and that’s kind of why we’ve chosen to support the national work that’s being done, and to kind of push universities across the country to think about how they’re involved in uplifting this unjust system.
Eddie Conway: Okay, you know I’ve spent some decades in prison myself, and was forced to work pretty much for slave labor wages. It was either that, or spending more time in prison or more time locked in a cell. And I was also forced to eat some of this food. I think this is an ideal strategy in terms of outside support, because prisoners have a very difficult time maintaining a consistent strike because, obviously, you get shipped around and so on.
Are there other schools? Or are you going to reach out to other schools and other universities to try to develop some momentum around this effort?
Priya Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. So, we want to make sure, like we said, that this is a national campaign. This has just been starting here at M.I.T. There are other schools that have attempted similar things in the past, including University of Chicago. I think this is the first one of this scale so far. The petition was just launched this week, and almost has 700 signatures, which is pretty good.
Speaker 3: Across departments, and it includes students …
Priya Johnson: Across departments … students, faculty, staff.
So yeah, it’s relatively small and then it’s at one institution, but the goal is to be taking this boycott, through the leadership of TOPS, to the national level, and making sure that academic institutions are a major part of that.
Eddie Conway: Okay, because one of the things is when … I took a minute to look at this multinational corporation, and I see it’s in 19 countries, I see it employs almost 300 thousand people, and I see that it uses a lot of slave labor from the prisons itself.
One of the things that I’m hoping that will happen is that other people outside and maybe … There’s a movement afoot right now to have a national march in Washington D.C., a million families for prisoners’ human rights march, August the 19th of this year. And I’m wondering if those people who can’t be connected to what you’re doing there, because it seems to be a … something that you all can collaborate on.
Priya Johnson: Yeah. So, Kenneth Glasgow, like we said, from The Ordinary People’s Society … we’ve been kind of taking leadership from him, so he’s definitely connected to that action that’s happening in August. We are not directly connected as of now. The timeline is a little difficult because we’re in graduate school and people … there’s turnover, so people are going to be leaving in the next few weeks. And that’s definitely one of the challenges of this campaign moving forward, is making sure that we’re applying pressure and building momentum over the summer.
That being said, I think, yeah, we’re definitely trying to plug into the stuff that’s happening at the national level, including the action in August. And I know that you’re going to have Pastor Glasgow on, hopefully, next week to talk a little bit more about that.
Eddie Conway: Yes, I do intend to talk to him about the direction in which this will go, and also about that national march. Next week, I will have him here.
I’m curious as to … like you say, you’re in grad school, both of you are in grad school. You’re coming to the end of your semester. How do you sustain the momentum around this? First, when is this contract due to be renewed?
Speaker 3: The contract … a lot of M.I.T.’s dining contracts are coming to an end this summer. And so, the school is … this is why we think this is a really good time to intervene, because the school is going to put out an RFP that’s going to be crafted this summer.
So, what we’re really pushing for is for a student, a representative from our group, to be a part of crafting that RFP to make sure that companies that we don’t agree with ethically are not allowed to bid, and that will not eventually get these contracts. So the timeline is, the RFP will be released this summer, and then over the course of the next year, the contractors for the next few years will be chosen.
So, that’s sort of what we’re working with, and it’s a really good question about sustaining the movement. Some of us are graduating, but we are actively building this group. So we now have staff members that are committed that are going to be here, people from faculty, and also people who are not graduating. So we’re hoping that there will still be a core group that’s pushing through next year.
Priya Johnson: I think it’s also important just to talk about the context nationally right at this political moment, where people are excited about pursuing social justice causes. And so, that’s definitely helped in that there’s interest and there’s an opening for conversation around social justice issues on campus at M.I.T., but also at universities across the country.
Eddie Conway: Okay, but let’s go back a minute. Explain to me, what is this RFT or IFT … what is that?
Speaker 3: It’s a Request For Proposal. That’s the formal solicitation that M.I.T. is going to send out to companies to bid for a new contract. That’s happening this summer, will be crafted in the next few months. And then over the course of this next year, they’ll make a decision based on how the different companies respond to the RFP. Does that make sense?
Eddie Conway: Oh okay, okay. All right.
It sounds like there’s a potential to sustain this. One of the things that I was looking at is the amount of strikes and student protests at M.I.T., which has a rich history of student activism. But it seems like the institution is so large, it does not really bend to the will of the student body too much. Are you hopeful that, this time, there will be something different?
Priya Johnson: That’s a good point. M.I.T. is a giant institution with its hands in a lot of pots, put it that way. So it’s a little … For starters, it’s a little hard to know the inner workings and the things that are happening behind the scenes. I think what’s a little bit different with this particular case is, one, that there’s national momentum already building, both on the inside of prisons and then also on the outside as we said with the action happening in August. And then, also, that we have this particular timeline and this particular moment where the administration is reconsidering their dining options.
They did a student survey, and across campus I believe the satisfaction level was 25 percent. So the institution knows that they have to make some changes, so it’s an opportunity for us to kind of inject our values into that process.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Well, any final words or final thoughts?
Speaker 3: I would just say … so, this movement started out of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and it’s certainly spread to other departments at M.I.T. For us, one of the things we learn in planning school is how to use universities, hospitals, these giant institutions, as anchors for sustainable economic development, and to push for the kinds of ethics and values that we care about. And so, in a lot of ways, this minute is for us to practice what we preach. And so it’s part of building a sustainable economy here in Boston, and I think it’s a really great opportunity for M.I.T. to step up and be leaders in this.
Priya Johnson: And I think I’ll just reiterate what was said before about, just kind of issuing a call to action for students and universities across the country to support this movement. We stand in a very much relative privileged position compared to people who’ve been organizing this impressive national strike from the inside. And so, it’s our responsibility to kind of stand alongside them.
Eddie Conway: Okay, thank you. Thank you for joining me.
Priya Johnson: Thank you so much for having us.
Eddie Conway: Okay, and thank you for joining this edition of “Rattling the Bars.”
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