Black Students Are Mobilizing Against Prison Labor Exploitation At Their Universities

Black students all around the country are pushing to remove the presence of prison labor exploitation at their respective universities.

Last year, after a contentious summer of unprecedented activism, students returned to campus in the fall to uproot racial injustice in their academic sphere. From pressuring colleges to remove monuments that memorialize white supremacists and renaming similarly emblazoned buildings, students are now pushing to remove the presence of prison labor exploitation at their universities. Aramark, a multinational conglomerate, is in contract as a food provider for schools across the nation. However, the food giant has been called into question as a benefactor of prison labor, and students are calling their administrations to decry their association with the corporation and terminate their contracts.

The University of Florida wrestles with a storied history of an intimate relationship with prison labor exploitation. In a statement released on June 18, 2020, the president of UF, Kent Fuchs, introduced a three-pronged plan to join the “growing effort to address racism and inequity,” entailing a promise to terminate the use of prison labor on campus. 

Florida is among a small group of states that doesn’t permit pay for prison labor, leaving inmates at UF egregiously exploited. The university’s Institute of Food And Agricultural Services (IFAS) has saved almost $1.7 million per year from inmate labor and, since 2015, UF has reportedly exploited over 150,000 hours of unpaid prison slavery until the services ended last summer. The vow to not enter or renew any prison labor contracts in the future felt toothless for students on campus when the university’s existing Aramark contract is slated to end, at the latest, on July 1, 2021. 

Outraged by the flaccid initiative, Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery at UF (CAPS UF) teamed up with local organizations — Food Justice League, UF NAACP, UF Black Student Union, and the Gainesville Chapter of Dream Defenders — to confront UF’s longstanding food service contract with Aramark.

Aramark phone stocks Aramark is a multinational conglomerate that is in contract as a food provider for schools across the nation. However, the food giant has been called into question as a benefactor of prison labor. Photo Illustration by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Aramark has been in a multi-million dollar contract with UF since 1995. The food catering giant works in 600 prisons that incarcerate 200,000 people, which is why it has been at the crux of decades-long divestment initiatives for their operation in prisons that disproportionately imprison people of color at an alarming rate.

Like many students on campus, Will Boose — a 2020 alum and the co-founder of CAPS UF — wasn't initially conscious of the existence of the university’s proximity to inmate labor. 

“As a grad student, I was spending money at campus facilities. I had no idea that my money was going to a corporation that works in 600 prisons that incarcerates 300,000 people,” he said. “I think people want to get a bite to eat on campus and fill their stomachs without also filling the pockets of a company that is directly exploiting other humans.”

For the first time since they contracted with the provider, UF will open their food-service contract to all potential suppliers in a competitive bid process in 2022. Fresh off the coalition’s first win, Jerry Jerome, a sophomore, pondered what the student-alumni-community network could do to compel UF to finally sever its ties with Aramark and the corporation’s labor exploitation. The 19-year-old sustainability studies and anthropology student — who is also a member of the Gainesville Chapter of Dream Defenders — helped launch the monetary boycott against the university’s dining hall in January this year.

After gaining support via social media, the coalition now protests in front of the President’s mansion, and hosts “teach-ins” on the history of Aramark’s human rights abuse. 

“If we weren’t doing this, they would just stay on their happy way, making their money and milking Aramark and all the violence associated with it for more profit,” Jerome said. “For some reason, it takes students, community, and alumni coming together in hundreds to get the university to do their job.”

Across the state, students at Western Washington University (WWU) in Washington state are also advocating for the school to end its contract with Aramark. Zarea Lavalais, a senior anthropology major with a minor in psychology, serves her campus as the student vice president of sustainability and works closely with Shred the Contract WWU to end her institution’s 10-year contract with Aramark. In the spring of 2020, the administration promised the organization and the student body that they would remain transparent in the next steps. However, students were dismayed when WWU announced that it would extend its contract that was slated to end in September 2021 to September 2023.

“I felt blindsided. I did not know they decided to link up with Aramark for another two to three years,” the 21-year-old said. “When I had a discussion with other students, they were in shock as well. There is a lack of transparency with our institution.”

WWU is nestled in Bellingham, Washington, with Black people comprising 1.6% of the city’s population. Black students, like Lavalais, not only feel like outliers in the city but also on campus. 

“Here at WWU, there are less than 3% of Black students on campus," she said. "Correlate that with having Aramark on campus along with their history, and it shows that Black students are just products for our university to tokenize for diversity while still funding prison labor through a third party.” 

Kennedy Mallory, a student at Loyola University Chicago, also spoke to the frustration of attending a predominantly white institution  while also trying to get the university to divest from Aramark.

“PWIs were never intended for Black and Brown students so their relationship with these corporations isn’t surprising," Mallory said. "But to defeat this white supremacy we must fight back." As a senator in student government, the sophomore film and digital media major said the student body, in collaboration with Students for Food Sovereignty, is using social media to raise awareness.

Mallory’s fight against Aramark began in June 2020, when she started a petition to renew interest in divesting from their university’s contract with the corporation. 10 months later, she’s using her platform amongst marginalized students to urge Loyola to uphold its credo of “service of humanity through learning, justice and faith,” and end its contract. 

According to the petition, transitioning to locally sourced self-operated dining is not only a morally conscious move but also one that will support farmers of color. However, Mallory said while the administration remains obstinate, bolstering awareness on campus is still a priority. 

“Continuing to have these dialogues and finding resolutions to bring to administration is such a big thing,” she said. “It opens the university to the idea of change, even if it is an overwhelming feeling. The university must hear us, especially BIPOC students.” 

serving food prison labor “I think people want to get a bite to eat on campus and fill their stomachs without also filling the pockets of a company that is directly exploiting other humans," Will Boose the co-founder of CAPS UF said. Photo Credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

The controversy towards Aramark isn’t new at Loyola Chicago. In 2018, the dining service came under fire after serving fried chicken and Kool-Aid during Black History Month in the dining hall. Many students of color still feel the incident was racially charged and called for the immediate termination of the contract. 

Despite the challenges these students have faced, some have made progress in their fight against Aramark, as is the case with Franceska Edouard at Florida State University (FSU). Immediately following FSU signing a contract with Aramark in December 2020, Edouard and her friends swiftly began a petition that garnered over 1,000 signatures. Now the sophomore student, who came to the university for its idyllic diversity and inclusion, is spearheading discussions with the administration to terminate the contract. 

“The more Black people who are in prison... the more money [Aramark] gets. They are profiting on free labor and they are profiting on free Black labor,” Edouard said. “This is an issue that prisoners all around the United States face and when we all look into it we know that Black people make 13% of the United States population, yet we are detained at higher rates.” 

The psychology and political science student cites the “three p’s” for how institutions systemically restrict rights from the Black community: plantations, projects and prisons. Through this complex, Edouard points to the proliferation of incarcerated Black people, with Black people disproportionately comprising the prison population nationally, specifically in the South.

Edouard and the FSU student body aren’t on the same playing field as other schools. A freshly signed contract means that pressures to terminate will be highly contested, and amendments are the rationale route of action. These amendments include removal of prison labor from the food services Aramark provides, immediate termination if labor rights of employees are violated, a $15 an hour wage for employees and diversity within contract leadership. According to Edouard, FSU is willing to make the amendments.

“If I could say anything to the administration, I would say continue listening to the students because, without us, there’s nothing,” she said. “Continue to work with us. When we are coming with concerns do not be defensive, listen to us. What we need is someone willing to hear us out and help up. We need people listening to hear and not listening to speak.”  


Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer 

Mia Uzzell is a freelance journalist covering culture, identity politics and education that attends Florida A&M University. You can see what’s on her mind @TheOriginalMiaD