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The Official Pope Francis Plush Doll Is Brought To You By A Company That Served Maggots To Prisoners

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ALESSANDRA TARANTINO
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ALESSANDRA TARANTINO

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States later this month will give the pontiff a chance to bring his critique of unfettered capitalism to the country most associated with that economic model.

Alongside that exchange of ideas, there will be a hardy trade in cash for goods. A slipstream of economic opportunity pops up around the Pope wherever he goes, and companies who position themselves the right way can turn a healthy profit.

One such well-stationed firm is Aramark, the Philadelphia-based food service conglomerate. In June, Aramark won the right to serve as the official merchandising vendor for the World Meeting of Families Congress that coincides with the pontiff’s visit at the end of September.

The contract is one of two run-ins Francis and Aramark will have. The company operates prison kitchens for profit at locations all around the country, including the city jail Francis is set to visit at the outskirts of Philadelphia.

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Aramark opened its “pop-up Pope shop” on Tuesday, weeks ahead of Pope Francis’ arrival in the city. Five bucks gets you a commemorative pin. Another $20 lands you “the official Pope plush doll,” which renders Francis as an 8-fingered caricature. (Spring for the $160 life-size cardboard cutout if realism’s your thing.)

Rosaries — priced on a sliding scale from $10 to $200 — will be the hottest category of item, Aramark sports and entertainment division president Carl Mittleman predicted to the Philadelphia Inquirer. But the company isn’t ignoring high-rollers either: for $500, you can have a sterling silver cross associated with the first American papal voyage since 2008.

The commerce surrounding the Pope isn’t all that odd. Francis may have eschewed luxuries in office, but he heads a venerated religious institution that has a fluent relationship with material wealth (and spends much of it on service work in the world’s most neglected corners).

But one of Aramark’s other lines of business runs directly counter to one of Francis’ most remarkable teachings. Aramark’s prison work epitomizes one of the core aspects of modern crime and punishment that Francis and other Catholics decry as inhumane at best — and torture at worst.

Mittleman’s sports and entertainment division is technically part of the same operating segment as Aramark’s corrections work in North America. That segment reported $2.2 billion in sales in fiscal year 2014, out of the company’s $10.2 billion in total sales. The company’s revenues from running prison kitchens and commissary stores appear to be an important part of the firm’s business at present, according to documents the company prepares for shareholders.

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Aramark’s track record in prisons is spotty. It was recently kicked out of Michigan’s prison system after a year marked by maggot sightings, rat-eaten offerings to inmates, security breaches, food poisoning, and nutritional violations. The state’s decision to change vendors, ostensibly over a stalled contract negotiation with Aramark, came just one year into a three-year deal with the company.

Prisoners have mounted hunger strikes in protest of Aramark’s food operations in Indiana and New Mexico. Riots at a Kentucky prison in 2009 were blamed on the company’s food. Ohio prisoners dumped their lunches in the trash en masse last summer in protest after the Aramark-run kitchen became infested with maggots for the second time in a year.

These stories make Aramark look bad. But in a sense, they say more about the core nature of criminal justice in America than they do about the company that’s selling the Pope’s trinkets this fall.

The lawmakers we elect have for years been privatizing both individual services within publicly-run prisons, and entire facilities. The privatizers believe that the profit motive of a private firm will breed superior results — in terms of economic efficiency if not actual, practical outcomes — to the traditional model of making public resources and actors responsible for the operation of our society’s justice system. That philosophy has helped spawn a vast and influential industry that exists solely to cage those who break the law — and whose profits depend on keeping prisons as full as possible.

With such incentives, it’s little surprise that prison privatization has exacerbated the transformation of America’s prison system from houses of correction into punishment-delivery systems. Solitary confinement and maximum-security prisoner management policies, which Francis has described as “form[s] of torture,” are common in the U.S.

Francis will come face to face with the U.S. incarceration system when he visits Philadelphia. He is making a trip to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the city’s largest jail. He will not tour the full facility, but will meet with roughly 100 inmates and family members in a jail gym.

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Prisoners who participate in a woodworking shop program at Curran-Fromhold are building the Pope a special chair for his visit. As an object physically associated with the man Catholics believe to be God’s personal representative on earth, the hand-carved seat will become a valuable item. After Francis leaves, the chair will be sent to the Vatican, a spokeswoman for Curran-Fromhold told ThinkProgress.

The food at Curran-Fromhold is prepared and served by Aramark — which means that the experience of consuming food for the human beings incarcerated there is subject to the same brutal economics that attend privatized prison services elsewhere.

Aramark doesn’t disclose its per-meal cost, which it argues is proprietary information that would harm its business if competitors could see it. But as with food service anywhere, feeding prisoners is a thin-margin business. The spread between what taxpayers’ representatives will agree to pay Aramark and the amount it has to spend to meet the minimum nutrition, security, and food safety standards baked into its contracts is smaller in prison and sports stadium work than in the company’s other operations. Aramark’s most recent annual report notes that prison work provides “mid-single digit operating margins,” while healthcare and educational facilities contracts have “high-single digit operating margins.”

The thinner the margins, the greater the incentive to cut corners. The financial benefit lawmakers tout when they opt to privatize prison services “often doesn’t come from increased efficiencies, but instead comes from cutting costs and shifting money away from the service” to profits and executive salaries, privatization expert Shar Habibi has told ThinkProgress in the past.

The economics of privatized prison services convert individual incarcerated humans into the fulcrums on which companies like Aramark balance their books. Turning prisons into profit centers thereby makes a mockery of the original purpose of incarceration: To repay society, achieve penitence, and grow into a person who will abide by the law upon release.

Many members of the worldwide institution that Francis heads are working hard to return the U.S. prison system to that original societal function. Both Catholic and interfaith groups have long agitated against the death penalty, and in recent years their critique has expanded to include opposition to life sentences and solitary confinement. The goal is to return to “restorative justice,” as many faith activists label it, instead of the exploitative model of incarceration produced by years of privatization and funding cuts.

Systems that actually provide rehabilitation — and reduce recidivism rates — have been scorched by budget fighting and tough-on-crime political rhetoric. Spending cuts have shrunk prisoner re-entry programs across the country, exacerbating recidivism risk for people who already face massive obstacles to getting a job after release.

Federal higher-education dollars have been legislatively banned from prisons since the 1990s, and the Obama administration’s decision this summer to use executive authority to restore Pell Grants to prisoners on a small-scale pilot basis made headlines. Prison workshops that theoretically equip inmates to find lawful work upon release have been exploited as free-labor profit centers by unscrupulous prison employees.

The most public face associated with the faith community’s criticisms of the perversion of the U.S. prison system is Francis’. Giant crowds and public speeches may prove the most memorable pieces of his visit to the States, but September’s face-to-face encounter between the American prison industry and the Pope may be the most significant.

The marginal returns of Aramark’s pope merchandising pop-up and the accompanying online store are unclear. The company did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment.