Politics and Prejudices: Aramark Correctional Services incompetence 'obviously a major malfunction'

Sep 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Essentially, I learned a lot about how politicians think from an experiment we did in junior high school science class.

We put little flatworms in a petri dish. When food particles were introduced, the worms moved toward them. But when we waved a heated wire at them, they moved away.

Sigmund Freud called this the pleasure-pain principle. Me, I call it the flatworm test. You might not be able to trust politicians to look after your needs or interests, but you can count on this: Almost all of them run faster than a speeding flatworm from anything that looks like trouble for them.

There have been occasional brave exceptions, men and women who stood up for civil rights or the oppressed when that wasn't popular. But they are few and far between.

What's most baffling this time, however, is our Governor "Hot Wire Rick" Snyder's slavish devotion to the company he hired to run Michigan's prison food services after he gave in to the usual pent-up GOP desires to privatize them.

For months, no matter how bad things get, the governor defends Aramark Correctional Services. Maggots on the chow line? Employees frolicking and having sex with inmates? Smuggling drugs? Failing to show up to feed them?

Hey, Ranger Rick is relentlessly, positively optimistic. Last week, when another Aramark employee was caught attempting to smuggle cocaine, heroin, and pot into a prison in Gratiot County, the governor said, "Those are concern points."

Ya think? What popped into my head was the bland voice of the NASA announcer years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. "Obviously a major malfunction," said he.

Snyder, however, was worse than that, telling reporters "the critical issue is we're solving the Aramark problem."

That's not evading the issue; that's just lying. The real mystery is why Snyder's "brain trust" or anyone else with some degree of literacy would've hired Aramark at all.

Aramark Correctional Services has had an astonishing record of incompetence in state after state. In Ohio, there have been several near-riots in prisons after they ran out of food. Florida fired Aramark long ago for contract violations and for boosting their profits by skimping on inmate meals.

Kentucky did the same, after lousy Aramark food service provoked an actual prison riot. Later, an audit discovered what the state said were food quality issues and overbilling.

Ohio editorial writers have been urging that state's governor, the right-wing ideologue John Kasich, to fire Aramark for issues that include maggots in the food, staffing shortages, and running out of food, presumably to maximize profits.

Yet the company's performance in Michigan may be their worst and most bizarre of all. Yes, there have been maggots on the chow lines, plus nearly 100 Aramark employees who have been fired or banned outright from Michigan prisons.

The governor blandly assured us that things were being handled. Then, last week, the news came of the drug-smuggling incident at the St. Louis correctional facility. The governor's response seemed to indicate he was out of touch with his home planet, if not, reality. He told reporters his administration was "working through the Aramark situation," as if this were marriage counseling. Then, he bafflingly added:

"There are a number of issues in the past, and the issue is how we make sure those aren't continuing issues."

Firing Aramark would seem to be how. But that's the one thing he seems incapable of even considering. Instead, his wacky, Rube Goldberg-style solution was to fine Aramark $200,000 and use that money to hire someone to watch them.

Actually, that wasn't even the first time the state fined Aramark, which brings us to another scandal. Last March, with considerable fanfare, the state fined Aramark $98,000 for a series of abuses. "Yep, we'll show 'em they need to do the job right," Snyder's boys seemed to be saying.

Except, well, they never really made them pay. In what should be even more of a stunning scandal than it is, the fine was quietly canceled after the governor's chief of staff emailed the head of Michigan's corrections system and asked him if he wanted to get together for a drink. Interestingly, that email was suppressed ("redacted") though there are other emails showing the corrections director, Dan Heyns, apologizing to the governor's stooge for being too rough on Aramark.

So the fine was canceled, though the public was never told. Aramark just got worse, and last month the governor did slap them with a $200,000 fine.

Not enough, apparently, for Aramark to be motivated to start screening job applicants and maybe, just maybe paying them enough so they wouldn't have to smuggle heroin.

How silly of me. But what's sillier is that Snyder doesn't seem to understand the concept of cutting your losses.

"I have no relation to Aramark — there's no corporate buddy there at all," he told reporters last week, before strangely adding this was all "politicians making up charges that have no substance." Funny. If I had maggots in my food, I might think that was a screw-up of some substance, but hey.

What's oddest is that this is happening in an election year, at a time when Democratic nominee Mark Schauer has pulled even or slightly ahead in the polls.

Schauer's own positions on many issues have been maddeningly obscure, but not on this. Last month, he told me that he would, if elected, end the privatization experiment and turn food service back to the corrections system professionals who know how to do it. Hard to say he's wrong.

That's not likely to happen, of course, because the governor, more even than most politicians, seems to be unable to admit being wrong about anything.

Plus, Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer are now making gleeful hay out of all this, demanding the governor fire Aramark, "or the people of Michigan will have every reason to fire you in November."

Ironically, though she may be right, the Democrats don't really want Aramark fired, at least not yet. They figure that every day it's still there helps their chances this fall.

They also know that their noisy demands that the governor fire Aramark make it just that much harder for him to do so: In politics, you can't ever seem to be giving in to the opposition's demands. Funny; in our personal lives, we're often very moved by somebody who admits making a mistake. Too bad we don't have leaders mature enough to do the same.

Remember the Film Industry?

Jennifer Granholm won't be remembered as a great governor, but she had one idea that not only was economically promising for the state, it got people excited: an almost unlimited film-industry tax credit.

People differed on whether it cost the state more than it brought in, but it excited people. Rick Snyder, however, pulled the plug, saying he didn't believe in special deals.

While there are still some incentives for filmmakers, the industry has largely departed. Though the press has largely forgotten the issue, I run into a surprising number of people who are still passionate about it.

Elizabeth Perkin Moen, a data-crunching genius who is finishing a Ph.D. at Wayne State, is also a longtime community theater actress. "I'll tell you what, Snyder lost significant ground with a great many people when he slashed the film credit initiative," she says. "I don't give a flying rat's ass about the pure economics over time. Bottom line: The boosted morale alone is worth every cent made or lost."

I can't imagine who she will be voting for in November. — mt