Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Michigan may stop using private food vendors in its prisons

Posted By on Wed, Feb 7, 2018 at 12:07 PM

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Michigan may stop using private food vendors to provide food service in prisons kitchens after several years of dramatic problems related to inmates' meals.

MIRS reports that Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to announce a proposal to do so in his upcoming state budget presentation.

The move follows three years of Metro Times and other outlets reporting on problems in the state's prison kitchen. The state fired its union kitchen employees in 2014 and awarded the $145 million food service contract to food service-giant Aramark.



But the Michigan Department of Corrections fired Aramark after around 18 months of consistent problems and replaced it with Tampa-based institutional food giant Trinity Services. That contract was worth $158 million, and it just received a small raise.

But as we reported in early 2016, the same issues persisted, indicating that it doesn't matter which company provides private food service, because its the privatization model that's deeply flawed.

Problems with food service led to protests, riots, and lawsuits in recent years.

Among other disturbing incidents, Aramark and Trinity served food tainted by maggots on multiple occasions, knowingly served rotten meat, used moldy potatoes, ordered inmates to serve food pulled from the garbage, handed out food on which rats or ants nibbled, and served moldy food. Inmates reported being shorted on calories and not receiving enough food. Inmates and prison officials also report the kitchen and chow lines are regularly highly unsanitary.

Beyond that, private vendors' employees are regularly caught having sex with inmates, smuggling in drugs, smuggling in cell phones, and smuggling other contraband.  Trinity has been hit with at least $3.8 million in fines for a range of issues, and over 200 of its employees have been banned from prison property for violations such as smuggling of drugs or other contraband, or "overfamiliarity" with prisoners.

In 2015, Aramark overbilled the state of Michigan by $3.4 million. Ultimately, the issues present a serious security risk to inmates and prison officers, and the money the state has to spend cleaning up after riots and dealing with issues related to the private companies cost more money in the long run. 

Pamela Drew, a former MDOC corrections officer who has challenged the state's use of private food vendors, said she's praying for an orderly transition back to the state's workers in July.

"Food is a control mechanism, and when you alter it drastically by hiring two companies that had no idea how to run and maintain a prison kitchen, then you endanger everyone and everything," she said in a written statement. "Inexperience, ill-trained, lack of leadership by their own company led to the entrance of contraband, conduct unbecoming, total disregard for rules/regulations/policies and failures to maintain a healthy, clean environment in handling food correctly."

Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, underscored his belief that private companies should not be allowed to profit from services provided to prisoners.

"[Inmates] are literally a captive market with no other choices when firms are granted monopoly contracts to provide medical care, food services, phone services, etc.," he tells Metro Times. "With respect to food, for-profit companies like Aramark and Trinity Services Group have an incentive to cut costs by reducing the quality and quantity of meals they serve.

"That type of business model has no place in our corrections system, where our government has a responsibility to ensure prisoners receive adequate and nutritious food."

Watchdog nonprofit Progress Michigan is one of many groups that has been calling on the state to stop using private food vendors.

"The abuses and waste that has resulted from these contracts have endangered corrections officers, prison employees, and prisoners. It’s about time Snyder showed some common sense and took our advice,” Lonnie Scott, the group's executive director, says. “The House and Senate need to do the same and include a rollback of these contracts in their budgets. It’s time to return this service back to public employees and out of the hands of out-of-state corporations.”

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