Michigan's Prison Food System Is Falling Apart

Food shortages, drug smuggling, sex with inmates: It might sound like another episode of <i>Orange Is the New Black</i>, but it's reality for many Michigan prisoners, who are at the mercy of private contractors that routinely violate safety standards.

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Jul 7 2014, 6:04pm

Photo via Flickr user Martin

Food shortages, drug smuggling, sex with inmates. It might sound like another episode of Orange Is the New Black, but it's reality for many Michigan prisoners, who are at the mercy of a private vendor that has taken over the state's prison food system for the worse.

Take, for example, the maggots. On June 27, inmates at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson discovered fly larvae within exposed cracks on the kitchen's service line. Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) spokesman Russ Marlan told reporters that the gaps should have been filled with caulk, as though a sealant alone would have prevented the infestation. Within two days, about 30 prisoners reported feeling ill, with diarrhea, vomiting, and headaches.

The state contracts its food service operations out to Aramark Correctional Services, based in Philadelphia, which claimed that there was no connection between the inmates' symptoms and the flies. (Aramark did not return our request for comment at the time of publication.) If true, however, that hardly excuses the conditions in the kitchen. "We don't know if we will ever be able to confirm where it came from, but when you have 30-some people getting sick, it typically comes from food," Marlan told reporters.

Less than a week later, at a separate facility less than a mile away, inmates found more maggots—and this time, they were in the food. Fly larvae was discovered in the Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center's potato supply, which was removed from the kitchen that was subsequently scrubbed down with bleach. But that's only the latest incident involving Aramark since December, when it began a three-year, $145 million contract that was expected to save the state $16 million and eliminate 370 state jobs.

At least 71 Aramark employees have been banned from entering Michigan prisons for violating various policies—including one who was fired for being drunk on the job.

Nor is this the first time a state prison system has taken issue with Aramark. In 2005, Kentucky privatized inmate meals through the vendor, which cut the state cost of inmate meals from $3.49 per meal to $2.34 per meal. (That was increased to $2.63 per meal in 2010.) Over time, that didn't sit well with inmates. A riot broke out at Northpoint Training Center in 2009, and Kentucky Department of Corrections officials initially blamed anger over the food as one of the precipitating factors.

In response to that report, the state deployed an audit of the Kentucky contract, which was unable to confirm that Aramark "consistently followed approved recipes, used the proper quantity of ingredients and met food safety standards regarding food temperatures or use of leftovers because of the vendor's poor documentation." Additionally, Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Crit Luallen claimed that the state made "more than $36,000 in overpayments" to Aramark "due to billing errors and other contract violations." In one case, Aramark billed for an extra 3,359 inmates that did not exist.

The report also found that Aramark underestimated food quantities, leading to food shortages, meal delays, and unapproved menu changes, which may not have met the daily calorie requirements calculated for inmates. Auditors heard allegations that "certain items on the menu were watered down or items were routinely missing or cut out of recipes." Food there was frequently held at improper temperatures, and food service workers were sometimes found to have cuts and wounds.

The Michigan DOC fined Aramark $98,000 for menu substitutions, food shortages, and worker violations. In one incident, an Aramark employee was accused of having sex with a prisoner.

A similar situation arose in Florida. Aramark canceled its contract with the Florida Department of Corrections in 2008 after repeated complaints about food quality and cost. A 2007 audit by the Florida DOC, which also cited menu changes, concluded that "[feed] rates have declined sharply since the contract's inception in 2001, creating a windfall for the vendor and reducing the value of the services provided without a proportionate decrease in per diem rates charged to the Department." Even after Florida fined Aramark $241,000 over staffing, supply, and sanitation issues, 277 inmates at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton fell sick after eating chili.

The situation in Michigan appears to be following the same pattern. Prior to the maggot incidents, the Michigan DOC fined Aramark $98,000 for menu substitutions, food shortages, and worker violations. In one incident, an Aramark employee was accused of having sex with a prisoner, though DOC officials called that an exaggeration. In March, another Aramark employee was arrested for trying to smuggle packages of marijuana into the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility.

Only a few days earlier, the Michigan Corrections Organization, a labor union representing corrections officers, urged the DOC to end its contract, saying that Aramark was endangering prisoners. In one of its weekly newsletters, the MCO reported that the food service operation at the Cotton facility was temporarily shut down in June "after being overrun with mice and fruit flies," and that "kitchen cleanliness has declined since [Aramark] took over." The MCO has also claimed that Aramark employees poorly oversee kitchen equipment that could be used as dangerous weapons.

As of last month, at least 71 Aramark employees have been banned from entering Michigan prisons for violating various policies—including the food service director at Parnall, who was fired for being drunk on the job. Still, shortages and substitutions continue. The Detroit Free Press reported that Aramark employees at the St. Louis Correctional Facility served bread and peanut butter instead of the approved waffles and sausage. In an echo of the Kentucky riot, corrections officers there used tear gas against prisoners who were yelling and breaking things in their cells in response the quality of the food available.

The Michigan DOC has put Aramark on notice to clean up its operations across the state, or risk losing its contract. Meanwhile, inmates there have little choice than to take what they're given. Let's just hope that doesn't continue to include maggots.