Less than a year after Michigan shifted responsibility for feeding its prisoners to a private contract with international food services conglomerate Aramark, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) is warning the company that it may yank the contract if chronic food shortages and security violations don’t cease.
The DOC says Aramark has violated terms of the prison food contract hundreds of times since it fully took charge of feeding Michigan’s incarcerated in December. The violations include providing insufficient amounts of food, swapping menu items without the required authorization from DOC officials, and staffing issues that the department says endanger prisoners and prison employees alike. Kitchen items like knives and whisks have gone missing, according to the DOC letter warning Aramark to clean up its act, and employees have attempted to smuggle contraband into the prison. The state fined Aramark $98,000 in March over these and other violations of the contract.
Aramark’s deal with the state requires it “to comply with a statewide standard menu that provides a daily average intake of 2,600 calories for men and 2,200 calories for women,” according to the Detroit Free Press, but the company has routinely failed to provide enough meals, and made substitutions, like swapping in bread and peanut butter for waffles and sausage, that undermine prisoner nutrition.
Unless the state ends up voiding it due to continued breeches of the agreement, Michigan’s contract will pay Aramark about $145 million in total. A company spokeswoman told the Detroit Free Press that Aramark has “made a great deal of progress and continues to work diligently to address any issues that arise.” That same spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests for information on how the company’s prison contracts relate to its overall portfolio of food service work, but a document on the company website indicates that Aramark contracts with 500 corrections clients out of more than 407,000 separate total clients worldwide. Its most recent quarterly earnings report identifies corrections contracts as a bright spot in the multi-billion-collar company’s overall performance.
The DOC’s investigation into Aramark’s mishandling of the contract was motivated in part by prisoner unrest — inmates had begun a coordinated campaign of rule-breaking to call attention to the deteriorating quality of the food — but privatization opponents had also anticipated these exact issues when trying to prevent the Aramark contract from being granted late last year.
The state initially rejected bids to privatize the food delivery at its prisons after the bids it received from food contractors failed to demonstrate a significant savings over how the DOC handled prison cafeterias internally. “Officials reworked the numbers after complaints from Republican lawmakers that Aramark and not been treated fairly,” the Free Press reported in September, and the touched-up bid promised an annual savings of between $12 million and $16 million. One Republican member of the legislature who had originally supported the privatization probe turned on the process, saying that Aramark’s second bid was incomplete and inaccurate.
“Often what we see in these analyses that states and cities do before making the decision to privatize is that oversight costs for an auditor to consistently look into what’s going on in these prisons are not taken account in these cost-benefit analyses,” said Shar Habibi, Research and Policy Director for anti-privatization resource center In The Public Interest. “When private companies take over public services, they want to make a profit. That often doesn’t come from increased efficiencies, but instead comes from cutting costs and shifting money away from the service and to shareholders and executives,” Habibi said. “That’s what you’re seeing here: cutting corners.”
Prisoners’ basic right to nutrition may be the easiest corner to cut. The company’s corrections contracts have been tied to prison riots in Kentucky, fraud claims in Florida, and hunger strikes in New Mexico and Indiana, according to In These Times.