In an effort to cut costs, Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) is planning to hire a private food vendor to feed 50,179 inmates in the Ohio prison system. The administration argues the decision to outsource prison food will save as much as $16 million a year.
Motivated by a huge state deficit, Ohio has become a laboratory in prison reform — with mixed results. The state sold a prison to Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company, in 2011, only to discover abysmal conditions far below state standards in sanitation, food quality, hygiene, and health care. However, Ohio’s new sentencing reforms are saving the state millions while diverting nonviolent offenders away from prison and into educational and rehabilitative programs.
Ohio’s taste for privatization is likely to make prison food even less appetizing than it already is. Private vendors can skimp on food quality, quantity, and staff in order to make a profit. Unlike state-run cafeterias, private vendors servicing juvenile detention facilities can skip the federal nutrition guidelines for school lunches:
The state Department of Youth Services, which has 469 youths at four detention facilities, spends $6.18 million a year, or $27.60 per inmate per day for food service, said spokeswoman Kim Parsell. The costs are higher because youths don’t help with food prep or cooking, the meals adhere to federal guidelines for school lunches and the teen-aged detainees have higher caloric needs, she said. The state receives $5.51 per day per youth as reimbursement from the national school lunch program. Switching to a private vendor is expected to save DYS about $1.2 million a year, she said.
The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the union that represents some 10,000 prison workers, warns that a contractor will pay lower wages, hire fewer people and dish out less food to make a profit. Roughly, 450 state workers in DYS and DRC could end up losing their jobs, though some could apply for other state jobs or perhaps be hired by the contractor.
Tim Shafer, OCSEA operations director, said complaints about inmate food may sound like whining but they contribute to the safety and security of a prison.
“As a former corrections officer, I can tell you one of the best things in the world is a full inmate. They want to sit down and chill out,” Shafer said. Inmates are fed a heart healthy diet that features a rotating menu of dinners such as sloppy joes, fajitas, and chicken and biscuits.
Poor food quality and sanitation have sparked multiple deadly riots at private prisons run by corporations like CCA and GEO Group. In one prison, inmates were fed soup filled with worms, while other prisons served burritos and brownies contaminated with human feces.
The cost-saving claim of the plan is also dubious; Ohio’s last flirtation with Aramark in 1998 ended because the company insisted on being paid by daily inmate count rather than by actual meals served, which drove up costs by $2 million.