A quarter of the workers who are supposed to supply food to Michigan prisons under a privatization deal struck in December are banned from the facilities for misconduct, and prison staff feel the company that now runs the kitchens has focused on its own profits over inmate safety and nutrition, emails obtained by the Detroit Free Press reveal.
Lawmakers turned over Michigan’s prison kitchens to Aramark Corrections in December after the company convinced the state that it could save taxpayers $12 million. But since then, the state has fined the company nearly $100,000 for various violations including unauthorized menu changes, insufficient nutrition for inmates, and staff misconduct that endangers both guards and prisoners. Last month, the state warned Aramark that it would begin enforcing nutritional rules more strictly, and hinted that it could rescind the contract entirely if the company didn’t shape up.
Now, far more details of the company’s shortcomings and Department of Corrections officials’ frustration with Aramark are public thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Free Press. The paper received more than 3,000 emails from state and Aramark officials. The messages paint a grim picture:
— 74 of the roughly 300 Aramark employees who are supposed to work on the contract have been banned from Michigan prison facilities for violations including showing up drunk to work, having sexual contact with inmates, and attempting to smuggle drugs into the prisons.
— “Aramark officials were upset” that a prison employee told inmates to report problems with the food to staff to ensure that the company was held accountable to the standards in the contract.
— Prison officials and Aramark workers were concerned that a batch of meatballs smelled rotten after the freezer where they were stored broke down for a few days, but the company served the meat anyway after a supervisor reportedly told them “it only smelled funny because part of it was turkey, and they should serve it.” About 100 inmates at another facility fell ill with “an as-yet-undetermined bug,” according to the newspaper.
— Despite publicly downplaying problems with menu substitutions and meals that fall short of nutritional requirements, Aramark emails show the company was far more distressed in private. A January email from an Aramark Vice President to subordinates indicated that the nutritional problems were occurring daily despite repeated warnings to tighten up the company’s operation, and warned the recipients that “Enough is enough.”
— A prison official said Aramark’s top priority was counting the number of meals served, which is the basis for what the company gets paid, and as a result guards were left to cover other tasks that should be part of the food service operation, such as monitoring the food line to make sure inmates weren’t stealing food.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” the Department of Corrections official in charge of monitoring the contract emailed to a colleague in March. “Bottom line is lay down with dogs, get up with fleas,” the colleague replied.
From Aramark’s perspective, though, prisons operations are a bright spot on the accounting sheet. Its most recent quarterly report praised corrections contracts as a primary growth area in the multinational company’s portfolio.
The profit stream may be good news for shareholders and executives, but the company’s track record in the prison food business is not so great for incarcerated people, guards, and taxpayers. The company’s poor handling of a food contract was blamed for causing riots in a Kentucky prison in 2009, and issues similar to the ones Michigan officials report have cropped up in Aramark-run prison kitchens in Florida, Ohio, and Indiana.