Michigan Ditches For-Profit Prison Food Provider, But Not Because It Fed Inmates Rat-Eaten Trash

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

After the company repeatedly fed inmates out of trash cans, struggled with maggot problems in its kitchens, encouraged prisoners to serve each other meat that had been unrefrigerated for days, and hired workers who consorted with inmates, Aramark Correctional Services is finally losing its contract with the state of Michigan’s prison system.

But this week’s decision to boot Aramark didn’t happen because of the firm’s chronic failings and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) team. Instead, the governor’s office is citing an insoluble dispute over billing changes the company sought in the renegotiation of its contract.

Advertisement

“Both the state and Aramark felt we couldn’t bridge the gap and determined it was best we both go our separate ways,” a spokesman for the state told the Detroit News.

Indeed, Michigan is not reversing course. It’s just switching to a new for-profit food service company called Trinity Services Group to work in its prisons. The privatization of food service in the state Department of Corrections (DOC) was criticized from the outset by lawmakers — including at least one who was initially supportive of the idea — over concerns that Aramark had rigged its bid for the contract to appear cheaper than was realistic.

Despite the early termination of Aramark’s 3-year, $145 million contract, the state estimates that privatizing food service has saved 10 percent compared to the old public system and predicted that savings rate will continue with the new vendor. But such estimates often fail to account for the cost of oversight and compliance, as privatization critics have told ThinkProgress in the past. The multiple scandals in the privatized kitchens suggest that there is a tangible drop-off in quality control when inmate food systems turn over into for-profit hands — and that drop-off isn’t free.

Inmates have sued Aramark over the company’s practices. Those lawsuits will cost the state money to litigate on both the plaintiff and defendant sides. And the health and safety failures have also inspired lawmakers to push for professional food inspections in prison kitchens — an expansion of existing code inspections that will not be free, though lawmakers might require the vendor to pick up the tab.

Advertisement

Aramark’s Michigan travails are all too typical for the company. Aramark tells shareholders that its for-profit prison contracts are one of the primary sales growth areas within the company’s much broader food service operations, including schools, sports venues, and public cafeterias. But while prison business may be a profit center for the company, it’s been an inhumane debacle for inmates in Kentucky, Florida, New Mexico, and Indiana.