ThinkProgress

Michigan governor admits his prison food privatization scheme has failed

Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI) CREDIT: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

State prisoners in Michigan would no longer rely on scandal-plagued for-profit vendors to feed them under the budget Gov. Rick Snyder (R) proposed Wednesday.

Snyder’s FY2019 budget plan adds $13.7 million in Corrections funding to move prison food service back into public hands. It is a dramatic reversal for Snyder, who initiated the privatization of the prison food system in late 2013.

Snyder’s move to hand prison kitchens over to profit-seekers placed an inherently public duty — adequately and safely feeding the incarcerated — at odds with the shareholder-service ambitions of the vendors he put Michigan into bed with.

Snyder acknowledged things didn’t work out like he’d hoped on Wednesday.

“We’ve worked with a couple of different private vendors,” Snyder said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “The benefits of continuing on that path don’t outweigh the costs and we should transition back to doing it in-house.”

This is a grave understatement. Michigan’s first prison food contractor was Aramark, a company most Americans only encounter when they get a hot dog at a baseball game or go to a college dining hall for lunch.

Aramark repeatedly failed to provide the minimum caloric nutrition required by the contract Michigan gave it. Underfeeding prisoners should be scandalous enough on its own, but Aramark was also given to more flamboyant transgressions of prisoner rights.

It served maggot-ridden food to inmates. One of its employees knowingly ordered workers to serve meat that had thawed in a broken freezer for days. Another had staff pluck rat-bitten snack cakes out of the trash can, spread frosting over the tooth marks, and serve them.

When the company’s staff weren’t underfeeding people with dangerous and contaminated food, they were breaking prison rules. Some were caught smuggling contraband. Others were caught having sex with people serving prison sentences.

Michigan eventually yanked Aramark’s deal. But Snyder wasn’t yet convinced that such failures are a predictable byproduct of the corner-cutting incentives of privatized public service. His administration explicitly said it was terminating the deal for cost reasons and not due to Aramark’s dangerous and inhumane food provision work.

Almost immediately, he hired a different company called Trinity to smooth out Aramark’s rough places. Trinity didn’t. Prisoners in Michigan were once again expected to accept insufficient and tainted food. Maggots showed up on cafeteria trays again. Aramark had had 186 staffers banned from prison grounds for violating various rules about inmate contact and security protocol. Trinity managed to get 176 staffers banned for similar misconduct.

None of this should have been surprising. Privatization of public duties is a bad gamble in almost every case — whether it’s a toll bridge or a parking meter system or the more viscerally human question of what people doing hard time should be expected to put in their bodies.

Handing the keys of a public problem over to profit-driven penny-pinchers almost always delivers a worse outcome for the public than paying an in-house workforce. Performing public services with public employees also keeps taxpayer money involved inside your local economy rather than shipping large chunks of it off to distant corporate accounts.

Snyder may have been slow on the uptake here, but the proposal to re-invest in professionalism and purpose-driven service is a welcome change for the many organizations that have sought to bring attention to the system’s abuses.

“The abuses and waste that have resulted from these contracts have endangered corrections officers, prison employees, and prisoners. It’s about time Snyder showed some common sense and took our advice,” said Lonnie Scott of Progress Michigan, which helped expose early failures in the Aramark deal.

“It’s time to return this service back to public employees and out of the hands of out-of-state corporations.”