In-Depth: New Report Exposes Pitfalls of Prison Food Service Privatization

The profit motive of Michigan prisons’ private food vendor led to food shortages, security vulnerabilities, and overall dangerous conditions behind the walls.

That’s the takeaway from the new report, “Food Service Privatization in Michigan’s Prisons: Observations of Corrections Officers,” published by the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy (IRLEE) at the University of Michigan. Read it here.

The report includes 55 pages of first-hand accounts from corrections officers on changes they saw after Aramark took over prison food service in December 2013. Interviews were conducted in spring 2015, when Aramark still held the contract for prison food service.

Through the interviews, researcher Roland Zullo identified five themes on the privatization:

● Food quality declined dramatically.

● Inmates responded with demonstrations and manipulation.

● A deep divide between officers and private kitchen staff developed.

● Improper tool control and failure of private employees to perform security functions meant heightened risk for all staff and inmates.

● Profit was placed above all else.

Excerpts from the report:

● “Food shortages were also a function of contractor efforts to minimize waste. Contractor employees were instructed to ‘progressively cook,’ which meant preparing food for a low forecasted attendance, and then preparing additional food as the need developed.”[pg. 17] An officer said, “What they do is they make that number of rations, and then if 750 decided to eat that day, that’s where we’re running short and we, they’re having to prepare more food…which is holding up the chow lines, it’s holding up the production, you know, the stability of the facility.”[pg. 18]

● “Officers described tension with contractor employees over control of the kitchen and storage areas.” [pg. 41]  An officer said, “I’ve seen them find locks that weren’t even authorized to be in there, and put them on cabinets, put them on doors, and then we had discovered those weren’t the correct locks (and) tried to get into them, you can’t. And we had to report them to the inspector … Do you understand if an inmate gets a hold of this lock, puts it on a commissary door, whoever’s in there is screwed until we can go get lock cutters to get you out, and they’re like, ‘Oh.’ There’s this general lack of knowledge about security, and yeah, it’s difficult.” [pg. 42]

● Sharp kitchen utensils and metal scraps from cans were frequently left unsecured. An officer said, “The first day I worked on food service I walked into the back and there was a table with all of 20-25 cans with the lids and bottoms cut off of these cans laying on a table, and nobody watching them… Where I came from, if an officer walked away from cans like that, and lids, you were in trouble, you were going to get written up for that. I couldn’t believe it…I went to talk to a couple of employees, the Aramark employees, and they’re like ‘no, there’s a camera right there watching everything so we don’t worry about it.’” [pg. 54]

● Private food service workers had inadequate training on inmate manipulation, security threats, and kitchen operations. An officer said, “Now the prisoners run the kitchen. If they want something made, they don’t care what you say, they’re gonna get what they want. They make their special foods back there, the kitchens are filthy, they run the kitchens, they tell Aramark what to do.” [pg. 30]

● Aramark’s count of the number of trays served greatly differed from the number recorded through OMNI, an electronic card swipe system. An officer said, “When they had screwed up (and) didn’t have any meat for the (segregation) unit one day, they had to send down another 4 trays. So now we’re getting double-charged for the same meals that technically should have been right the first time.” [pg. 48]

Although the report was based on interviews concerning Aramark, Zullo writes, “structural and behavioral factors are likely to resurface under any contract relationship.”

MCO recommends all MDOC staff and state legislators read this eye-opening report. It paints a picture of the chaos that has governed the prison kitchens since they were privatized and profit became the only concern.

Just this month, inmates at Kinross and Chippewa correctional facilities have boycotted the kitchen in protest of the food quality. March 20-21 Kinross inmates boycotted meals and staged a peaceful protest. Chippewa prisoners rejected meals March 26-28.

Prison stability, with on-time meals, programs, recreation, and therapy are conducive to inmate rehabilitation and safety for all. How can we make prisons a stable environment again for both staff and inmates? MCO leaders are reaching out to MDOC administrators to find safe solutions. The safety and security of prisons is MCO’s number one objective.