By Ben Gauld
State officials, in both Ohio and Michigan, are furious after reports of maggots being found either in the food served to inmates or in dangerously close proximity to where the food is prepared. The link between the two incidents? Aramark.
Aramark is a food services provider that recently signed lucrative deals with both Michigan and Ohio to handle the preparation of the food served in each state’s penal system. Both deals are worth over $100 million. Ohio paid $110 million for Aramark to provide food services to the states prison’s from September 2013 to the end of June 2015 whilst, last December, Michigan shelled out $145 million for a three year pact with Aramark. However, it appears that both states are already having buyer’s remorse.
Since signing the contract with Aramark last September, the state of Ohio has already levied $272,200 dollars in fines due to poor conditions surrounding the preparation and distribution of the food while Michigan imposed $98,000 for similar reasons.
The Michigan Department of Corrections deputy officer, Randall Treacher has accused Aramark of consistently running out of food and making unauthorized substitutions when such shortages do occur.
The state of Michigan claims that their contract with Aramark will save the state between $12 million to $16 million over the duration of the contract. However, the slashed budget resulted in 370 state workers losing their jobs. The result has been an understaffed operation that has left prisoners highly dissatisfied with the quality of their meals.
The conditions of the food served to prisoners in Michigan caused them to protest this February. Two-hundred prisoners at Kinross Correctional Facility marched single file into the courtyard and protested for 25 minutes before returning to their cells. The executive director of Michigan Corrections Organization union, Mel Grieshaber, expressed concern over the quality of food being served in prisons in Michigan. “I hope they get things worked out, because when it gets warm out … we’re just fearful something might kick off” he said. From 2002-12, US prisons have been responsible for 49 outbreaks of foodborne illness resulting in more than 100 ill, according to the Center for Disease Control. Because of our countries questionable past when it comes to food safety for prisoners, his fears are justified.
Grieshaber felt that the quality of the food was unfair not only to the prisoners, but to the guards tasked with maintaining the safety of the institution. “These guards don’t get frequent breaks and often have to eat the food served at the prison themselves” he said. He also seemed concerned about the prospect of restless prisoners which could potentially lead to violent confrontations between inmates and security. He also maintained that, just because the inmates find themselves in prison, doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. “I’d say around 80% of the guys in (prison) are good guys who have made mistakes in their past…they deserve to be treated humanely.”
Because the organization at fault here, Aramark, is a for profit corporation, minimal expenses and corner cutting are incentivized as it makes them more profitable. Aramark is publically traded meaning that it has an obligation to make as much profit as it possibly can to please its shareholders.
A senior attorney with the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, David Plunkett said that the fact that Aramark is a private enterprise doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of their service will be any worse. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s privatized or not. The people who get those contracts ought to be doing a good job.” However, in this particular instance, it is apparent that the privatization of the food industry in correctional facilities has created unsafe conditions for inmates across the country.
Governor Rick Snyder (R) faces pressure from both the political left and right to end the contract and place the food services of prisons back into the hands of state workers to ensure the safety of the inmates. State Representative Sam Singh (D) claimed the states contract with Aramark “only serves to jeopardize public safety”, a sentiment echoed by State Senator Tom Casperson (R) who said that he is concerned “not so much (with) the money, as the safety.”
The unsanitary and generally poor service provided by Aramark has causes Michigan to rethink its contract. Due to the fines imposed on Aramark for various malpractices, the Michigan Department of Corrections is determining whether or not to terminate the contract or, if not terminated, how to rework the contract to ensure higher quality service to the states inmates. However, it didn’t get terminated because we can’t have our governments corporate sponsors feel alienated lest they stop funding our politicians campaigns. Michigan instead appointed an “overseer” to the process which has resulted in Aramark employees pay raises averaging $2 per hour coupled with more workers training and a 20% increase in staffing. It’s shocking that their punishment is being forced to do things they should have been doing anyway but such is life.
While we may call ourselves the “land of the free”, the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population while only containing 5% of the world’s population. Despite the overwhelming amount of people incarcerated in this country, they still are an easy political target for budgetary maneuvering due to the dubious notion that “because they committed a crime, they deserve whatever misfortune that befalls them.” Frankly, this is bullshit and there is a reason our constitution outlaws cruel and unusual punishment. Prisoners deserve, at the very least, humane treatment during their time in the penal system and, for blatantly failing to provide it, the contracts Ohio and Michigan signed with Aramark should be terminated immediately. Sadly, things don’t work as they ought to in our countries political process. After all, money talks, bullsh*t walks and a gigantic, multi-corporation like Aramark surely has enough money to buy a whole lot of megaphones.