The decision by the Justice Department to end its use of privately operated prison facilities is a long overdue reform and one that should also be adopted by the states. Yet the for-profit prison scandals are not limited to those involving companies such as Corrections Corporation of America that are in the business of managing entire correctional facilities.
There is also now a widespread practice of contracting out specific functions at government-run prisons, often with disastrous results. Numerous states and localities have, for instance, handed over responsibility for feeding prisoners to large foodservice companies such as Aramark operating under lucrative contracts.
Like other providers of outsourced services, Aramark has made grandiose promises about the savings that private operation would provide. Many public officials, especially conservative governors looking to shrink the size of the state workforce, have taken these claims at face value and ignored the dismal track record of privatization.
A case in point is Michigan, where in 2013 the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder gave Aramark a three-year contract worth about $150 million covering the state’s correctional facilities. The plan eliminated some 370 state jobs and was supposed to save $12 million a year.
Instead, it led to a nightmare situation in which Aramark was found to be serving maggot-infested food and employing low-paid and poorly trained workers, some of whom fraternized with prisons and smuggled in contraband. These problems were described at great length in thousands of state documents obtained by the Detroit Free Press through an open records request. One of those documents was an e-mail message from the state official in charge of the contract saying he was “at my wit’s end.”
At one point the state department of corrections fined Aramark $86,000 for violations of the terms of its foodservice contract and another $12,000 for fraternization between company employees and prisoners, but those fines were quietly cancelled. Later the state imposed another $200,000 in fines that apparently were collected. Yet a former Aramark worker later filed a whistle-blower complaint alleging that she was fired for objecting to the falsification of records about unhygienic kitchen practices. In 2015 the state bowed to public pressure and terminated Aramark’s contract.
Michigan is just one of numerous states in which Aramark’s performance under correctional foodservice contracts has been less than sterling. In 2000 it was reported that Aramark secretly negotiated with state corrections officials in Ohio to obtain $1.5 million in additional payments on a pilot contract to provide food services at the Noble Correctional Institution, even though other state officials were recommending that the contract be rebid. In the wake of the controversy, the state decided to return the function to public control yet later switched course. In 2013 Aramark won a foodservice contract for the state’s entire prison system. The following year the company was fined $142,100 for violations that included failing to hire enough employees. More fines followed, including a $130,200 penalty for ongoing problems such as food shortages and a lack of cleanliness.
A 2007 audit by the Florida Department of Corrections Inspector General of Aramark’s contract to provide foodservice for the state’s prisons found that the company was serving fewer meals than anticipated and was using less costly ingredients but was not passing along the savings to the state. Officials later fined the company more than $240,000 for slow meal delivery, insufficient staffing and other violations. In 2013 investigative journalist Chris Hedges reported that Aramark served spoiled food to inmates at prisons in New Jersey.
There was a time when much of the public was indifferent to prison conditions and cared little whether inmates were being food that was inedible. But now that there is much wider understanding of the problem of over-incarceration, we need to make sure that those still behind bars are treated with dignity and not abused by privateers.
Note: this post draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Aramark, which can be found here.