Ohio’s private prison food vendor’s failure to uphold its $110 million contract is not an isolated incident. It’s a systemic problem that the state must aggressively confront, either by ending the contract or doing a far better job of overseeing and enforcing it.
Responsible for feeding Ohio’s 50,000 state prisoners, Aramark Correctional Services has repeatedly failed to meet mandated staffing levels, the state said this month. The company was fined $142,100 — a fraction of 1 percent of its contract.
Aramark also failed to provide some documents related to prescribed diets at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. Prison employees have logged thousands of alleged problems with Aramark, including menu substitutions, delays in the food line, poor food quality, and small portions.
Aramark’s problems aren’t confined to Ohio. Michigan recently fined the vendor $98,000 for contract violations, including food shortages and substitutions, as well as company employees exchanging love letters with prisoners.
An Aramark worker is accused of trying to smuggle bags of marijuana into a state prison in Jackson, Mich. Food problems also reportedly helped spark a demonstration by 200 prisoners at an Upper Peninsula prison in February.
Other states that tried to save money by contracting with Aramark have reported improper fraternization, food skimping, and overbilling. Florida ended its contract with Aramark in 2008, after an audit found the company skimped on meals to boost profits. Kentucky corrections officers blamed a 2009 prison riot partly on poor food service by Aramark.
In Ohio, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction does not appear to have an aggressive plan to fix the problems it has documented. “We are disappointed that Aramark is falling short of the quality levels we set in place when we privatized our prison food service last year,” DRC spokesman JoEllen Smith told The Blade’s editorial page in an email. The contract is working well at some prisons, she said, and the company is committed to improvements.
Given these contract violations, however, it’s not enough that Aramark says it is committed to change. DRC must ensure that the company makes all needed improvements.
Private companies are inherently less transparent than public agencies. They tend to cut costs by providing less training, lower salaries, and fewer benefits. Any short-term saving from the use of such companies could come at the expense of two of DRC’s core missions: prisoner rehabilitation and re-entry.
The record of private corrections vendors nationally is riddled with incompetence, neglect, and abuse. Even so, many state lawmakers and Gov. John Kasich continue to regard privatization as almost a panacea for running efficient prisons. States privatize prison operations to save money, but they typically underestimate the costs of overseeing contracts.
Aramark’s contract began last September and runs through June, 2015, with opportunities to extend it. If the state does not terminate the contract, it must do a far better job of ensuring that the company meets its contractual obligations.
Doing so will probably require adding DRC staff to monitor compliance, including on-site investigations. Without close supervision, Aramark will continue to ill serve DRC and the taxpayers of Ohio.