Ohio‘s prison food service contractor, the Philadelphia-based catering giant Aramark Correctional Services, has compiled an egregious record in this state, in Michigan, and around the nation, including unsanitary conditions and staffing shortages. It belies Ohio’s mission of maintaining safe and humane prisons that work to rehabilitate its more than 50,000 inmates.
To its credit, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) has put in place a rigorous monitoring system. Still, ending the state’s two-year, $110 million contract with Aramark would best serve Ohio’s $1.5 billion prison system. If not, the General Assembly must directly oversee the state’s contract with Aramark, ordering regular reports from DRC and holding public hearings.
In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder recently fined Aramark $200,000, citing unapproved menu substitutions, inadequate staffing, and employee misconduct. Michigan also received reports of maggots in food, though the Michigan Department of Corrections now says Aramark was not to blame.
Either way, the fine was a slap on the wrist in the context of a $145 million contract. The state had enough on Aramark to fire the company immediately.
Ohio’s contract with Aramark started last September. Since then, it has received similar complaints, including maggots in food, staffing shortages, and running out of food. The state fined the company $142,000 in April for failing to meet staffing levels and other problems. Aramark’s contract in Ohio is scheduled to end in June, 2015.
Records obtained by the Associated Press found 65 instances in which Aramark failed to provide food or ran out if it, leading to delays and in some cases security concerns as hungry inmates became frustrated. In May, the AP reported, corrections officers stopped breakfast to prevent a mass protest at Warren Correctional Institution in southwest Ohio by inmates who were upset at being served only white bread and peanut butter.
Records also showed five reports since January of maggots in food or food preparation, several days when employees failed to show up, and inappropriate and unauthorized relationships between inmates and Aramark employees.
Aramark, which operates in more than 500 prisons, has had problems nationwide. In Florida, a 2007 internal audit concluded that the company’s practice of charging the state per inmate, instead of per meal, cut the company’s costs by nearly $5 million. Many inmates there stopped showing up for meals, possibly because the food was so bad that prisoners who could afford to do so purchased food in prison stores.
Aramark stopped serving Florida’s prison meals in 2009. That year, a prison riot in Kentucky, sparked by food issues, led to another state audit. That review found Aramark overbilled the state by as much as $130,000 a year.
DRC says Aramark has saved Ohio more than $13 million. Aramark managers are required to attend orientation training, and DRC plans to invite local health departments to inspect all 28 prisons. The contract requires Aramark to follow all DRC policies and procedures.
Most prisons “are experiencing few if any incidents,” DRC said in a statement, adding: “Aramark has not had any violations from county health department inspections that required food service operations to be interrupted or suspended.” Still, DRC noted at least 12 confirmed sanitation issues related to fly larvae.
“Maggots are absolutely unacceptable,” DRC stated. “While we have seen some improvements since April, significant incidents have occurred. We have made it clear to Aramark that improvements must continue.”
Given Aramark’s record, however, it’s questionable whether the company can save Ohio significant amounts of money without severely cutting corners, endangering the health of inmates, and undermining prison security.
More broadly, Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s push to privatize prison operations is, at best, misguided and risky. Private companies often cut costs with less employee training, lower salaries, and fewer benefits.
They also are usually far less transparent. They have no economic incentive to ensure that the 95 percent of inmates who leave prison are better prepared to succeed and not return to prison.
Ohio should terminate its contract with Aramark now. If not, lawmakers have a duty to ensure, through vigilant oversight of performance and costs, that this troubled company meets its obligations to Ohio.