July 10, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Snyder has 'serious concerns' about private food contract at state prisons

Lansing — A food contract for Michigan’s prison system may be in danger after a Gov. Rick Snyder spokeswoman said Thursday “we have serious concerns” about private contractor problems that have included maggots in food equipment and inappropriate worker relations with inmates.

“A number of incidents and overall performance simply aren’t acceptable,” Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said in a Thursday email. The situation is “being closely looked at, and we need to get these things addressed and resolved. Quality and safety are imperative.”

The comments came after two corrections worker unions stepped up pressure on Snyder and Republican lawmakers to dump Aramark as the state’s private prison system food contractor and end a $145 million contract that resulted in the layoff of 370 public employees. The state hopes to save $12 million to $17 million a year through the outsourcing move.

“The (corrections) department has to be embarrassed by now, frustrated perhaps by now, and I have to think they want them to go, too,” said Michigan Corrections Organization Executive Director Mel Grieshaber at a Thursday news conference called by the unions. “The governor has to say this company has had their stab at this, and they have to go.”

Aramark Corporate Communications Director Karen Culer said Thursday union criticism “is about anti-privatization.

“Over the last 38 years, Aramark has served billions of meals to millions of inmates at hundreds of correctional facilities around the country and never encountered sudden and unexplained incidences like those reported in two states in the span of one week,” Cutler said in a statement, referring to a maggot problem in Ohio.

“In any case, we are focused on delivering the service and taxpayer savings we promised to MDOC and the state, and aren’t interested in the political and media circus about anti-privatization,” she added.

The Michigan Corrections Department sent Aramark a letter June 6 warning the company it would strictly enforce the contract provisions regarding any further incidents after July 1. In March, the department penalized the company $93,000 for violations that included over-familiarity between food workers and prisoners and has led to the banning of 74 Aramark workers from the prison system.

Problems mounted as food areas were temporarily shut down and inmates were partially quarantined with apparent food-related illness in two incidentsin which maggots were discovered this month in kitchen areas at two Jackson prisons.

At the Corrections Department’s Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, where new inmates are held pending assignment to a prison, 57 prisoners still were being seen by nursing staff this week for symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea, according to Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan. The cause of the outbreak still is under investigation.

The number of inmates with gastrointestinal illnesses rose to 179 at the peak of the outbreak at the facility, where maggots also were discovered in raw potatoes being peeled for a meal, Marlan said. The warden ordered the entire pallet of potatoes thrown out and the kitchen was scrubbed with bleach.

In an earlier incident, maggots were found in food service equipment at Parnall Correctional Facility, leading to temporary closure of a food serving line and a kitchen scrub-down.

It was followed by a similar outbreak of inmate gastrointestinal problems at Parnall. A relative of one inmate said prisoners believed it was caused by chicken salad left out too long, but it hasn’t been confirmed by corrections officials.

Marlan said Parnall also was under partial quarantine as 182 prisoners experienced symptoms during the past 10 or 11 days. He said a dozen inmates still were ill there, but the quarantine was lifted.

Similar problems are occurring in some Ohio prisons where Aramark provides the food service.

The Columbus Dispatch reported officials Wednesday ordered health inspections in kitchen and food-service operations at all 27 Ohio prisons after maggots were found in two facilities. Maggots also were reportedly found Wednesday crawling out of drains at a third prison.

Grieshaber, whose union represents corrections officers, said other problems have continued at Michigan facilities. He said a food service worker was caught by corrections officers having sex with an inmate in a prison kitchen just this week.

Marlan confirmed Thursday an Aramark worker and a prisoner were found together “on the floor” of a kitchen at the Muskegon Correctional Facility. They were not having sex, but the worker was fired, he said.

The state’s expected savings are being wiped out by “hidden costs,” such as time corrections officials have to spend policing contract violations and corrections officers having to switch from their regular duties to oversee food service when Aramark workers fail to show up for their shifts, said Ed McNeil, special assistant to the president of American Federation of State, Council and Municipal Employees Council 25. The union represents the displaced state food service workers.

McNeil charged that all of the problems his union forecast with a private food contractor have come to pass — food shortages, security breaches, absenteeism and staff turnover.

Michigan House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills, who attended the news conference, argued the state is saddled with a faulty private contract for prison food because the Legislature’s Republican majority has “an ideological obsession” with privatization over public employment.

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