Michigan official feared ‘losing control’ of prison from food problems

Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – — Michigan’s Corrections Department director was worried about “losing control” of a prison six months ago because of a troubled food vendor, according to an email exchange released Thursday.

In a brief email exchange from March, state prison head Daniel Heyns tells Gov. Rick Snyder’s Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore he will “tone down my attack dogs, delay or cancel any fines and give Aramark time to solve the problems.”

The email was sent as problems with Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services began to surface after the company took over state prison food operations late last year, leading to the layoffs of 370 state-paid prison food workers.

“I met with one of their honchos today and he gets the picture,” Heyns told Muchmore about Aramark in the March email, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request by liberal group Progress Michigan. “We were concerned about losing control of a joint and told them repeatedly with no improvement. Our corrective action was too harsh.”

To date, the state of Michigan has fined Aramark nearly $300,000 for “unacceptable” errors. Problems have ranged from unapproved menu substitutions to inadequate staffing to workers having inappropriate contact with inmates, resulting in more than 90 Aramark employees this year being suspended or banned from state prisons.

Heyns was attempting to “tone down the rhetoric and discourage staff from magnifying every contractual issue,” said Russ Marlan, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. The attack-dog reference was directed at the corrections officer union — a fierce critic of food privatization — and other Corrections Department staff, he said.

“His message to staff was going to be that we should focus on making the relationship work as this would be in the best interest of everyone involved from a safety and security standpoint,” Marlan said Thursday.

But another part of an email exchange redacted an email message by Muchmore, which Progress Michigan questioned.

In a release, Progress Michigan spokesman Sam Inglot said it “shows Snyder’s administration trying to stamp out the controversy in March of this year.

“The governor needs to do more than just slap Aramark on the wrist,” Inglot said in a statement. “He needs to end the contract immediately to protect not just taxpayer dollars, but taxpayers themselves.”

In early August, the Snyder administration completed a review of continuing problems with the 8-month-old Aramark deal by announcing an agreement under which an independent contractor would be hired to oversee the prison food services contract.

Snyder also said the company would be docked an added $200,000 over food shortages and unauthorized menu substitutions.

On Wednesday, the Snyder administration announced that former Indiana corrections chief Edwin Buss would be hired at $160,000 a year to oversee the food service contract. His first-year salary is to be paid out of the fines levied against Aramark.

On Thursday, the Governor’s Office said “the contract and food service operations (were) clearly an issue.”

“Problems had been identified on both sides of relationship and getting that situation fixed, along with safety and security at the state’s correctional institutions, was a top priority,” said Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel. “This was simply a request to ease off escalating the tension and work toward identifying the cause of issues and finding resolution.”

The food service contractor said in August an investigation by the Department of Corrections found Aramark was not responsible for multiple incidences of prison illness and maggot infestation in prison kitchens.

At the same time, the state made clear in a letter that Aramark still needs to “correct any sanitation violations” and create a plan to ensure “continued compliance with all applicable sanitation standards.”

gheinlein@detroitnews.com

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