Michigan prisoners protest food quality

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan prisoners in an Upper Peninsula facility staged a food protest Sunday and Monday, according to the state Department of Corrections, which contracted with a new private food service company in August following well-documented problems with the prior vendor.

The protest at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Chippewa County was “ an isolated incident,” said department spokesman Chris Gautz, indicating that the state’s three-year $158 million contract with Trinity Services Group has otherwise gone well.

Roughly 1,000 prisoners staged a silent protest Sunday night, leaving the yard area of the prison about 20 minutes ahead of schedule and returning to their housing units, according to Gautz.

“They were very calm, very polite,” he said. “We did try to talk to some of the prisoners and understood it had something to do with food.”

A large number of prisoners skipped breakfast the next morning, Gautz said. Only 60 prisoners came to lunch and 30 came to dinner, meals that are typically attended by roughly 1,200 prisoners.

Gautz said Trinity added some new items to the prison menu a few weeks ago, and some of the prisoner-population staff at Kinross had difficulty “maintaining consistency” with the new recipes.

The company brought in supervisors and managers to work with prisoner staff at Kinross after weekend complaints, he said, and meal attendance attendance had largely returned to normal by breakfast on Tuesday morning.

“We feel that things have gone pretty well with Trinity,” Gautz said. “Any issues that we have had, they’ve been very responsive to, like this incident. They were right there as soon as we let them know there was an issue.”

The state privatized prison food service as a cost-cutting move in 2011, but an original contract with Aramark was marked by controversy.

The state canceled the three-year, $145 million Aramark contract last summer after a series of high-profile incidents, including allegations that kitchen workers fed inmates a cake that had been partially eaten by rodents. Maggots were also spotted near food in several facilities.

The state has placed 59 “stop orders” on Trinity employees since the company began running food service in August, effectively barring those people from working in Michigan prisons, according to Gautz.

Most of those orders were the result of “over-familiarity” with inmates, a broad term that can include sharing personal information or engaging in inappropriate sexual activity.

By comparison, the state had placed 102 stop orders on Aramark employees during the first eight months of that contract, Gautz said.