Mich. prison contractor fined $2M over service issues

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Michigan has fined its new private prison food service contractor more than $2 million for unplanned meal substitutions, delays, staffing shortages and other contract violations since late 2015, the state Department of Corrections confirmed Friday.

Florida-based Trinity Food Services signed a three-year, $158 million contract in July 2015 after the state terminated its initial deal with Aramark Correctional Services over problems, including maggots found in kitchen areas and worker sex acts with prisoners.

The Trinity fines include roughly $900,000 for meal substitutions, meaning Trinity was not able to provide food items it promised and instead served alternatives. The company was also fined roughly $357,000 for meal service delays and around $356,000 for staffing vacancies.

Trinity is contractually obligated to provide the state with 350 prison food service workers. As of Monday, it had 309 employees and 27 others who were set to begin in the near future, according to the department.

Spokesman Chris Gautz said the Department of Corrections is working with the Department of Talent and Economic Development for help reaching new candidates for jobs that have proven difficult to fill.

“The department and director feel staffing really is the key issue,” Gautz told The Detroit News. “If they had full staffing and had a consistent experienced staff, you would have fewer fines for staffing. But we think you’d also see far fewer fines for meal substitutions and delays.”

The state has issued “stop orders” prohibiting 114 Trinity employees from working in Michigan prisons, largely due to “over-familiarity” with prisoners. That’s down from 159 stop orders against Aramark during the same period, Gautz said.

A Trinity spokesperson did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration had fined Aramark $200,000 before ending the contract about two years after the Republican-led Legislature required the state to privatize prison food service in an attempt to save money.

The new deal struck with Trinity includes stricter language requiring fines for various violations. The state deducts the fines from its monthly payments to the company.

Gautz said contract “accountability was always key” for Corrections Director Heidi Washington, who took over the department in May 2015. “This is us holding them accountable, as we do with all our vendors,” he said.

But critics say the Trinity fines are the latest evidence that contracting out prison food service to private companies has been a bad deal for Michigan, which laid off state workers in hopes of cutting costs.

“These services never should have been privatized,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan, who also pointed to problems that surfaced last year at a Grand Rapids veterans home where some residential care aide positions had been privatized. “To me, it’s just another indictment of the Republican philosophy that privatization fixes everything.”

Prisoners in an Upper Peninsula facility staged a protest in March that was prompted, in part, by frustrations with food quality. But Gautz said food was one of several concerns those prisoners had raised.

The department has a solid working relationship with Trinity and is holding the company to its contract, he said.

“Things ebb and flow, but I think on a trend line they are getting better,” Gautz said. “Things are improving, and we want to see them continue to improve. These fines will continue to be assessed.”