Michigan prison food woes drag on

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Food problems continue to plague Michigan prisons in 2017 after Gov. Rick Snyder replaced a previous private vendor over similar issues, state documents show.

Inmates at the Upper Peninsula Kinross Correctional Facility picked through “maggot infested potatoes” to find still-intact spuds for prison meals, according to documents the Lansing-based liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan obtained from the Michigan Department of Corrections through an open records request.

Prison staff noted an “overwhelming stench” from the rotten potatoes and “yellowish/white liquid seeping from the bags” as they attempted to unload the produce in preparation for prisoners’ meals, the documents show.

The report shows that the potatoes were discovered less than two months before a costly riot broke out amid prisoners’ complaints about food quality.

“We have had food issues or prisoner complaints at a variety of our prisons. Kinross doesn’t stand out to me as being particularly worse off than any other facilities that have food service there,” said Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

Gautz said the department received many complaints from prisoners about poor food quality and small portions. The state has received far more complaints since the Legislature required the department to outsource food services to private companies, he said.

“Yes, it would be very fair to say there clearly have been more complaints since then,” Gautz said.

Progress Michigan is asking Snyder to scrap the current private vendor, the Florida-based Trinity Services Group, and instead have the state hire employees to provide the services. The group argues that privatization leads to shortcuts that put the health and safety of both inmates and corrections officers in danger.

“Gov. Snyder and Republicans in the Legislature have chosen to ignore these problems for too long and it’s time they canceled the contract and returned prison food service to state employees,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. “This is what happens when you have a bottom-line approach to governance that puts the interests and well-being of corporate donors over the needs of the public.”

Michigan legislators privatized the prison food service in 2012 to cut costs. The state canceled its three-year, $145 million Aramark contract in the summer of 2015 after allegations of sexual activity, unsanitary conditions and food problems.

Trinity took over food service in August after signing three-year, $158 million contract with the state and has since been fined more than $2 million for unplanned meal substitutions, delays, staffing shortages and contract violations.

The latest disclosure shows that the company also struggles, like Aramark, with maintaining sanitary food.

A 2016 University of Michigan report argued that privatizing state prison food services led to more inmate theft, trafficking and gang activity under Aramark.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has disputed that a gang problem existed in prison kitchens under Aramark and has said Trinity would do a better job.



Twitter: @MikeGerstein