Snyder ends Aramark prison food contract

Chad Livengood and Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration on Monday ended a troubled $145 million prison food service contract with Aramark Correctional Services and signed a new agreement with Trinity Services Group.

Philadelphia-based Aramark’s contract to serve food to Michigan’s 45,000 inmates has been riddled with problems. They ranged from maggots found in kitchen areas to rodent-nibbled cake and incidents of workers engaging in sex acts with prisoners, smuggling drugs to inmates and, in one case, allegedly conspiring in a murder-for-hire plot.

Snyder administration officials said the state and Aramark mutually agreed to end the three-year contract after both sides hit an impasse over changes Aramark wanted for meals and billing.

“Both the state and Aramark felt we couldn’t bridge the gap and determined it was best we both go our separate ways,” said Caleb Buhs, spokesman for the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

To ensure “uninterrupted food service delivery,” Trinity will begin a 60-day transition into operating kitchens in the state’s 33 correctional facilities and be fully in control by Sept. 9, DTMB chief deputy director Brom Stibitz said in a statement.

Trinity’s new contract is worth $158 million over three years, Buhs said.

“We will remain focused on moving forward,” Snyder said in a statement. “Michigan will continue to realize significant cost savings from this new contract. Our departments will work tirelessly with both companies to ensure a smooth, collaborative transition as well as quality service, security and safety within the facilities during the change.”

Corrections Director Heidi Washington said a difference between the new company and Aramark is that Trinity is a prison-based food service instead of a division of a larger company with other types of food contracts. Its headquarters are near Tampa, Florida.

“They’re coming to us knowing what it’s like to work in prisons,” Washington said.

She said Trinity will train its prison food workers the same way the state used to train its employees for that kind of work and “they also have a pretty robust (training) program of their own.”

She said Trinity’s hiring process will allow current Aramark workers to apply for jobs in prison kitchens and some will be hired.

A complaint about the current setup, particularly from the state corrections officers union, was that Aramark workers were inexperienced at prison work and vulnerable to influence by inmates.

Trinity specializes in prison food services and provides meals to 300,000 inmates in 44 states every day, according to a bulletin released Monday by the Michigan Corrections Organization, a Service Employees International Union affiliate representing Michigan corrections officers.

Trinity was the company that assisted the state two months ago in a benchmark review of food service expenses as Aramark sought revisions in its $145-million contract with the state, the union said.

A leader of the union local that represents state workers laid off because of the food service privatization said the transition to Trinity won’t make it a better deal for the state.

“The failure of private companies to serve the public good is well-documented across the country,” said Ed McNeil, special assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25. “We need to terminate this contract, bring it back in house and provide the high-quality service you can only get with dedicated state employees.”

The state and Aramark are parting ways less than two years after the Legislature forced the governor to contract out food services to a private company in an attempt to save $14 million annually in the Department of Corrections’ $2 billion budget. The move trimmed about 370 state jobs from the department’s workforce.

Aramark defended its record as it ended the agreement with Michigan, noting it recently got extensions of food service in several other states.

“Regrettably, the partnership with the Michigan Department of Corrections has not worked out as both sides hoped, and that is disappointing,” Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler said in a statement. “We are proud to have served the state during a major groundbreaking shift to privatization and delivering on our commitments to serve 65 million meals in MDOC facilities and save Michigan taxpayers more than $25 million.

“We take full responsibility for all aspects of our performance while operating in a highly charged political environment that included repeated false claims. Ultimately, we were unable to resolve a number of shared issues and as a result we mutually agreed with MDOC to end the contract.”

The Department of Corrections had been spending $65 million annually for in-house food service. Trinity’s services will cost about $52 million annually, Buhs said.

“Michigan taxpayers will continue to save millions of dollars per year, with assurance that the state will receive quality service in return,” Stibitz said Monday in a statement.

Last August, Snyder administration fined Aramark $200,000 for failing to get approval to make meal substitutions 52 times, failing to make the appropriate number of meals 240 times and allowing 12 instances of staff conduct involving “over-familiarity” with prisoners.

In response to the fine, Aramark agreed to give some workers pay increases to stem rapid turnover and boost its staffing levels from 394 to 449.

Approximately 176 Aramark employees had been banned from prison grounds for inappropriate on-the-job behavior, said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

To monitor Aramark’s work, the Snyder administration hired former Indiana corrections chief Edwin Buss on a $160,000-a-year contract. But Buss lasted five months on the job, departing for unspecified reasons in January.

Trinity Services Group was the second highest bidder in 2013 when the state hired low-bidder Aramark. Florida-based Trinity serves food daily to 300,000 inmates in 44 states, according to the company’s website.

Aramark’s work inside the state’s prison system has been heavily scrutinized by labor unions and Democrats, especially the liberal group Progress Michigan, which unearthed thousands of pages of state records related to the contract.

In one instance, Progress Michigan obtained emails between Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, and then-Corrections chief Dan Heyns, who expressed concern about “about losing control of a joint” if prisoners became unruly over the food.

(517) 371-3660