Report links prison food privatization to gangs

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Privatized prison food service and inexperienced kitchen workers have opened the state to more inmate theft, trafficking and even gang activity, according to a new University of Michigan report that the state disputes.

The report from the UM’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy is based on focus groups interviews with corrections officers in April and May 2015. The state has since replaced its contractor, Aramark, but researcher Roland Zullo said Wednesday that the UM findings point to an “underlying weakness” in the the state’s practice of hiring private firms to provide some prison services.

The report suggests the state’s cost-cutting privatization move left Aramark with “little choice but to recruit under-qualified employees, many of whom committed violations of prison protocol and were released from duty.”

Inexperienced contract workers would “understandably” turn to inmates working in the kitchen for advice, opening themselves to prisoner manipulation, the report argues.

“Another response was to fill the vacuum created by the loss of administrative authority in the kitchen, and opportunistically control operations,” according to the UM institute. “Gangs infiltrated the system, and inmates took advantage of the inexperienced contract workers to steal food and other kitchen items, engage in sex and accelerate contraband trafficking.”

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz disputed the suggestion that there is a gang problem in prison kitchens. He noted the state has contracted with a new vendor, Trinity Services Group, since UM researchers conducted their interviews.

“We’ve heard all of these things before except the gang thing — that was a new one, because it’s so ridiculous,” Gautz said. “None of them reflect the actions of our current provider.”

Gautz noted that the department approves all kitchen workers before they are hired by the private contractor.

“If there was a gang problem in our kitchens, which there is not, it would be our fault, not the fault of the outside agency,” he said.

Michigan legislators moved to privatize prison food service in 2012 as a way to reduce costs and save money. The state canceled its three-year, $145 million Aramark contract last summer after a series of high-profile incidents, including allegations of sexual activity, unsanitary conditions and more.

Trinity took over food service in August after signing three-year, $158 million contract with the state.

The company is expected to receive a 1 percent raise next fiscal year because of a cost-of-living provision in its state contract. A budget proposal that advanced last week out of a legislative subcommittee includes an additional $1.5 million for Trinity.

Corrections officers interviewed for the study in 2015 said “food shortages were especially common and disruptive” since the department began using contract kitchen workers instead of state employees.

The Michigan Corrections Organization facilitated interviews, but union officials were not present for the focus groups, according to UM researchers. Interview recordings “were destroyed” after transcription and were not shared with with the Department of Corrections or the union.

“This report further confirms what we already knew: Privatization created food shortages and delays,” Tom Tylutki, president of Michigan Corrections Organization, said in a statement. “Critical kitchen tools were treated carelessly. The contract employees’ training was totally inadequate, and no match for what would be expected of them in a prison setting.”

UM researchers did not intend to focus specifically on Aramark, Zullo said Wednesday, calling the report an examination of “structural causes” of prison food service problems.

“I think those structural factors are more or less still in place,” he said.

A spokesman for Trinity did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Gautz said the department is happy with the contract.

“It’s anecdotal, but we hear from prisoners, corrections officers and staff about how pleased they are with the way things are going,” he said. “We’ve heard good reviews on things like food and staff from the prisoners.”

The UM report questioned savings assumptions by the department and pointed to other economic costs for the state.

For instance, Zullo said the department purchased most of its food from a Michigan vendor, but Aramark had a primary vendor agreement with a Houston company.

“From a statewide perspective, (prison food service privatization) was a failure, and it was a failure from the get-go,” he said.

Gautz said the state corrections department is saving between $10 million and $12 million a year because of the private prison food contract. He pointed to an early 2015 report by the Michigan Auditor General suggesting ongoing savings compared with state-operated food service.

“It’s clear that state taxpayers are saving real money having competitively bid food service,” he said.

Michigan prisoners in an Upper Peninsula facility staged a food protest earlier this month, but Gautz called it an “isolated” incident related to a menu change.

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 due to various infractions, according to the department.

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

Gautz said the department has not changed any policies that would have limited stop orders, suggesting improvements under Trinity.