State set to end private prison food service

Michael Gerstein, and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday said the state is moving away from paying private vendors to prepare state prison food.

His budget proposal unveiled to lawmakers at the Capitol included a proposed $13.7 million in new money for prison food with the goal of returning the job to state workers following several years of problems with private prison food vendors Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group.

The extra money appears targeted at financing the move back to state food workers.

“We’ve worked with a couple of different private vendors on that process,” Snyder said. “Their cost structures, a number of issues, I believe it’s appropriate to say the benefits of continuing on that path don’t outweigh the cost and that we should transition to doing that back in house.”

The Republican-led Legislature voted to privatize prison food in 2012, a move that was projected to save the state $16 million a year as contract workers replaced more than 370 state employees.

The state canceled an initial three-year, $145 million contract with Aramark in the summer of 2015 after allegations of sexual activity between employees and prisoners, unsanitary conditions including maggots and food problems. Aramark’s contract began in December 2013.

Trinity took over food service in August 2015 after signing a three-year, $158 million contract with the state. It has since been fined more than $2 million for unplanned meal substitutions, delays, staffing shortages and contract violations.

But this summer, the Michigan Department of Corrections will return to a state-run food service after agreeing not to renew another contract with Trinity when the current contract expires — a move that was called a mutual decision by the state and Trinity.

Michigan fined Trinity $4.5 million in total for contract violations, unplanned meal substitutions, delays and staffing shortages. The state forbid 197 Trinity contracted workers from working in state prisons, essentially firing them. Last year, Trinity asked the state for a 10.3 percent increase -- totaling $5.2 million -- to help with staffing issues, said Correction spokesman Chris Gautz.

Gautz said $6.6 million of Snyder’s $13.7 million prison spending increase request are “legacy costs” and would not constitute new funding.

The move is being met with mixed reactions across party lines.

Rep. Laura Cox, the Republican and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said “there will be some angst with probably both chambers” because of the increased cost of shifting prison food services back to the state.

“My knee jerk reaction is not supportive of that,” Cox said.

But Democrats such as Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, said the shift was a long time coming.

“When you try to privatize services, it often means you’re getting a lower quality product,” he said. “”This idea that you can govern with spreadsheets doesn’t work because people are human beings and we have to make sure we’re putting people first in our budget.”

The shift would bring about 350 state workers back into prison kitchens, according to the Department of Corrections.

“As the contract with Trinity was approaching its end, we took the opportunity to re-examine our operations,” Corrections Director Heidi Washington said in a statement. “After discussing options with Trinity, it was determined it was in the best interest of both parties not to renew our agreement. We believe the department’s needs would be better met by returning to state-run food service.”

The unionized prison workers had complained about the privatized food service and called for a return to state-run prison food service.

The state corrections system said that while private vendors saved money, the savings did not outweigh problems with food preparation, high employee turnover and other problems.

A liberal group that has called on Snyder to scrap private prison food contracts for years praised the announcement in a statement Wednesday.

“Progress Michigan has been calling for this cancellation for years and we uncovered many of the problems with these contracts, which, frankly, should have ended years ago,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. “The abuses and waste that has resulted from these contracts have endangered corrections officers, prison employees and prisoners.”

The Michigan Corrections Organization, the union for corrections officers, is lauding the proposal as helping to boost prison safety, said Andy Potter, the union’s chief of staff and vice president.

Having bad and meager food “puts the folks that are incarcerated along with the staff in danger. ... It’s a safety issue, to put it short,” Potter said.