Push to end privatized prison food clears first hurdle

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A state House budget panel Tuesday unanimously approved Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to end controversial privatized food service in Michigan prisons, meaning the proposal to rehire state workers for kitchen jobs cleared an early hurdle.

But legislators and the Michigan Department of Corrections are at odds over a separate budget provision that would require the state to close its third prison since 2016 due to a steadily declining population.

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

Snyder announced plans to end the outsourcing in February after two vendor contracts were marred by food quality complaints, instances of maggot infestation and inappropriate contact between kitchen employees and prisoners, including sexual activity.

“We haven’t experienced the overall costs savings that we desired,” said Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections. “It’s something we gave a fair shot to. We tried, and it just hasn’t seemed to work.”

The state hired Aramark in 2013 but canceled a three-year, $145 million contract in 2015. Trinity took over food service that year after signing a three-year, $158 million contract with the state but has been fined more than $2 million for unplanned meal substitutions, delays, staffing shortages and contract violations.

With the Trinity contract set to expire at the end of July, the advancing House budget includes $13.7 million for the Department of Corrections to end privatization and hire up to 352 state workers. Of that, $6.6 million is considered “legacy costs” rather than new spending.

But the House budget could also force some state employee layoffs by requiring the state to close a not-yet-identified prison in the upcoming fiscal year, a move projected to save more than $16 million annually.

Michigan’s prison population is down nearly 20 percent over the past decade, with fewer than 40,000 prisoners now behind bars, “and we’re pretty confident that these numbers allow for one more closure,” Pagel said.

Michigan closed the Pugsley state prison in Grand Traverse County in 2016 and officially shuttered the West Shoreline Correctional Facility in Muskegon two weeks ago.

The West Shoreline closure is expected to save the state $18.9 million in the next budget year. Some staff were reassigned, but others were laid off, corrections department legislative liaison Kyle Kaminski told lawmakers.

But closing another prison as soon as next fiscal year might not be feasible, Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz said.

“We have the same goal, which is continuing to reduce our prison population, which will ultimately lead to another prison closure, but we just did one two weeks ago,” he said. “We don’t have the excess capacity to close another one, and our projections don’t show we’d be able to by the end of this year.”

The Republican-led Senate has not yet weighed in the corrections budget or Snyder’s plan to end privatized food service, a move long supported by minority Democrats.

“We’ve not made any final decisions,” said Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, who chairs the budget subcommittee and is assembling a work group to explore the possibility of training more well-behaved inmates to fill kitchen jobs.

The work group, set to meet Wednesday for the first time, includes the Michigan Restaurant Association, other restaurant industry leaders, the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development and the corrections department.

“I am concerned about taxpayer value and prisoners being prepared for a life behind bars,” Proos said.

The state already uses prisoners in kitchens and operates some training programs, but expanding those programs would require extra funding to pay for separate kitchen equipment, Gautz said.

“They don’t run these programs in the chow halls because the chow halls are constantly full all day long preparing food and serving food to prisoners,” he said.