Aramark unfit for duty in Michigan prisons

Donald Cohen

When maggots were repeatedly discovered in Aramark prison kitchens over the summer, it was consistently reported that the company previously had paid a $98,000 fine to the state for previous contract infractions. We’ve now learned that was not true. While the fine was levied against Aramark, it was never paid after Corrections director Dan Heyns intervened and told Gov. Rick Snyder’s office he would “tone down [his] attack dogs, delay or cancel any fines.”

By now it should be clear that outsourcing prison meal services to Aramark clearly hasn’t worked as planned. It should be simple: Aramark served maggot-infested food and should be held accountable with real consequences. But the Snyder administration’s dealings with Aramark have also lacked the kind of oversight and accountability that Michigan taxpayers deserve.

Last month, Snyder announced that Aramark would be fined $200,000 for the latest in a string of deficiencies that have plagued the company’s contract to feed 43,000 Michigan prisoners. Since the contractor took over food service in Michigan prisons in December, Aramark’s contracts have brought national attention to a string of missteps and failures. By February, Aramark had been cited for hundreds of instances of not appropriately feeding inmates, the use of unauthorized substitutions or not preparing enough meals, before the end of February. Those infractions led to the much-publicized $98,000 fine that we now know was never paid.

In June and July, maggots were found in food being prepared for serving, as well as near trays on the serving line.

Aramark and MDOC officials have claimed these incidents to be associated with the facilities and not Aramark’s responsibilities. But these exact same problems (food shortages, unauthorized substitutions, and maggots in food) have been observed in multiple facilities in Ohio, which outsourced prison food service to Aramark about three months before.

Aramark has given the same “not our fault” excuses in Ohio. Are we to believe that it is mere coincidence that so many kitchens that happen to be run by Aramark also happen to have problems that “are not Aramark’s responsibility” that lead to maggots in kitchens, in prison food, and on serving lines?

Since Aramark took over food service in Michigan prisons, at least 80 employees have been issued “stop orders,” which ban the workers for coming into the prisons. Stop orders were issued for offenses such as smuggling contraband and inappropriate sexual contact with inmates, including four workers who were fired over the summer for preforming sexual acts in a walk-in cooler. In the five years prior to Aramark taking over food service, fewer than five public service workers received stop orders. And just last week, we learned that an Aramark employee is allegedly involved in a murder-for-hire plot.

Government contracting only works when there is a “cop on the beat” – in other words a contracting agency that watches carefully to make sure contractors don’t cut corners, that holds contractors accountable with meaningful sanctions and that takes swift action when contracts go bad.

Donald Cohen is executive director of In the Public Interest, a project of The Partnership for Working Families.