Back in February we blogged about our concerns with the privatization of food services in correctional facilities and since then have followed the decision-making in Michigan and Ohio where the state governments have been weighing the option. This week the Association Press covered both states’ recent decisions to contract with private corporation Aramark to provide food service in their prison facilities.
Our concerns and the ones that are highlighted by the AP article are similar: food quality and portion size is diminished, food workers are paid less, and many other general safety concerns. The AP digs deeper and describes some of the specific ways in which cost savings is found in compromising quality, including substituting cheaper ingredients for the ones the company claims to be using.
What’s more, AP exposes what looks like a systematic practice of Aramark - charging states for meals that were never eaten. In the case of a 2001 audit by Ohio’s own state auditor, Aramark was found to have charged the state for almost twice as many meals that it actually served! A 2009 audit found that the company charged the state of Florida for 6,000 more meals than were actually consumed. In short, the company has found a way to save on the front end by serving poor quality food in small portions, and on the back end in their running tabs with these states. To be clear, none of that cost savings gets passed back to taxpayers, but rather remains in corporate coffers. And even if there were a taxpayer benefit for this kind of savings, we find it objectionable to feed prisoners products that are not sold on supermarket shelves because of poor quality.
In response to a near riot over prison food in 2009 and a subsequent 2010 audit of prison food services in Kentucky, that state chose to create a new position to monitor their contract with Aramark. We think that creating safeguards to ensure that services to prisoners, including food health care and transportation are in compliance with standards in general. However, given the body of evidence, we wonder why it took a near riot to implement this measure, and why more states haven’t followed suit. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine how states can continue justifying their contracts with private food service companies like Aramark.
The AP offers some insight into that question. States increasingly cannot justify these contracts, but political haranguing and corporate influence maintain the status quo. Michigan, with the input of some of our own allies, originally decided not to award Aramark a contract to serve meals in their state prison system based on some security and cost-savings concerns identified by some officials. When that decision was released, according to the AP, “Republicans in the Legislature balked and officials re-evaluated the cost estimates, ultimately awarding the contract to Aramark on grounds the company's proposal would cut about $16 million from the state's current $73 million food service budget.”
Evidently, the criteria for what incarcerated people eat and who serves it to them is a question of politics and profit, not health and nutrition for those who will be consuming this food. Politics and profits are the wrong lenses for these decisions, and run counter to the goal of supporting healthy people to re-enter society.