Privatizing Prison Food Leaves a Bad Taste in Our Mouths

Welcome to The Hump Day Hall of Shame:  Every Wednesday we highlight the private prison industry’s influence on public policy through campaign contributions, lobbying, and the revolving door of public and private corrections.

It’s no secret that prison privatization is not merely bad policy, but fundamentally counters our efforts as a nation to reduce incarceration and rehabilitate members of our society who need it most.  Week after week, we highlight the pitfalls of privatized corrections with accounts of inadequate medical care, understaffing, security and safety issues, inhumane conditions, and the list goes on.  

Today, however, we want to highlight not the privatization of prisons, but something just as troubling and dangerous - the privatization of services within correctional facilities, public and private alike.  

In the past week, reports have surfaced of plans by Ohio Governor John Kasich to hire a private vendor to provide meals to over 50,000 inmates within the state’s prison system, including juvenile detention facilities.  Kasich argues that privatizing Ohio’s prison food service will save the state up to $16 million annually... but at what cost?

When a private contractor can provide an existing service for less, we should ask ourselves how they plan to do it.  What measures will be employed to save money that the state providers couldn’t do themselves?  In the case of prisons, we know those cuts often look like fewer, less qualified, and lower paid staff, which diminishes the safety of incarcerated people and staff in corrections facilities, and can, at times, have deadly consequences.  For Ohio’s prison food service, we’re afraid the consequences of privatization will look just as grim.

And we’re not alone.  The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA), a union representing state correctional staff and thousands of other state employees, is “vigorously opposed” to the Governor’s proposal.  OCSEA President Christopher Mabe stated, “This is unfair, unsafe and hurts us all, and we will not stand for it. We cannot afford to gamble a service as vital as food service, particularly given the rampant assaults on staff and the near-riot at the private prison.”

So, how do privatized food vendors save money?  There are no regulations to prevent them from serving less and lower quality food, or from paying their employees far less than what state workers would earn.  In the case of the youth in Ohio’s state-run juvenile detention facilities, there are federal nutrition guidelines they must adhere to.  But in the case of private vendors, the same rules don’t apply.  It seems Governor Kasich views the guarantee of adequate nutritious meals for incarcerated youth as a worthwhile sacrifice to save the Ohio Department of Youth Services an extra $1.2 million per year.

As OCSEA President Mabe warned, Ohio has already seen a near-riot last month at the privately operated Lake Erie Correctional Institution, run by Corrections Corporation of America.  Additionally, contractors of private prison food vendors across the country are no stranger to sick inmates and lawsuits as a result of poor food quality.  A decrease in quantity and quality of food in every correctional facility across the state could have serious, dangerous consequences.  Incarcerated adults and juveniles alike may be at risk not only of insufficient nutrition, but also of violent outbreaks in protest, which additionally place prison guards and staff in potential danger.  

We, at Grassroots Leadership, believe that privatization diminishes the public’s ability to rest assured that services are provided for the public good, not the good of a few profiteers.  A basic human necessity, such as food, should not be compromised - especially for incarcerated men, women, and youth for whom there is no alternative - no matter the costs. 

Check back next week as we continue to highlight the ever-extending hand of privatization within our justice system and the hidden costs that come with it.