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Report reveals stories of poorly run, unclean kitchens in Michigan prisons

A guard tower stands overlooking the yard at one of the state prisons in Jackson
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
A guard tower stands overlooking the yard at one of the state prisons in Jackson

Gangs controlling the lunch-line, staff not following sanitation regulations, and questionable cost-cutting moves are just some of the accusations laid out in a new report on the Michigan prisons’ privatized food system.

University of Michigan researcher Roland Zullo this week released a report chronicling the Michigan’s Department of Corrections’ move to privatize prison food service in 2013. The state signed a contract with Aramark in December of that year.

MDOC parted ways with Aramark last year after problems like staff issues and maggots in the food.

Zullo interviewed corrections officers working in the kitchens, or “chow halls,” who witnessed the transition to Aramark. CO’s recounted problems with under-qualified food service staff, increased food theft, and worsening sanitation conditions.

Zullo appeared on Michigan Radio’s Stateside this afternoon.

“The state jobs that were replaced were very much undervalued,” he said.

In his report, Zullo wrote that Aramark’s cost-cutting measures included reducing employee salaries and eliminating some benefits. Few state food service supervisors went on to work for Aramark, and the company was forced to hire under-qualified candidates. The new recruits were unfamiliar with, and unprepared for, the security concerns that came with the job.

Many new staffers were sanctioned for “over-familiarity” with inmates, while some were cited for drug smuggling and other crimes.

Zullo explained the supervisors oversee operations in a prison kitchen, but inmates are the actual workers. When you have inexperienced supervisors in charge of a kitchen, Zullo said that leads to problems.

“The skills you need to learn to function well in an institutional prison-food environment require months to learn and years to become habitual,” he said, noting that there are added responsibilities in a prison kitchen that many people might not consider.

“To cook food, they have these industrial-sized cans, and you open up those cans and there’s a lid. And that lid is very sharp and it can be made into a very lethal weapon,” Zullo explained. “Well, in the prison system, you have to inventory all those. You have to make sure you keep track of all those lids.”

According to CO testimonials, kitchens were sloppier – literally and figuratively. It became easier for inmates to steal food and makeshift weapons, like can lids. It created a black market inside prisons for food and supplies that was sometimes enabled by staff allied with inmates, helping them gain access to storage areas.

As Aramark reduced portion sizes, another cost-cutting measure, kitchen jobs for inmates gained value. Workers could steal food, or serve larger portions to friends. Because the staff couldn’t police the food line, other inmates were not able to challenge the system and were unable to protest the poor quality and small portions of their meals.

As Zullo puts it in the report: “In short, gangs might be preventing full-scale riots over food.”

Chris Gautz of MDOC refuted this claim of gangs controlling kitchens, saying: “It’s not happening.”

He also said whatever issues this report highlights are in the past. MDOC signed a new contract last year with Trinity Services Group, and Gautz said things are running smoothly.

“The majority of these issues raised in the report have been long discussed,” Gautz said. “The former vendor that’s the subject of all the issues in the report is just that: they’re the former vendor.”

A representative from Aramark was unavailable for comment Thursday.

The Detroit Free Press reported recent inmate protests at one prison over food quality, as well as continued “familiarity” violations by Trinity staff. Gautz called this an isolated incident.

While Gautz said the department still believes a private contract is cheaper than keeping the work in-house, Zullo doesn’t see it that way. When contractors hire fresh staff, rookie oversights mean more responsibilities fall on the corrections officers, according to his report. COs have to spend more time maintaining order in the kitchen, taking them away from other tasks.

Inefficiencies like these are why Zullo said the privatized food system is “not an economic winner.”

“The amount of responsibility needed to go in and to do this work wasn’t worth the $11 an hour or $12 an hour that the private contractor was paying,” he said. “You needed to have jobs of professional status that allowed people to treat the job as a career and not just as a temporary position.”

Ultimately, Zullo believes that returning to the state-run system would be more efficient.

“The contractors that came in had sole-supplier agreements with companies outside this state,” he said. “The Michigan Department of corrections spends anywhere from $35 to $38 million annually on food and supplies. We lost that revenue that could have gone to local businesses and farms.” 

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