Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Ohio Prison Food Contract Sparks Controversy

In 1998 senior officials of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DORC) were convinced that outsourcing prison food service would be the next great leap forward for Ohio penology. So they bid out a contract for private firms to provide food service at the Noble Correctional Institution. Of the two bids submitted, from ARAMARK Correctional Services of Oakbrook, Ill., and Canteen Corp. of Chicago, ARAMARK's was the lowest.

Commencing October 1, 1998, ARAMARC purchased, cooked, and dished out the food served to Noble's 2,500 captive consumers. The contract specified that ARAMARC was to be paid from $1.24 to $1.27 for each meal it served. That number was to be calculated from an exact count of convicts who ate at each breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Almost immediately problems with the contract began. The profit-conscious ARAMARC served precisely measured food portions that were "substantially smaller' than those received by convicts of other state prisons, admitted Gary C. Mohr, DORC's deputy director for administration.

Within weeks Noble's then-warden Thomas Haskins and other Noble employees began complaining to officials at DORC headquarters that ARAMARK's small portions presented a big problem. Grumbling by prisoners could escalate into a riot, they warned.

Senior DORC officials ignored the complaints. Haskins said he and other Noble supervisors were told by state prison officials to "make the contract work, no matter what."

One of the problems is the contract left little leeway for ARAMARK to make a profit. Hence the smaller portions. With declining quantity and quality of food came declining attendance at meals. And because ARAMARK was paid according to the number of convicts who show up for meals, the lower attendance meant less income, which led to even tighter portion control and other cutbacks.

Prisoners boycotted some meals. At others they threw the food in protest. Something had to give, Mohr told the Columbus Dispatch. "We were concerned about the safety of our staff and inmates," said Mohr.

To curb the mounting hostility, state officials met in a closed-door meeting Feb. 5, 1999, and privately agreed on a new formula, effective immediately. Instead of an exact meal count, ARAMARK's reimbursement was to be based on the prison's average daily head count. This verbal amendment was made without rebidding the contract and without signing any papers to document the revision.

Noble Correctional supervisors, who continue to keep an exact count of the number of prisoners to attend meals, report that ARAMARC through March 31, 2000, has received $1,478,825 in additional payments because of the revised formula. That's about 63 percent above what the original contract would have paid ARAMARK. According to Noble's Deputy Warden, Howard Wilson, the additional payments could top $2 million by the time the contract expires September 30, 2100.

Wilson says he was told by state officials to "Knock it off-leave it alone," in response to his complaints about the overpayments. Haskins says he also was threatened by DORC officials for opposing the ARAMARC deal. Haskins says David McKeen, former chief of DORC's support services division, threatened to transfer him to a less desirable desk job in Columbus if he continued complaining about the contract.

McKeen said he doesn't recall making a specific threat concerning Haskins. But he said Haskins and Wilson "were told the main office wanted this [contract to work], if they couldn't get it done, they'd find someone who could make it work."

Haskins resigned as warden and retired from DORC a month after he was threatened with a transfer. Haskins, who began his 2l year DORC career as a parole officer, remains bitter.

"I quit because I felt threatened," he told the Columbus Dispatch. "I wanted to end my career at DORC and leave there with my head held high. I wasn't allowed to do that."

Wilson stayed on as Noble's Deputy Warden and continued to write letters to state officials. In April, 2000, he finally kicked up enough of a fuss to get some action. Prompted by his complaints, state auditor Jim Petro launched an investigation into the propriety of the contract revision. Wilkinson did say that he and several top aides met with representatives of the auditor's office to discuss "unorthodox issues with the contract."

William Kacmarek, an attorney for the Administrative Services Department, the state's contract-writing agency, said the verbal contract revision is legal.

A copy of the original contract obtained by the Dispatch states that it can be amended only if "agreed upon by the contractor and the warden." Haskins, who was still Noble's warden when the contract was changed, said that he opposed giving ARAMARC more money and never approved amending the contract. Wilson thinks that changing the formula for paying ARAMARK is tantamount to forcing taxpayers to bail out a company that underbid a contract.

"ARAMARC has been in the business a long time," Wilson said. "They know how to bid on a contract. We're not supposed to guarantee them a profit."

Source: Columbus Dispatch

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login