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Food Problems Contribute to Riot at Kentucky Prison

by David M. Reutter

A major riot at Kentucky’s Northpoint Training Center on August 21, 2009 resulted in 16 injuries and the destruction of several buildings critical to the prison’s operation. The riot was the second serious incident at the facility in as many years, and both involved food-related issues. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.40].

The disturbance occurred the same day that prison officials had started releasing prisoners following a three-day lockdown. After 10 to 15 Hispanic prisoners assaulted black and white prisoners on August 18, the facility was placed on lockdown during an investigation to determine who had participated in the attack.

The prison began a “controlled movement” schedule on the evening of August 21, 2009, allowing prisoners to enter the recreation yard on a dorm-by-dorm basis. Soon afterwards the prisoners began rioting and setting fires.

It took guards about two hours to regain control of the medium-security 1,200-bed facility. Eight guards and eight prisoners received minor injuries; four of the prisoners were hospitalized. Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown said the lack of serious injuries “was as close to a miracle as you can get.”

Six buildings were extensively damaged. The kitchen, canteen, medical center, visitation area and two dormitories were set ablaze. Prison officials transferred around 700 prisoners to other facilities across the state; the remaining prisoners were housed in a 196-man dorm, the gym and the chapel.

The damaged buildings were a total loss, and prison officials plan to raze and rebuild them at an estimated cost of $10.8 million. “We will have to start from scratch,” said Brown.

In October 2007, 60 to 70 prisoners at Northpoint staged a peaceful sit-in on the rec yard to complain about the prison’s food and commissary prices. An accreditation team that visited the facility a year later noted that a “common theme of the complaints was about the quality of food service and the canteen prices.” Prisoners and their family members who contacted Lexington’s Herald-Leader said food-related issues continued to be a source of unrest and were a factor in the August 2009 riot.

Prison officials defended their private food contractor. At Northpoint, “there are nutritional standards and calorie levels that must be met, and there is a certified dietician who reviews the menus, so inmates are being offered nutritionally balanced meals,” said Justice Cabinet spokesperson Jennifer Brislin.

Regular PLN readers will recall that Northpoint’s food service provider, Aramark, is known for skimping on ingredients and providing unpalatable meals, and has had food cleanliness issues. Aramark provides meals for Kentucky’s prison system for $2.63 per prisoner per diem. The state saves about $5.4 million a year by contracting with the company; some of the savings were used to give pay raises to prison employees.

Under increased scrutiny following the August 2009 riot, Aramark’s $11.8 million annual contract with the Kentucky DOC is now on shaky grounds. State Rep. Brent Yonts has filed a bill that would cancel the contract and prohibit privatized prison food services (HB 33). [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.36].

Rep. Yonts said he had received numerous complaints about prison food quality, shortages and even “crawling creatures in the food” over the past year. He noted that some prisoners claimed they found hair balls, rocks, cardboard, worms and even human feces in their meals. Guards who responded to questionnaires distributed by Yonts said food-related issues had caused “control” problems with the prison population.

“There’s no reason for people to be treated inhumanely,” Rep. Yonts stated. “I don’t think the system is recognizing the problem with Aramark. I’m hoping the administration will ... cancel the contract.”

Kentucky prison officials, however, maintained that food was not the primary reason for the riot, claiming it was due to the lockdown and tighter restrictions on yard movement at Northpoint. However, upon being questioned by lawmakers, Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson admitted that prisoners “do not like the food” served by Aramark. Prison guard Matt Hughes, who testified at a legislative hearing, was more direct. “The food was slop,” he said.

A summary of an investigative report by the Kentucky DOC was provided to lawmakers on November 20, 2009. Legislators were not initially informed that they hadn’t received the full report, and it took two weeks of requests and the threat of a subpoena to obtain the original unedited version.

The summary initially provided by prison officials emphasized that anger over the lockdown and yard restrictions at Northpoint had resulted in the riot. The role of food was downplayed. But the original unedited report indicated that almost every prison employee and prisoner who was interviewed cited complaints about food quality and canteen prices as contributing factors to the disturbance.

On the day of the riot, some prisoners reportedly dumped food trays on the floor in the dining hall during the morning and lunchtime meals. “Apparently, there had been complaints for years about the quality of the food, the portion sizes and the continual shortage and substitutions for scheduled menu items,” the report stated, noting that “sanitation of the kitchen was also a source of complaints.”

“Systematic failure of management over time to deal with the food situation resulted in the riot, which was foreseeable and predictable,” Rep. Yonts said at a Jan. 27, 2010 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, which voted in favor of HB 33. The following day, the State Auditor’s office announced it would be conducting an audit of Aramark’s performance under the prison food service contract.

Governor Steve Beshear said he wasn’t pleased with the legislature’s “continued fixation with the menus for convicted criminals,” stating, “We have more than 10 percent unemployment and Kentucky families are struggling to put food on the table, and I am loath to consider millions more dollars for criminals who wish they could go to Wendy’s instead.”

Lawmakers were not dissuaded. “The truth is we had a riot over there that’s going to cost the taxpayers of Kentucky probably upwards of $10 million, and we need to find out what the hell happened,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said in response. Rep. Yonts agreed, stating bluntly, “The root problem was the issue of food.”

Yonts cited a May 2008 Lyon County grand jury report, based on a visit to the Kentucky State Penitentiary and Western Kentucky Correctional Complex. “We were distressed and concerned about the food services being operated by private industry,” the grand jurors wrote. “Those of us who had eaten at the center prior to privatization were greatly disturbed at the difference in the quality of the food. We, in the strongest terms, urge Corrections to return to the previous system and utilize more inmate labor in the cooking and preparation of the food.”

Rep. Yonts’ legislation and the state audit of Aramark’s food service contract with the Kentucky DOC both remain pending.

Sources: Herald-Leader, Associated Press, Courier-Journal,

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