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Prisoners Pay the Price of Food Cost Increases

Before one goes to jail or prison, what one eats is usually taken for granted. After one finds oneself imprisoned, what is presented to eat becomes a huge issue. With the trend towards privatization of prison services and economic pressures upon local and state governments, the concern about a nutritionally adequate diet for prisoners is growing.

Of course, prior to being imprisoned, the choice of what one eats is a matter of taste. When confronted with jail or prison cuisine, there is only the option of eating what is presented or eating from the canteen if one has the funds. Most jails and prisons utilize a rotating menu to plan meals. Some utilize meal planning by what is available at the lowest price.

Over the last decade, jail and prison officials have been turning to private companies to cut the cost of feeding prisoners. Leading the way in obtaining contracts to feed prisoners is Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services, but the privatization of feeding prisoners actually started in Alabama.

Over 80 years ago, Alabama passed a law that gave sheriffs $1.75 a day to feed each of the jail’s prisoners. While that law went into effect in 1927, it is still the system used today. Under that system, the sheriffs personally profit if they feed prisoners for less. That is because they are paid for services rendered individually, a system that creates bad results.

For prisoners, the food they receive is like being on rations. “Most of it is like powdered food, and the portions are minimal in county jails,” said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, who visits Alabama jails to register prisoners to vote.

One day’s menu at the Limestone County Jail revealed the meager fare provided prisoners to meet their nutritional needs. For breakfast, prisoners were served two pancakes, sausage, and milk. Lunch was peanut butter sandwiches, chips, and Kool-Aid. To end the day, dinner was white beans, turnip greens, fried squash, cornbread, and sweet tea. “They get a lot of beans, but we feed them meat every day,” said Limestone’s Sheriff Mike Blakely.

Alabama’s system has also cheated the taxpayers. The money paid to feed prisoners goes into the sheriff’s personal account. That not only makes it impossible to determine how much the sheriff profits by feeding prisoners, but it has caused taxpayers to lose the money meant to pay for feeding prisoners.

When Etowah County Sheriff James Hayes died in October 2007, his estate kept thousands of dollars in his personal account that were taxpayer dollars paid to feed the county jail’s prisoners. His successor, Todd Entrekin, said he took out a $150,000 loan to purchase food for the jail. “It’s the most money I’ve ever borrowed in my life, even more than for my house,” said Entrekin. That loan seems to be a good investment. Cherokee County Sheriff Jeff Shaver has said that he feeds his prisoners and still turns a profit.

Turning a profit from feeding prisoners is exactly why Aramark entered the “correctional food service” business. A large portion of Aramark’s business had traditionally been managing food services for Major League Baseball stadiums, universities, and schools. Its most recent contract allowed it to cater to athletes at the Beijing Olympics. Aramark is also politically active, having provided the food at the 2000 Republican National Convention and being a major GOP campaign contributor.

In 2001, Florida Governor Jeb Bush pushed to award Aramark the contract to feed the state’s prisoners. Aramark made a smooth transition by trying to keep the prisoners happy. That was smart: “If you mess with someone’s food, there’s likely going to be inmate unrest,” said Richard Prudom, Chief of Staff for the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).

Within weeks of taking over FDOC’s food services, Aramark got on to the business of making money. FDOC helped in that endeavor by changing the menu. Despite having a contract that requires Aramark to follow the established menu and be paid regardless of whether or not a prisoner eats, FDOC made menu concessions that allowed Aramark to cut costs without decreasing the costs to the state.

FDOC altered the menu to eliminate beef products, implementing a turkey based menu. The milk was reduced to 2% milkfat to 1%. Portion sizes were cut. One of the biggest changes in FDOC’s kitchen is “progressive cooking.” This is the practice of not cooking enough food to feed the entire population and then cooking leftovers the supplement the shortage. That practice is effective because guards do not enforce requirements that sufficient amounts be cooked as the contract requires.

The biggest change in FDOC’s kitchens has been the decrease in food quality. This has come in not only cheaper products, but poor preparation, which results in less prisoners going to eat certain meals. As such, the “progressive cooking” and poor quality equates to higher profits.

Finally, FDOC seems to be catching on. “Feed rates have declined sharply since the contract’s inception in 2001,” says an FDOC internal audit, “creating a windfall for the vendor and reducing the value of the services provided without a proportionate decrease in per diem rates charged to the Department.”

That audit noted that when FDOC operated its food service, the cost was $1.60 per prisoner per day. When Aramark took over that service, it was paid about $2.30 per prisoner per day. Its current contract pays it $2.65 per day for each prisoner. In February, 2008, 15% of prisoners at prisons served by Aramark were not eating the company’s meals.

As Aramark is the only restaurant in town for prisoners, one wonders why they would avoid the free meal. Certainly, the palatability of the food presented is a factor. Another factor is fear of getting sick. In April, 2008, 277 prisoners at FDOC’s Santa Rosa Correctional Institution became sick after eating chili. Whether it’s a matter of coincidence or the corporate practice of using leftovers in meals, 50 prisoners at Colorado’s Larimer County Detention Center also became sick in February, 2008, after eating chili.

Yet Aramark believes its meals are the best thing since sliced bread. “It’s a tremendous piece of inmate happiness,” says Laurie Stolen, inmate services director at Larimer County. Prisoners, however, are not happy.

“We used to get two slices of bread, then we got one. We only got a half-scoop of vegetables instead of a full scoop,” said Angela Sewel, who was imprisoned at Wisconsin’s Taycheedah Correctional Institution, which is serviced by Aramark. “They ran out of milk…the soda was being watered down. They really cut back.”

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Jail was serviced by Aramark until August, 2007. When interviewed by media, one prisoner held up an orange slice of cheese, saying “I don’t think you could melt this with a blast furnace.” Prisoners say things improved when a new food vendor, Canteen, took over. “You can melt this cheese,” said a prisoner about Canteen’s fare.

While questions are being raised about Aramark’s service in prisons, those attending functions that the company services need to be alert. In October, 2007, Aramark was issued 493 citations for code violations at California’s McAfee Coliseum in Oakland. The citations included food being exposed to “overhead leakage, dirt, insects, rodents, and chemical contamination.”

Aramark is trying to expand its operations to service the 3,200 prisoners at Tennessee’s Shelby County Jail. They promise to save the county $500,000 a year in food service costs. An additional $100,000 will be spent by Aramark to upgrade the jail’s kitchens.

Meanwhile, the FDOC is serious about reexamining its decision to privatize its food services. In addition to FDOC’s audit, the state auditor general’s office is now investigating those services. In 2008 alone, FDOC has fined Aramark $241,499 for slow meals, insufficient staffing, and other contract violations.

Since 2001, FDOC has fined Aramark over $864,000, but $300,000 of that was rescinded by former FDOC Secretary James Crosby, who is serving federal prison time for accepting kickbacks from FDOC’s canteen operator.

Those who are considering privatizing their prisoner food service should pay attention to FDOC’s audit, which concluded, “the outsourcing of food service operations has not met its stated objectives. Either the contract should be modified to pass savings from reduced vendor performance on to the department, or the department should consider restoring food services to an in-house function.” In-house food service “would save the state $7 million annually, while at the same time feeding more inmates.”

That report also found Aramark received a $10.5 million windfall by charging for meals it never served and by substituting cheaper ingredients without approval. The question remains why prisons and jails continue privatization. Gov. Bush’s privatization czar quit when she learned he was more interested in privatization than saving money for taxpayers. Perhaps the interest was more to repay a favor for the campaign contributions.

Sources: St. Petersburg Times; Palm Beach Post; Oakland Tribune; The Coloradoan; Associated Press; Post-Gazette; JSOnline; Commercial Appeal

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