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Hungry Prisoners Dread Privatized Food Services

Privatizing prison and jail services has become a popular avenue for correctional bureaucrats to utilize in the never-ending battle to cut costs to accommodate shrinking budgets and larger populations

Food service is an essential, daily service that has been subject to privatization. The two biggest players, Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group, have been all too happy to provide this service. They charge jails and prisons as little as 75 cents to $2 per meal.

For some jurisdictions, that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings a year. Some report their costs being cut in half. While privatizing food services may save some money in food costs, little attention is placed on the service actually provided and whether prisoners are being properly fed.

Georgia’s Gordon County Jail contracts with Trinity to provided meals for its residents. It houses about 278 persons daily; between July to November in 2014, the jail received 85 grievances about food. One prisoner filed several grievances with a single word: “Hungry”.

Several prisoners claimed they had lost 20 or more pounds in a few months. The grievances were deemed as unfounded. Trinity has little regard for what prisoners think about the meals they are severed.

“They don’t have a choice”, said Jim O’Connell, a Trinity spokesman. We could have a bigger discussion of why they’re there to behind with, but you’re served what you’re served.”

The menus created by Trinity dieticians features starchy items such as rice, macaroni, potatoes, pan biscuits and corn bread. Fresh fruit and vegetables are rarely served. Salad is made from cabbage. The meats, with the exception of chicken, is high in textured vegetable protein content.

Trinity menus are filled with tasty sounding fare: southwestern and country patties, Texas hash, meat fried rice, Tamale pizza, and Tuscan stew are a few examples. In reality, the patties only have different seasonings, high TVP content, and have the consistency and taste of cardboard. The tamale pizza is bereft of tamale or cheese that melts. The other fare cited are fancy in name, but similar in content and preparation.

The prisoners feel that a spoonful of salad or 10 kernels of corn are insufficient portions is of little concern to those focused on savings. “We give them more than we should, “ said one North Caroline Sheriff. “If inmates don’t like it, I don’t care.”

The indifference extends to the courts. Prisoners at Tennessee’s Maury County Jail alleged their food was nutritionally inadequate in a civil rights action. The jail, located on Lawson White Drive, earned a new nickname for its road: Lose Weight Drive. One plaintiff said he lost 16 pounds in his first 15 days in jail and 100 pounds total over 18 months. A jury, however, found for the defense. See: Martin v. ABC Management, USDC, M.D. Tennessee, Case No. 1:12-128.

A lawsuit against Tennessee’s Robertson County Jail (RCJ) reached a conclusion that many prisoners say is the problem with privatized food services: the menu plan is nutritional, but the meals actually served are inadequate. Skimping on portions and ingredients, of course, equals lower costs and higher profits.

Jane Green, a reluctant witness in that case, was requested by the court to review the menu at RCJ. At the request of PLN’s Associate Editor Alex Friedman, she reviewed the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) menus. She found the 2013 and 2014 menus are “adequate in terms of nutrients compared to what some of them were probably eating before incarceration.” TDOC spokesperson Neysa Taylor said the 2014 menu provides 2193.5 average daily calories.

With prison officials being focused on the savings achieved by privatizing food services, they have no incentive to push their providers to provide “substantial and wholesome” meals that courts say are required. Trinity has contracts with more than 400 jails and prisons in 45 states. It recently obtained the contract to provide those services to Florda’s 102,000 prisoners.

Gordon County Jail prisoner Michael Green succinctly summed up what all prisoners who are subject to a privatized prison service desire: “Food. That’s what (we) need is food.”

Source: TNS Regional News; Florida Department of Corrections Adult Master Menu

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Related legal case

Martin v. ABC Management