Michigan DOC Audit Reveals $3.4 Million in Overcharges by Aramark; Problems Persist Under New Contractor
Problems for Aramark and its prison food service operations continue to mount. Shortly after being taken to task and fined by at least two state corrections departments due to substandard food quality, understaffing and meal preparation areas contaminated by maggots, the company has been accused of overcharging the State of Michigan $3.4 million related to its contract with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC).
Aramark was the subject of a Prison Legal News cover story in December 2015 that highlighted problems in the company’s prison food service operations in Michigan, including maggot infestations in kitchen areas and an employee who served food to prisoners that had been thrown away because it was nibbled on by rats. Other Aramark employees were barred from state prisons due to misconduct that ranged from improper sexual relationships and smuggling drugs to an attempt to have a prisoner beaten by other prisoners.
Such incidents led Michigan officials to terminate Aramark’s prison food service contract effective September 2015.
According to the findings of a preliminary state audit released in December 2015, Aramark failed to properly implement the “MealTrac” system, which was designed to automatically count the number of meals served to prisoners for billing purposes. The company felt the system did not work properly and produced its own meal counts instead, which directly contributed to the overcharges. The audit concluded the state had paid Aramark “$3.4 million for billed meal counts that exceeded MealTrac counts and, in some cases, also exceeded the facility census counts.”
Additionally, the audit found the MDOC could have held Aramark liable for $3.1 million in penalties due to unapproved menu substitutions, as well as $157,000 for staff misconduct.
Following the discontinuation of its contract with Aramark, the MDOC entered into a three-year, $158.8 million contract with Florida-based Trinity Services Group. The Trinity contract was $13 million more expensive than the state’s previous agreement with Aramark – an indication that providing adequate meals to prisoners can not be done on the cheap.
Further, it appears that additional costs related to privatized prison food services will be passed on to Michigan taxpayers. As reported by the Detroit Free Press, in January 2016 the MDOC announced its intent to create a 30-person unit for the purpose of monitoring the performance of its private contractors, including those that provide food services and medical care.
To critics, the addition of the MDOC auditing unit – at additional expense to taxpayers – in order to ensure contractual compliance on the part of private vendors undermines the notion that privatization is an effective and cost-effective way to provide governmental services. The supposed benefits of privatization had been hotly contested after Aramark won its initial MDOC contract in 2013, displacing around 370 unionized state employees who had provided food services previously.
Roland Zullo, an associate researcher who studies privatization at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy, has voiced concerns about the state’s use of private vendors for corrections-related services. According to Zullo, problems with contractors lie not in the need for additional monitoring, but in the basic premise – that state officials expect contract workers, making close to fast-food wages, to carry out not only food service duties but also security-related tasks (such as supervising prisoner kitchen workers) that are integral to the operation of a correctional facility. The formula doesn’t appear to work, as was borne out by the state’s experience with Aramark. Nor did problems cease under the MDOC’s contract with Trinity.
For example, in May 2016 an unidentified Trinity employee at a Michigan prison was allegedly found in possession of heroin and methamphetamine. The worker was fired. In September 2016, a female Trinity employee was caught making out with a prisoner in a walk-in cooler; she was terminated and the MDOC issued a “stop order” against her. Stop orders prohibit specified persons from being allowed into state prisons.
Also in September 2016, another Trinity worker was allegedly caught while attempting to enter a facility with what appeared to be drugs, prison officials stated.
The Free Press reported that during the first year of Trinity’s prison food services contract, the MDOC issued stop orders to 98 of the company’s employees – 71 of which were for “over-familiarity” with prisoners, which can range from inappropriate plutonic relationships to engaging in sexual acts. While that was better than the 141 stop orders issued during the first 12 months of Aramark’s contract, it’s still a dismal record.
As Michigan Corrections Organization spokeswoman Anita Lloyd told the Free Press, “Trinity may not have as many stop orders as Aramark did at this point in the contract, but that’s not saying much.”
The MDOC’s January 2017 decision to levy $2 million in penalties against Trinity for contract violations, including staffing deficiencies, delays in serving meals, sanitation problems and unauthorized menu substitutions, says much more – and will be reported in greater detail in a future issue of PLN.
Sources: www.audgen.michigan.gov, www.detroitnews.com, www.freep.com