by David M. Reutter
After privatizing its prison food services in 2013, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) has continued to report problems with its current vendor, Florida-based Trinity Services Group – largely the same problems it experienced with its previous contractor, Pennsylvania-based Aramark Correctional Services. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.1].
By the time the state’s contract with Aramark was canceled in 2015, two years into its three-year term, 186 of the company’s employees had been subject to stop orders by the MDOC due to inappropriate – including sexual – relationships with prisoners or for bringing drugs or other contraband into correctional facilities.
Similarly, by August 2017, two years into its three-year contract, 176 Trinity employees had been subject to stop orders that prevented them from working in MDOC facilities. The company had also racked up $3.8 million in fines for contract violations. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.48].
When it terminated Aramark, the MDOC had cited persistent quality problems, including maggots in food serving areas, undersized portions and unauthorized meal substitutions. As reported by PLN, subsequent issues with food portions and substitutions by Trinity preceded a peaceful protest by prisoners at the Kinross Correctional Facility in March 2016. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.63].
Then, in November 2017, an MDOC employee who filed a public records request obtained evidence that maggots in Trinity-served meals had been found on three occasions at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility.
Private vendors operate under a profit motive, which incentivizes cost-cutting. But with a literally captive market, there is no competitive pressure to maintain product quality or quality of service – it’s not as though prisoners unhappy with the food can go elsewhere to eat, other than ordering food from the commissary.
“We just don’t think vendors are a safe kind of thing,” said Mel Grieshaber, former president of the Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO) SEIU Local 526M. “They don’t have the same concern of safety or security.”
The union lost its battle with Governor Rick Snyder when he began pushing to privatize some prison operations, including food services.
In the summer of 2016, Trinity’s parent company, H.I.G. Holdings, a private equity investment firm, acquired Missouri-based Keefe Group, which operates commissaries in MDOC facilities. Prisoners unhappy with meals provided by Trinity must now buy commissary food from its sister company.
Yet in October 2016, the MDOC amended its contract with Trinity to provide payments based on prisoner population rather than the number of meals served – so even if the meals are so bad that prisoners skip them, the company still gets paid.
MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz denied there was any impropriety in the change to Trinity’s contract, insisting that it actually saved the department money previously spent on tracking the number of meals served at state prisons.
Aramark and its staff were completely replaced by Trinity during a transition period from July to September 2015. Providing meals to 42,000 prisoners at 31 state facilities, Trinity received a larger contract – $158.8 million over three years, versus the $145 million Aramark had received. But the MDOC believed, based on Trinity’s experience in other states, that the arrangement would eventually lead to cost savings.
With its merger with Keefe, however, Trinity has put itself “in a position where they can make money off of serving worse food,” stated Aleks Kajstura, who serves as legal director for the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group that believes the companies’ merger presents a problem. MDOC spokesman Gautz disagreed.
“We control the menu, we control what ingredients are used, we enforce the caloric amount that has to be present in every meal,” he said, noting the MDOC was monitoring its contract with Trinity and would enforce any violations with more fines.
He added that, even after accounting for pensions and other costs related to the state employees who were displaced due to the privatization of prison food services, Michigan was saving $11 million annually by using Trinity. However, that figure did not take into account other indirect costs, like the state’s $900,000 cleanup after the disturbance at the Kinross facility.
Another riot was apparently risked by problems uncovered in Trinity-served meals at the G. Robert Cotton prison, which included not only maggots but also “crunchy dirt” in potatoes and mold in apple crisp and pancakes.
Warden Anthony Stewart at Cotton informed MDOC officials in September 2017 that, despite claims that problems with Trinity had been resolved, “we feel they have not been resolved as of today.” He cited menu substitutions due to food shortages and problems with security and cleanliness due to inadequate staff supervision.
In August 2017, a Trinity employee was terminated after reportedly refusing to serve rotten potatoes. During his 20-year food service career, Steve Pine, 48, worked the last 13 months for Trinity at Kinross. He said the potatoes “had black and green mold all over them,” adding, “[i]t was the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in my life.”
An unidentified MDOC guard acknowledged the problem and said the potatoes should have been discarded – because, as MCO spokesman Tom Tylutki recalled, “in no uncertain terms [it was] food quality and quantity” that ignited the 2016 disturbance at Kinross.
Yet the Trinity food service supervisor not only said the potatoes weren’t all rotten, he accused Pine of trying to instigate another riot.
Gautz defended Trinity’s actions, saying that only one-third of the potatoes were actually bad, but because Pine had spoken out in front of prisoners working in the kitchen, all 100 pounds had to be discarded.
“The real question here is what is the value to taxpayers?” asked Lonnie Scott, executive director at Progress Michigan. “I don’t think it necessarily has to be state workers, but we know their track record. We know they did a good job, and they provided quality service.”
When the MDOC’s food service contract was initially awarded to Aramark, 370 unionized state employees lost their jobs. Unsurprisingly, Gautz called staffing problems by the private contractors “the biggest issue.”
“We feel that ... if staffing issues were resolved, the other issues would decrease,” he said. “This contract is working well, and obviously we are working with [Trinity] to do everything we can to make it work even better.”
But as Scott pointed out, “this is about more than the bottom line – this is about people,” adding that it “seems like Trinity is getting the best of both worlds and [is] being able to maximize profits and minimize loss, and taxpayers are footing the bill for that.”
Meanwhile, Michigan prisoners who are stuck with the meals provided by Trinity have little say in the matter.
Sources: Detroit Free Press, www.wilx.com, www.michiganradio.org, www.prisonpolicy.org
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