by Ed Lyon
A tide of complaints has surfaced around Florida-based Trinity Services Group, one of the largest food service providers to correctional facilities in the nation. At issue is the provision of adequate, nutritious and healthy meals, since one study has found prisoners are six times more likely to contract a food-borne illness than non-prisoners. But prison safety is also a factor, considering that prisoners sometimes riot or protest due to poor food.
For example, describing their watered-down meals as “soupy,” hundreds of Michigan prisoners at the Kinross Correctional Facility staged a hunger strike in March 2016 to protest the substandard food served by Trinity. Other strikes followed the next month, involving prisoners at the G. Cotton Correctional Facility and the Chippewa Correctional Facility. Another on May 24, 2016 involved over 700 prisoners at the Marquette Branch Prison.
The protests failed to improve Trinity’s food service, however. A riot broke out at the Kinross prison in September 2016, in which poor food was a factor. Late in 2017, officials found maggots in three separate incidents at the Cotton facility, where prisoners also complained about “crunchy dirt” in potatoes. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.48].
After switching in 2015 from Aramark, another major food service provider, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) fined Trinity $3.8 million for staff shortages, unauthorized meal substitutions and other violations – including an incident in which prison kitchen workers were ordered by Trinity managers to sort a bag of rotting potatoes and discard just the maggot-infested ones.
Other problems included food stored at the wrong temperature, workers with expired food handler permits, storing food too close to restrooms, and not rinsing soap and cleaning chemicals from utensils. Around 180 Trinity employees were cited for misconduct, including smuggling contraband and having improper relationships with prisoners. [See: PLN, Jan. 2018, p.46].
The MDOC announced in February 2018 that it would bring prison food services back in-house, though the state agreed to pay Trinity $35 million to continue providing meals and to let prison officials use its meal-tracking software during a one-year transition period.
Complaints also arose after Trinity took over food services at the Gordon County jail in Calhoun, Georgia in 2014. Prisoners reported in January 2015 that they fought hunger by licking syrup packets, eating toothpaste and drinking lots of water. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the same month that some prisoners at the jail complained of weight loss. One prisoner filed repeated grievances consisting of one word: “Hungry.” In a letter to county officials, the Southern Center for Human Rights noted that courts have held prisoners are entitled to “substantial and wholesome” meals.
Trinity charges $1.772 for each meal at the Gordon County jail, where prisoners receive just two meals a day.
A riot broke out on November 19, 2016 at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado over the quality of food provided by Trinity, after county officials switched from Aramark earlier that year.
The following month, a Muslim prisoner at the jail filed a complaint claiming that Trinity refused to provide a halal diet – violating an American Correctional Association standard that specifies special diets are to be “provided for inmates whose religious beliefs require the adherence to religious dietary laws when approved by the facility chaplain.” Another El Paso County Criminal Justice Center prisoner, Ashley Peterson, said Trinity had failed to provide her with gluten-free meals for a month after she entered the jail, resulting in internal bleeding.
“Food allergies are not something you want to play with,” she said.
Indeed, there have been cases where prisoners have died due to corrections officials not accommodating food allergies. [See: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.54; April 2014, p.18].
With over $500 million in annual revenue from serving 250 million meals to 470,000 prisoners in 44 states, Trinity submits bids for food service contracts at extremely low rates.
Weber and Davis counties in Utah contract with the company to provide meals at their jails. In 2015, Weber County signed a three-year, $3,960,000 contract with Trinity for $1.017 per prisoner meal. The following year, Davis County, north of Salt Lake City, signed a five-year contract with the food service firm for over $1 million annually at $1.10 to $1.30 per meal.
Davis County received a report of prisoners being fed from brown bags emblazoned with the notation “not for human consumption.” Similar complaints were submitted from the jail in Weber County.
Weber County’s health department has substantiated complaints of moldy bread, a casserole infested with maggots or weevils, watered-down food, food with chunks of dirt and maggoty beans – though the health inspector opined the suspected maggots could have been bean seed embryos (he couldn’t say for sure because he never saw the actual meals).
However, Weber County sheriff’s deputy Kevin Burton said that “four complaints [of tainted food] in 2-1/2 years is a pretty good record,” adding that one of the ways quality is ensured is by having jailers eat some of the meals.
“You look at those companies, and they’re in it to make a profit,” said Tim Thielman, food service administrator at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota and the immediate past president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates. “I don’t want to talk bad about the companies, but it’s about money to them, and if there are ways that they can feed [prisoners] products that are lesser quality, [they will].”
The Ramsey County Correctional facility, where Thielman works, provides its own food service at a cost of about $1.50 per prisoner per meal, or around $4.50 a day.
“The problem with the privatization of anything in the prison context is that the market forces that we rely on in the rest of society don’t operate in prisons. There’s no consumer choice,” noted David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “If a prisoner doesn’t like the food, he can’t just go somewhere else and put the company out of business.”
Sources: www.standard.net, www.governing.com, www.csindy.com, www.workers.org, www.thinkprogress.org
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