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Prisoners, Guards, Students Protest Aramark

by Douglas Ankney

In November 2019, an employee of private food service provider Aramark Correctional Services at Indiana’s Correctional Industrial Facility in Pendleton was captured on surveillance video delivering a package and $300 in cash to a prisoner. Kevin Lake, 26, admitted to smuggling the contraband he had received from a woman at a Wendy’s restaurant, as well as passing money to other prisoners that he obtained through an app on his cell phone. He was charged with felony drug trafficking. 

On September 20, 2019, Aurelia Diaz Brin, 54, an Aramark employee at the Whatcom County jail in Washington, was arrested and booked into the jail for allegedly smuggling drugs, including heroin and Suboxone, into the facility. The Sheriff’s Office said it was reviewing the company’s performance and would recommend that the county contract with a different food service vendor.

The arrests of Lake and Brin were among the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents involving Aramark, which is the 27th-largest employer among Fortune 500 companies, with $14 billion in 2018 revenue from food service contracts with prisons and jails, universities, sporting arenas and other venues. The firm has been the subject of protests from New York to Ohio – by both prisoners and guards, as well as college students – over the company’s meals.

In 2019, New York University (NYU) declined to renew a food service contract that Aramark had held for over 35 years after a failed inspection by the New York City Department of Health found “evidence of mice, filth [and] flies,” and insufficient holding temperatures for hot food. That decision came on the heels of student outrage after the company served “watermelon water” during Black History Month.

The end of Aramark’s contract at the university also followed a December 2018 protest in which NYU students involved with the Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC) – which seeks divestment from companies that profit from mass incarceration – occupied the school’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library atrium to demand that NYU separate itself from any involvement with Aramark.

Complaints against the company and its employees highlighted by the IEC, at both prisons and schools, included sexual harassment of employees and prisoners as well as drug trafficking. But the students saved their worst ire for food portions – “inadequate for even a five-year-old child” – and food safety, pointing to documented evidence that Aramark served rat- and maggot-infested meals to prisoners in Ohio and Michigan, and attempted to serve some Michigan prisoners food taken out of trash cans.

Michigan’s Department of Corrections (DOC) canceled Aramark’s contract after the problems gained notoriety in 2015 news reports, and switched to Trinity, the country’s second-largest prison food service contractor. But after more complaints, the DOC resumed its own in-house food services in 2018. [See: PLN, Mar. 2018, p.14; Jan. 2018, p.46; Feb. 2017, p.28; Dec. 2015, p.1].

“This completely irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars has put hundreds of state kitchen employees out of work, and ... jeopardized the health and safety of inmates and prison employees alike,” said state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, who called the DOC’s since-canceled contract with Aramark “a nightmare from day one.”

Even prison guards refused to eat or handle food served by the company, according to a March 2016 report by the University of Michigan, which found “universal agreement ... that the kitchen areas became less sanitary with privatization.”

Prisoners face an elevated risk of contracting foodborne illnesses that is six times the rate of the general population. Critics of privatized prison food services point to an obvious motive for cutting corners: profit. In a September 2019 blog post, Indiana prisoner Kevin “Rashid” Johnson accused Aramark of intentionally cutting both food quality and quantity in prison meals in order to boost sales at prison commissaries also operated by the company. Johnson said that due to Aramark’s poor food quality and portions he lost 10 pounds in less than a year, forcing him to supplement his diet with commissary purchases.

“You look at those companies, and they’re in it to make a profit,” stated Tim Thielman, a prison food service administrator in Minnesota who is also the immediate past president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates. “It’s about money to them, and if there are ways that they can feed [prisoners] products that are lesser quality, [they will].”

Thielman’s kitchen at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility provides meals at a cost of about $4.50 per prisoner per day. He said some private food service contractors spend just one-third of that amount, something he admits is “hard to believe.”

Aramark’s recent problems also include a near-riot over “meager” food portions that locked down the entire south building of the Hamilton County Justice Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, according to Sgt. Nicholas Kilday, who called for backup after some prisoners showed “aggressive behavior.” One, Michael Mann, encouraged other prisoners to refuse their food. Deputy David Plemons reportedly tried to reason with Mann, but other prisoners followed his lead and refused their trays. Mann received a disciplinary charge “[f]or his attempts to incite the pod to an uproar,” said Plemons. Aramark later apologized for the “unfortunate mishap,” claiming the meal entree “didn’t thicken properly before it was served.”

Even the guards at New York’s Westchester County jail initiated a boycott against Aramark’s food, which was described as “atrocious.” County spokesman Justin Pruyne wouldn’t categorize the protest as a boycott, saying only a small percentage of the corrections employees had expressed dissatisfaction with the company’s meals. Prisoners soon joined the boycott after a letter spread instructions on how to participate by refusing their food trays.

“All it is is water that they claim is a sauce, [with] peas, carrots so it looks like a glow-in-the-dark child’s play toy that’s splat,” commented one prisoner.

In November 2019, a lawsuit was filed against Aramark on behalf of eight current and former detainees at the Santa Rita jail in Alameda County, California, accusing the firm of illegally profiting from free labor by prisoners.

“The U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery after the Civil War, we believed,” stated the plaintiffs’ attorney, Oakland civil rights lawyer Dan Siegel.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Ray Kelly called the allegations “extremely inaccurate,” claiming the low-security jail detainees selected for kitchen work were volunteers. Siegel countered they were not really volunteers because when they became sick and asked for a day off, they were threatened with additional jail time – something Kelly disputed.

In December 2019, several student groups at the four campuses of California’s Los Rios Community College District banded together to demand the school cut ties with Aramark for allegedly poor food quality and selection, as well as restrictions the company imposed on student groups’ fundraising options. Aramark’s contract limits the number of fund-raising food sales on campus and requires that club events must be catered by the firm.

Students also called out Aramark for over 100 contracts it has held since 2005 with controversial immigrant detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The University of Chicago, University of Virginia and Yale University also have a history of student activism against Aramark.

Despite the numerous complaints against the company concerning its food services, employee misconduct and other issues, Aramark CEO Eric J. Foss was paid $16 million in 2018. He retired in August 2019 after an activist investor, Mantle Ridge, bought a large stake in the company. 



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