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Aramark: Prison Food for Thought

Prisoners caged in lockups where Aramark provides the food service rarely enthuse about great quality meals. So it may come as a surprise that an employee of the firm’s German subsidiary won a Next Chef Award on March 11, 2024. After tasting a dish that TV chef Johan Lauffer created, Niklas Herrmann, 23, was the only one of 18 contestants to correctly guess the ingredients and replicate it. President and CEO Arnd Rune Thomas called it “a testament to Aramark Germany’s commitment to empowering culinary creativity.”

If only that could trickle down to prison food. Though no longer forced to subsist on bread and water, those held in U.S. prisons and jails now represent a lucrative business opportunity for private companies including Aramark competitors Trinity and ABL Food Services. But Aramark is the leader, with around 35% of the market. The publicly traded firm is also enjoying a rise in stock price, reaching a market value of $8.44 billion at the beginning of April 2024.

Headquartered in Philadelphia, the company derives most of its revenue from food service contracts with public school districts, colleges and universities, sports arenas and national and state parks. Subsidiary Aramark Correctional Services, LLC contracts with 450 U.S. prisons and jails, generating approximately $1.5 billion in revenue in 2020, about 12% of Aramark’s total business. Utilizing a lot of literally captive labor on the cheap, the firm also supplies kitchen maintenance, laundry, property room and commissary services, making it a big player in the Prison Industrial Complex that drives so much mass incarceration.

Like many other “profiteers” making money from imprisonment—including those supplying medical, mental health, communication, money transfer and transportation services—Aramark also has a troubling history of questionable business practices.

Problems in Multiple States

As PLN reported, Michigan’s prison system canceled its three-year, $145 million contract with Aramark a year early in 2015, amid prisoner protests and reports of food shortages, meal substitutions and unsanitary food service conditions, on top of misconduct by company employees. Maggots were found on serving lines at several lockups, and dozens of Aramark workers were fired or barred from state prisons after smuggling contraband to prisoners or having inappropriate relationships with them. Similar problems, including maggot infestations, were found in Ohio’s prison system, which also contracted with the company at the time, resulting in fines by both states for repeated contractual violations. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.1.]

Aramark claims that it provides “vocational training” through its In2Work program, under which incarcerated workers prepare and serve meals. But a 2019 suit by detainees at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, California, argues that they were subjected to involuntary servitude when forced to perform unpaid work for the company under threat of longer sentences and disciplinary infractions if they refused. As they noted, there is no exception to the Thirteenth Amendment ban on slavery for those not yet convicted of a crime, which includes most jail detainees. The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was stayed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for a question certified to California’s Supreme Court which determined on April 22, 2024, that pre-trial jail detainess have no claim for wages and overtime under state labor laws. See: Ruelas v. Cty. of Alameda, 51 F.4th 1187 (9th Cir. 2022).

In April 2021, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (DOC) elected not to renew its contract with the company following a lawsuit filed by prisoners who claimed they suffered from food poisoning and weight loss after being served spoiled and undercooked food, as well as food contamination by insect, rodent and bird droppings. Aramark had been sued before for serving contaminated meals, settling in 2015 with Michigan prisoners who allegedly were served and consumed food containing fly larvae.

Aramark’s contract with Nevada’s DOC was under “comprehensive review” at the end of August 2023, after state inspectors found “deficiencies” at several prisons, including many issues that had been reported before. Pamela Browning of the nonprofit prisoner advocacy group Return Strong quoted an unnamed and hungry prisoner at Ely State Prison who was eating “toothpaste and Tums antacids or even salt for hunger pains.”

Yet Aramark continues to pick up new business. The Missouri DOC contracted its prison food service to the firm in January 2023, when Gov. Mike Parson (R) signed a five-year $45.7 million agreement. Initially hopeful, prisoners quickly developed a sour taste for their new meal provider, which is saving the state just under $3 million from what it was spending to produce meals. That may sound like a lot, but it comes down to a whopping 38 cents per day for each of 23,500 prisoners the state holds, reducing the cost of feeding each of them to just $1.77 per meal. After that, Aramark apparently has nothing left over for salt and pepper—which C.R., an Eastern Correctional Center prisoner, said would make the meals “taste amazing”—or to fix a broken water line on the ice machine at Jefferson City Correctional Center, which prisoner Gerald Johnson said comes out “moldy and it smells.”

“I don’t even eat in the kitchen because the food is bad, really,” Johnson said. Quality improved when Aramark executives visited; but after they left, he went “about a week and four days where every meal was bologna.”

Examining an Aramark Contract

In August 2016, Aramark contracted with Tennessee’s DOC to supply food services at all state prisons except four operated under contract by CoreCivic. The five-year contract, valued at $118.99 million, equated to a first year per-meal cost of just $1.44, rising to $1.62 the final year. By comparison, the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) “Thrifty Food Plan,” which forms the basis for awarding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (or “food stamps”), pegged the average cost per meal for an adult male to maintain good health at more than $3.34 in February 2024. See: Official USDA Thrifty Food Plan: U.S. Average, February 2024 (USDA).

So how does Aramark do it for less than half as much? In Tennessee, its DOC contract specified that a sample tray for each meal must pass review by prison staff, yet the samples did not always include the same items served to prisoners. Even so, reviewers dinged the company for sample trays with missing items and smaller-than-required portions. The contract further called for monthly surveys of at least 25% of a prison’s population to get food preferences and feedback on the meals served. At Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI) in Nashville, however, prisoners reported that no such surveys were conducted from 2020 to 2022.

The contract also contained ineffective monitoring and compliance provisions. For example, if prisoner food service grievances were upheld 80% of the time or more, Aramark would be in breach of its contract. If 5% of a prison’s population filed food-related grievances during a one-month period that were upheld, the company could be subject to liquidated damages. But DOC grievance boards consist mainly of staff members, and final decisions are made by prison officials—meaning prisoners’ complaints are rarely upheld. Many prisoners are also reluctant to file grievances for fear of retaliation, making grievances a poor means of ensuring contractual compliance.

However, DOC contract monitors have repeatedly cited Aramark for failing to meet staffing requirements. A report on June 3, 2020, found one-third of required staff positions at RMSI were vacant. Six months later, another report found just one had been filled. Other monitoring reports noted expired food products and even rodent problems in the kitchen area.

Review of an Aramark Menu

According to a copy of Aramark’s Tennessee contract obtained with a public records request, DOC’s Standardized Menu must be followed at all state prisons it serves. The menu is jointly reviewed and approved by an Aramark dietician and DOC’s director of food services, updated with minor revisions throughout the year; it consists of 19 meals per week (no lunch is provided on weekends), served on a four-week cycle. The menu is called “heart healthy” because menu items are low-fat and low-salt. In practice, this generally means no fat and no salt. The result is bland. Most vegetables, including servings of beans and boiled potatoes, have no seasoning at all. If prisoners want to add salt or pepper, they must buy it from the institutional commissary.

According to the menu, most of the meat consists of 75% “mechanically separated poultry” and 25% texturized vegetable protein; the rest is also highly processed, including hot dogs, various types of patties, sausages and meat balls. Non-processed meats are served rarely, typically for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Aramark meals are also heavy on carbohydrates. A typical weekly menu in July 2023 included seven servings of potatoes, 11 servings of bread (white bread, rolls or biscuits) and 12 servings of cake, muffins or cookies. In contrast, just three servings of fruit were included, and prisoners received only a half-pint of milk per day—the same small container provided to children in public school cafeterias.

Perusing the menu easily identifies the least expensive foods based on how often they appear; items like potatoes, cooked carrots and corn feature prominently. If you ever wondered what happens to broccoli stalks—the tougher, less palatable but still edible part of the vegetable—you now know they end up in prison meals, where the tastier florets make infrequent appearances.

While Aramark’s food may be bland and carb-heavy, it is not atypical for bulk-produced institutional fare—so long as the menu is followed. Aramark claims to provide an average 2,500 calories per day, but in lockdown units—including four of RMSI’s six housing units—meals are delivered to prisoners, while others are prepared without close supervision. The result is that menu items go missing from meal trays due to theft or carelessness, none of which is documented as a violation of Aramark’s contract.

One RMSI segregation prisoner set about systematically documenting menu items that were not served, tallying hundreds missing over a 20-month period. Moreover, drinks fortified with vitamins C, B-12, D and E, plus calcium were almost never served in his unit, despite an official menu requirement that they appear at least eight times a week. Without that, the menu’s promise to provide “adequate levels” of necessary vitamins and calcium appeared dubious. The prisoner, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, filed multiple grievances over the non-compliance. In response to one complaint, the grievance board agreed in June 2021 that staff should “follow policy when passing out food,” a decision then approved by the warden and DOC commissioner’s office. Yet the problem of missing menu items, including vitamin-fortified drinks, persisted. DOC then renewed Aramark’s contract for another five-year term in August 2021.

Aramark in Court

Perhaps giving an ironic twist to the term “food court,” Aramark has been the subject of a fair amount of litigation. Though it is a private company, most courts have found Aramark is a “state actor” for purposes of federal lawsuits brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, since it performs the traditional government function of feeding prisoners. See: Lucas v. Aramark, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 329 (W.D. Ky.).

The company is not successfully sued for poor quality meals because the legal standard for prison food is extremely low: It must be “nutritionally sufficient” and adequate only to “maintain normal health.” See: Cunningham v. Jones, 567 F.2d 653 (6th Cir. 1977), which also held that complaints “about the preparation or quality of prison food [are] generally far removed from Eighth Amendment concerns.” Prisoners are not entitled to meals that are “delicious or even particularly appetizing.” See: Gates v. Huibregtse, 69 Fed.Appx. 326 (7th Cir. 2003). There may, however, be higher standards for prison or jail fare under state statutes.

In Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) held that food provided to prisoners need only be “adequate”—an adjective open to interpretation at for-profit companies like Aramark. Nor does the quantity of prison food implicate constitutional rights unless meals are so nutritionally deficient that they result in significant weight loss. See: Moore v. Curtis, 68 Fed.Appx. 561 (6th Cir. 2003); and Ward v. Aramark Corr. Food Serv., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43934 (W.D. Ky.).

Extreme deprivations are needed to state a claim that prison meals are inadequate. In Hill v. Cty. of Montgomery, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 193658 (N.D.N.Y.), evidence was presented showing food was of such poor quality and served in such small portions that prisoners had “to consume non-food items, including cocoa butter and toothpaste, or large quantities of water to quiet their hunger.” In Reid v. Nassau Cty. Sheriff’s Dept., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117471 (E.D.N.Y.), the same court found allegations “that a prisoner was served food contaminated by … rocks, glass, human waste, soap, metal pins, staples, etc. are sufficient to plead a constitutional violation.”

Unsurprisingly, being served cold food typically fails to state a constitutional claim. As the federal court for the District of Connecticut held in Waring v. Meachum, 175 F.Supp.2d 230 (D. Conn. 2001), “The provision of cold food is not, by itself, a violation of the Eighth Amendment so long as it is nutritionally adequate and is prepared and served under conditions which do not present an immediate danger to the health … of the inmates who consume it.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sustained a Michigan prisoner’s complaint about cold food only because he alleged it was served in retaliation for exercising his protected First Amendment rights. See: Thaddeus-X v. Blatter, 175 F.3d 378 (6th Cir. 1999).

Due to the difficulty in suing over the quality or quantity of prison food, most litigation against Aramark relates to prisoners’ special dietary needs, including religious requirements for kosher, halal or vegetarian meals; medical needs for diabetic-friendly or soft foods, or for accommodation to food allergies; or complaints about sanitation and health-related issues, such as dirty meal trays or contaminated food. A few lawsuits have also challenged the company’s use of prison labor, while others relate to unsafe or hostile work environments.

Religious Diets

Tennessee prisoner Leonard Haynes’ pro se 2019 suit claimed he was deprived of a kosher diet at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (BCCX) in Pikeville. He also said the food he was given fell below caloric requirements. He was allowed to proceed against Aramark on a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, although that does not allow for recovery of monetary damages; however he then failed to prosecute the case, so it was dismissed. See: Haynes v. Aramark Corr. Servs., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119763 (E.D. Tenn.)

Perry A. March, a former attorney incarcerated at Tennessee’s Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, also filed a suit alleging that Aramark failed to provide an adequate kosher diet. While the company is supposed to offer vegan, vegetarian, kosher, halal and other meal options under its contract with DOC, in practice it provides a single vegan menu that is used for all religious diets. That catch-all menu consists primarily of peanut butter and soy-based texturized vegetable protein (TVP), the former served every day for breakfast and the latter for every lunch and dinner. The religious diet is repeated on a one-week cycle, unlike the four-week cycle for the standard menu, which prisoners call very monotonous. March argued that TVP used by Aramark was “Ultrasoy,” produced by a company called CHS, which designed it for use as a meal “extender” and not as a menu item by itself. March tried to file his suit as a qui tam action, a type of whistleblower claim, but he failed to comply with statutory requirements. He also raised a third-party beneficiary claim under Aramark’s contract with the state. Though some of his claims were initially allowed to proceed, the case was dismissed in May 2020 after March went 16 months without communicating with the federal court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. See: March v. Aramark Corp., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90381 (E.D. Tenn.).

A Jewish prisoner at New York’s Westchester County Jail, Ronald M. Ackridge, said he did not receive a kosher diet for 18 days after requesting one and that Aramark regularly delayed three to six weeks before providing kosher meals. In 2018, the federal court for the Southern District of New York greenlighted a pro se suit he filed, which he then dismissed in June 2019, perhaps after reaching an undisclosed settlement. See: Ackridge v. Aramark Corr. Food Servs., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54733 (S.D.N.Y.); and USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 7:16-cv-06301.

Kosher meals tend to be more expensive than regular meals, which likely explains the company’s reluctance to provide them. A claim related to kosher meals was also raised pro se in the same court by Ricardo Torres, a Muslim prisoner at New York’s Orange County Correctional Facility. Some Muslims may request kosher meals when halal meals are not available, as the dietary requirements—such as no pork products—are similar. Torres claimed that the meals Aramark served during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of daytime fasting, had inadequate calories, forcing him and other prisoners to discontinue the kosher diet. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum in August 2016. See: Torres v. Aramark Food & Comm’ry Svcs., USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 7:14-cv-07498.

In Indiana, Muslim detainee Danzig James Weed claimed that while he was held at the St. Joseph County Jail, an Aramark employee gave him food trays containing pork. The employee was reportedly fired. The federal court for the Northern District of Indiana held that “a single instance of being served pork does not state a claim under the First Amendment,” finding no indication that Aramark had a policy or custom of serving pork to Muslim prisoners. See: Weed v. Aramark, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 192343 (N.D. Ind.). However, that was not an isolated incident. Two other Muslim prisoners at the same jail also sued, claiming they received pork in meals served by Aramark; sadly, their claims were similarly rebuffed. See: Collins v. Aramark Food Servs., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84144 (N.D. Ind.); and Cabanaw v. Aramark Food Serv., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81629 (N.D. Ind.).

Medical Diets

Aramark has been repeatedly accused of failing to provide special medical diets—including failure to accommodate food allergies, which can be fatal. William D. Hamby, Jr., incarcerated at Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg, Tennessee, had Stage 4 hepatitis-C. He wrote in a lawsuit that he required medication which must be taken with food, but his meds were doled out before breakfast and at noon on weekends, when Aramark served no lunch at the prison. The federal court for the Middle District of Tennessee found he sufficiently pleaded an “imminent danger of serious harm” for his complaint to survive. See: Hamby v. Punchy, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58403 (M.D. Tenn.). However, Hamby then failed to prosecute his case, so it was dismissed in June 2019. He later turned up at Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville.

In another case filed in the same court, Aramark reportedly failed to comply with a prescribed medical diet for soft foods for a prisoner with throat cancer, Alvin Tankesly, Jr., at Turney Center Industrial Complex in Only. The parties told the Court that they reached a settlement for an undisclosed sum on November 6, 2023. Tankesly was represented by Nashville attorney Phillip S. Georges. See: Tankesly v. Aramark, USDC (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:20-cv-00017.

A Michigan prisoner alleged that Aramark did not comply with his low-sodium diet and retaliated against him for filing grievances. However, the firm and its employees were found negligent at worst, rather than deliberately indifferent, the standard to sustain an Eight Amendment claim. Though such negligence can prove fatal to a medically fragile prisoner, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed it was not a constitutional violation in March 2018. See: Boles v. Aramark Corr. Servs., LLC, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 6948 (6th Cir.).

A prisoner at Kentucky’s Northpoint Training Center—site of a 2009 riot attributed in part to Aramark food—also sued for failure to accommodate his diabetic diet, as well as providing him insufficient meal sacks. The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of most of John Mann’s claims in January 2021, but it remanded one for insufficient meal sacks. Thereafter he voluntarily dismissed the suit, though again the record is unclear whether he received an undisclosed settlement. See: Mann v. Aramark Corr. Servs., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 619 (6th Cir.); and USDC (E.D. Ky.), Case No. 5:19-cv-00079.

A detainee at Shelby County Criminal Justice Center (SCCJC) in Memphis sued Aramark for failing to provide a diet that accommodated his allergy to onions. Given the reluctance of courts to take up claims far more life-threatening, the federal court for the Western District of Tennessee predicably dismissed the suit by Rico M. Reed in September 2021. See: Reed v. Aramark Food Serv., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165923 (W.D. Tenn.).

Michigan prisoner Carlo Vartinelli filed suit after Aramark repeatedly served him fishand peanut butter despite knowing he had severe allergies to those foods. He twice ended up inemergency rooms due to allergic reactions. As the Sixth Circuit recalled, thewarden at Muskegon Correctional Facility acknowledged that Vartinelli received food “[to] which he is highly allergic,” resultingin discipline for an employee. But this in itself was insufficient to establish deliberate indifference, the Court said, affirming dismissal of his case in December 2019. See: Vartinelli v. Aramark Corr. Servs., LLC, 796 F. App’x 867 (6th Cir. 2019).

When Brian L. Brackett was confined at Jefferson County Jail in Colorado, he told staff he was allergic to mayonnaise and didn’t have any teeth, thus he “could not eat the same food as everyone else,” the federal court for the District of Colorado recalled. For over a year, jail guards reported that “Aramark … [would] not listen to them,” and Brackett said he continued to receive “food [he] could not eat or that was making [him] bleed.” But again that wasn’t enough for the Court to find deliberate indifference, so it dismissed his complaint in November 2022. See: Brackett v. Jefferson Co. Sheriff, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211881 (D. Colo.).

Unclean Conditions

Aramark has faced a series of lawsuits from SCCJC detainees in Memphis. In at least four cases, prisoners claimed that meals were served on dirty trays or that food was spoiled. Mario Meyers watched dirty trays being used to serve detainees. Johnny Rowland said that he was fired from his kitchen job after complaining about it. Develle Johnson alleged “that he became sick,” as did Kelvin Nash. The federal court for the Western District of Tennessee shrugged off all four complaints, calling the allegations insufficient to demonstrate more than mere negligence. See: Myers v. Aramark Food Servs., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107355 (W.D. Tenn.); Rowland v. Aramark Food Servs., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103830 (W.D. Tenn.); Johnson v. Shelby Cty., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 112933 (W.D. Tenn.); and Nash v. Aramark, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43326 (W.D. Tenn.).

At Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility, detainee Kevin Lee Hill stated in a lawsuit that he “repeatedly consumed mouse droppings” in food served by Aramark, and while working in the kitchen he “witnessed mice everywhere”—even the “refrigerator where food was stored was like a ‘mouse zoo.’” He claimed to suffer stomach pains, diarrhea and headaches from the contaminated food, and the federal court for the Northern District of Indiana took pity, refusing to dismiss all of his claims in November 2022. However, like so many others, he then stopped prosecuting his case, so it was dismissed in September 2023. See: Hill v. Galipeau, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 203224 (N.D. Ind.); and USDC (N.D. Ind.), Case No. 3:21-cv-00603.

Others have tried and failed to hold Aramark accountable for abhorrent sanitation that would get a commercial kitchen shut down anywhere else in the country. That includes 15 detainees at New York’s Westchester County Jail (WCJ), who said they endured “undercooked or rotted meals, served on trays containing mold or bacteria,” featuring “salads containing rotted lettuce, vegetables with insects on them, and undercooked meat.” They also complained of minimal food portions, noting that Aramark failed to correct any of these alleged deficiencies when they complained. The group of pro se detainees was picked off piecemeal, some for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, some when the federal court for the Southern District of New York couldn’t find them to serve court notices, and their claims were dismissed for failure to prosecute. See: Pagan v. Westchester Cty., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140933 (S.D.N.Y.).

Employee Misconduct

Aramark employees also engage in misconduct that results in litigation or criminal charges. In one 2017 case, Steven McClairn, a Black prisoner at Ohio’s Grafton Correctional Institution, alleged racial harassment by an Aramark food service coordinator named Steppenbacker, who repeatedly called him “boy.” The federal court for the Northern District of Ohio agreed this conduct was “highly unprofessional” but said it did not rise to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation. Moreover, Steppenbacker was eventually fired, so the Court refused to find Aramark’s tolerance of his behavior evidence of a corporate policy or custom of condoning racial harassment. See: McClairn v. Aramark Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 32042 (N.D. Ohio).

Sexual assault and harassment claims got only a little more traction for Michael Vanetten, Jr. in his pro se claim against Judith Daigle, his Aramark kitchen supervisor at Maine’s York County Jail in 2020, for making “sexual comments” to him, after which she “placed her hand on [his] genitals” multiple times, asking to have sex with him. On August 16, 2023, the federal court for the District of Maine dismissed claims against Aramark and the county but allowed claims against Daigle to proceed; however, the copy of the Court’s order that was mailed to him was returned marked “No Longer Here,” so the case was dismissed the following month. See: Vanetten v. Daigle, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 142982 (D. Me.); and USDC (D. Me.), Case No. 2:22-cv-00291.

On April 26, 2023, Aramark Food Services Director Darrilyn Milburn, 39, was arrested and charged with smuggling contraband to an Indiana state prisoner at Plainfield Correctional Facility. Investigators found that Milburn had brought suboxone into the facility, transferred money to the prisoner and sent him text messages indicating they were also having a sexual relationship. She was charged with misconduct, trafficking with an inmate and drug-related offenses.

Litigation Hurdles for Prisoners

Though only a minority of the lawsuits cited so far were allowed to proceed, and only on limited grounds, they represent only a fraction of 260 prisoner and detainee lawsuits filed against Aramark in federal courts alone, according to a July 2023 Westlaw search. But most were brought by prisoners proceeding pro se—without an attorney—so defendants were granted dismissals when prisoner plaintiffs failed to meet procedural or technical pleading requirements, before a court ever considered the merits of their claims.

One such requirement laid out in the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, is that the prison or jail grievance process must be thoroughly exhausted before filing suit. Signed into law by former Pres. Bill Clinton (D) in 1996, PLRA serves as “gatekeeper” for prisoner litigation in federal courts with this and other stringent requirements. In turn, a prisoner must keep detailed records of grievances and protect them from being destroyed in a cell search by guards.

When filing suit related to food service, prisoners making a civil rights claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 generally name Aramark as a defendant, noting that its contract makes it a “state actor.” Yet the firm itself cannot then be sued for damages in federal court without showing that it maintained a policy, practice or custom that violated a constitutional right—a standard first laid out for governmental defendants in Monell v. Dep’t. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978).

Failing to do this sank a suit brought by Brian L. Brackett, a former detainee at Colorado’s Jefferson County Jail, whose pro se complaint alleged that Aramark failed to provide him with adequate food to accommodate his medical conditions. While such negligence might sustain a claim outside a prison or jail, the federal court for the District of Colorado dismissed his case in November 2022 for failure to allege an Aramark policy or custom that resulted in his injuries. See: Brackett v. Jefferson Cty. Sheriff, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211881 (D. Colo.).

Just as Aramark cannot successfully be sued in federal court absent showing a corporate policy, practice or custom that violated a prisoner’s constitutional rights, firm employees are treated like a prison’s warden or the sheriff who runs a jail: They cannot be held liable based only on their job position, unless they were directly involved in unconstitutional acts or had knowledge of them but failed to intervene. See: J.K.J. v. Polk Cty., 960 F.3d 367 (7th Cir. 2020). However, as case law has established for governmental employees, supervisory liability for a private contractor can be shown by a failure to properly hire or train its staff. See: Sanchez v. Pereira-Castillo, 590 F.3d 31 (1st Cir. 2009).

Some cases are dismissed because they do not meet applicable requirements for Eighth Amendment claims that typically arise over conditions of confinement, including inadequate food. As SCOTUS laid out in Farmer v. Brennan, such claims have both objective and subjective components; prisoners must show a “substantial risk of serious harm” to meet the objective prong; they must also show that defendants knew of the risk but were “deliberately indifferent” to it, in order to meet the subjective prong. This is what torpedoed the suit brought against Aramark by Carlo Vartinelli, the Michigan prisoner; while his food allergies were found “objectively serious,” he couldn’t show that company employees “acted with ‘a sufficiently culpable state of mind’ to satisfy the subjective component of a deliberate indifference claim.”

Pre-trial detainees can raise conditions of confinement claims under the Fourteenth Amendment, removing the burden to prove the subjective component, as laid out in Kingsley v. Hendrickson,135 S.Ct. 2466 (2015). But as previously noted, courts have found most complaints about quality or quantity of food served in a prison or jail do not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. The Sixth Circuit has said that “[i]solated exposure to foreign bodies and hair in food, including those of rodents and insects, does not constitute an Eighth Amendment violation.” See: Balcar v. Smith, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 16462 (6th Cir.). But the Seventh Circuit was swayed by a larger volume of complaints, holding that “where [multiple] inmates have observed mice droppings, mice, and cockroaches literally in and on the food, a reasonable jury could conclude that the risk of harm … is both substantial and obvious.” See: Byrd v. Hobart, 761 F. App’x 621 (7th Cir. 2019).

Additionally, some claims, even if factually correct, are not cognizable in federal courts, where most prisoners file suit. One detainee at Memphis’ SCCJC sued over a slip-and-fall accident in the jail’s kitchen, where he worked under Aramark’s supervision. Although he suffered serious injuries, the federal court for the Western District of Tennessee said such negligence claims must usually be brought in state courts and cannot be redressed in federal courts under § 1983. See: Robertson v. Shelby Cty., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105036 (W.D. Tenn.).

Prisoners must also prove an actual injury; unlike a visit to a restaurant, allegations of inadequate or contaminated food in jail or prison that result in no injury will not sustain a claim for compensatory damages under PLRA. Thus, while inadvertently eating part of a reptile in an Aramark meal may have been “nausea inducing,” it did not constitute sufficient injury to sustain an Eighth Amendment claim absent a showing that the food Aramark served was “regularly contaminated.” See: Burgess v. Aramark Corr. Servs., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181345 (W.D. Tenn.).

In another case, claiming that Aramark served him “cold food, contaminated food and food not properly portioned on dirty feeding trays” at New York’s WCJ, Kavon Denzel Ford failed to cite any injury as a result, so his case was therefore dismissed. See: Ford v. Aramark, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13174 (S.D.N.Y.). As noted earlier, the detainee plaintiffs in Pagan v. Westchester Cty. alleged sufficient injuries from eating spoiled and contaminated food served by Aramark that caused them “severe stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, fever, headaches, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, dizziness, dehydration, and stretch marks.” Though their case was dismissed for other reasons, they successfully demonstrated causation—a connection between the inadequate or contaminated food and the injuries or damages they suffered.

That’s what Jeremy L. Tutora failed to do in another case before the same Court in 2022. Over a six-month incarceration at New York’s Orange County Jail in 2017, he claimed a 12-pound weight loss, which he blamed on Aramark meals “not fit for human consumption,” noting they caused nausea and vomiting due to a “chemical smell.” The Court found his allegations conclusory, since he did not have “the food examined, nor was he aware of what the calorie count was for each meal,” plus he had no personal knowledge whether the food was nutritionally inadequate. He also failed to exclude factors other than Aramark’s food that might have caused his weight loss. See: Tutora v. Aramark Corr. Servs., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110920 (S.D.N.Y.).

Lastly, when prisoners seek injunctive relief—such as a court order requiring provision of a medical or religious diet—their claims are mooted once they are released from custody or transferred to another lockup. Courts have sustained such dismissals even when the prisoner alleged the transfer was made specifically to quash his claims. See: Higgason v. Farley, 83 F.3d 807 (7th Cir. 1996).

Due to this maze of legal hurdles and procedural requirements, very few pro se prisoner lawsuits succeed. For those that do, any verdict or settlement paid is simply considered a cost of doing business by firms like Aramark—a very minor cost, given that, at the time that this article was written, Aramark’s correctional division generates some $1.5 billion in revenue per year. And, of course, Aramark is defended in court by corporate attorneys and law firms, which typically make short work of pro se prisoner pleadings.

Protests Outside of Prison

Prisoners are not the only ones complaining about Aramark, though. Due to a national focus on criminal justice reform and opposition to the Prison Industrial Complex, students at colleges and universities contracting food service to Aramark are taking action to demand their schools cease doing business with such prison profiteers. Boycotts they organized have succeeded in kicking Aramark off some campuses.

Echoing a successful 2000-2001 campaign called “Not With Our Money” waged against Sodexho-Marriott—another company providing food services at prisons and jails as well as colleges—students at Kent State University in Ohio mounted a successful protest to get the school to cut ties with Aramark in March 2021 over the company’s exploitation of prisoner labor. Aramark food service contracts were also canceled at New York University and Barnard College in 2019, plus another at Trinity College in Ireland in 2020. Other student protests and petitions against the company have taken place at Vanderbilt, Yale, Howard and Princeton universities.

In addition, boycotts of Aramark’s food services were reported at the University of Florida (UF), organized by the school’s NAACP chapter and Black Students Union, as well as the Dream Defenders and Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery. Citing the company’s exploitive use of prisoner labor, UF student Jerry Jerome said, “This is modem day slavery basically, it’s just different words.”

Final Food for Thought

Most people are unaware that prisoners in some northeastern states were once served lobster regularly. Over a century ago lobster was a cheap seafood considered “trash.” Were that still the case today, lobster would probably feature prominently on Aramark prison menus. After all, its bottom line, as for all for-profit companies, is a fiscal one. So long as providing crummy meals to prisoners is profitable, Aramark will continue to serve them up, cutting costs and boosting profits with inferior quality ingredients, smaller portions, understaffing or failing to provide adequate sanitation or accommodate religious or medical diets.

However, the company’s business practices are becoming increasingly unpalatable not only to those forced to eat its food but also to people who object to blatant exploitation of prisoner labor. Such profiteering from incarceration leaves many prisoners and their advocates hungry for justice. Or just hungry.  


Additional sources: American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee, Business Wire, Independent Florida Alligator, Kansas City Beacon, KLAS, Reuters News, WTHR

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