Ohio quietly agrees to renew food-service pact with Aramark

Nearly three months ago they renewed a two-year contract with their often-criticized food-service contractor, Aramark Correctional Services

By Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS — State prison officials quietly agreed nearly three months ago to renew a two-year contract with their often-criticized food-service contractor, Aramark Correctional Services, to continue to prepare meals for nearly 51,000 inmates.

Aramark took over prison kitchens in September 2013 and has had problems with maggots in kitchens and unserved food, staffing and food shortages, and inappropriate employee conduct with inmates.

State officials, who fined Aramark $272,300 for contract violations last year, say the company has dramatically improved its operations since inmate protests and reports of problems generated headlines last summer.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and Aramark agreed on Oct. 30 to renew a contract through mid-2017 at the same cost of $110 million — a meal cost of about $3.60 per day per inmate. The contract was to expire June 30.

Prison officials did not publicize the pending renewal of the contract and did not disclose the agreement this week in response to questions from The Dispatch, saying the Department of Administrative Services was handling the contract.

Administrative Services gave The Dispatch a copy of the letter yesterday in which prison officials and Aramark agreed to renew their contract. “At DRC’s request, DAS is renewing the contract and not rebidding,” a spokeswoman wrote.

Prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the agency did not announce the agreement to extend the Aramark contract because it cannot formally be renewed until after April 1.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, meanwhile, is exercising a clause in its state contract to submit what union officials call a competitive, cost-cutting proposal to push Aramark aside and return union employees to prison kitchens.

OCSEA President Christopher Mabe was displeased that the prison department had agreed to renew the contract and did not await the union’s proposal. “Nothing they do is a done deal, because they have to look at our proposal,” he said. “The deal is stacked against us, but we constantly fight.

“We have an established, familiar workforce with long-term employees who can provide a safe, secure and humane environment and bring food service back to the standards we had for years,” Mabe said.

Smith said prison officials will consider the proposal, which must be received by March 1, before moving to renew the contract with Aramark.

Seventeen union employees lost jobs and 341 workers were transferred to other prison positions when Aramark won a $110 million contract as part of a privatization cost-cutting move to provide three meals a day for $3.61 per inmate.

The prison system saved $13.3 million in the first year of the contract, and it projects savings in the second year of $16.9 million, with state officials saying the savings help avert the closing of a prison.

Aramark continues to have “major issues, including a constant turnover of staff, that creates security concerns,” said Mabe, a corrections sergeant.

The prisons department has banished 135 Aramark employees from working in prisons because of “ relationships” with inmates, security violations and contraband smuggling.

Karen Cutler, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia-based Aramark, said, “We have served more than 50 million meals, delivered millions of dollars in taxpayer savings and are continuously improving our operations.”

Daily prison food-service problems and complaints dropped by more than half, from nearly 13 to six, between May and December, Smith said.

A sampling of recent reports involve mouse droppings on trays of cookie bars at London Correctional Institution west of Columbus and sour milk, and corrections officers having to serve food because of a lack of Aramark workers.

There also were “bad” potatoes served at Marion Correctional Institution, where a female Aramark employee was found locked in the butcher shop with six inmates “with no means of escape if something were to happen.”

Prison officials have accepted responsibility for some maggot and mice problems because of infrastructure problems.

In the latest inspections, only one prison — the Southeastern Correctional Complex in Nelsonville with a 73 percent score — failed to achieve a “passing” grade of 85 percent or more, requiring Aramark to come up with a plan to fix problems.

Only two prisons, the Ohio Reformatory for Women at Marysville and Lebanon Correctional Institution, continue to experience shortages of required workers, Smith said.

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