Prison food supplier has Mich. officials at wit's end

Official: "Bottom line is lay down with dogs, get up with fleas"

By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING — Maggots in the kitchen and on the chow line. Workers caught smuggling contraband or engaging in sex acts with inmates. Food shortages and angry prisoners.

Those are among the problems that have plagued Michigan prisons since December when the state — in a move aimed at saving more than $12 million a year — switched from using state workers to feed prisoners to a private contractor, Aramark Correctional Services of Philadelphia.

Ongoing turmoil with the 7-month-old contract — including many instances never previously disclosed — is detailed in more than 3,000 pages of state records obtained by the Free Press under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act: One Aramark food service director showed up drunk and failed a Breathalyzer. Another worker was caught trying to smuggle marijuana. Others have failed drug tests, kissed prisoners, threatened to assault inmates, or announced intentions to “go postal” inside a facility, records show.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” Kevin Weissenborn, the Michigan Department of Corrections manager in charge of policing the Aramark contract, e-mailed one Michigan warden in March, records show.

“I know how you feel,” replied Warden Heidi Washington of the Charles E. Egeler Reception & Guidance Center in Jackson. “At first I felt like Lansing thought I was just being too difficult and too demanding because I was always complaining. However, I think everyone knows that’s not the case.

“Bottom line is lay down with dogs, get up with fleas.”

Though Aramark’s total workforce in Michigan prisons numbers just over 300, some 74 Aramark workers had been banned from prison property for various infractions as of the end of June.

Gov. Rick Snyder and his officials are nowconsidering scrapping the $145-million, three-year contract before the summer heat intensifies unhappiness over prison food and possibly threatens security and safety.

The state put Aramark on notice in March by fining the company $98,000 for repeated contract violations such as running out of food and making improper substitutions for required menu items.

In June, it stepped up the pressure, telling Aramark that starting July 1 it would strictly enforce the meal portion and substitution requirements of the contract, with further violations leading to possible termination. Prison officials confirm at least two instances of meal shortages have been reported this month.

Free Press reports about the discovery of maggots in two Michigan prisons have prompted some state lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, to call for new bids from other companies.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re prisoners or who they are, people don’t deserve that type of treatment,” Richardville said.

Still, some feel Aramark isn’t getting a fair shake, because most wardens didn’t want the company coming into the prisons and many unionized corrections officers view the nonunion Aramark workers as scabs. The records shed light on tensions between Aramark and Corrections Department workers that could be contributing to the company’s problems feeding about 43,000 state prisoners.

For example, Aramark officials were upset in early March — soon after the state hit the company with fines — when they received reports that a captain at Baraga Correctional Facility used a prison radio system to invite prisoners to report problems with the food so Aramark could be fined some more.

“I am working on getting statements from the hourly associates as there were numerous issues with the staff at Baraga treating Aramark rudely,” Aramark official Lars Larson e-mailed his boss, vice president of operations Michael Flesch, records show.

Corrections officials said the remarks were taken out of context.

While many view the discovery of live maggots in Michigan prisons — quickly followed by similar reports from Ohio, where Aramark took over prison food services in September — as an indictment of Aramark, the company finds the events suspicious.

“Aramark has served billions of meals, to millions of inmates, at hundreds of correctional facilities around the country and never encountered sudden incidences like those reported in two states in the span of one week,” company spokeswoman Karen Cutler said.

“Each corrections system is operated independently and the only common denominator is that both of them recently privatized their food services in a decision that has drawn criticism from some special-interest groups.”

Aramark is “focused on delivering the service and taxpayer savings we promised,” and isn’t “interested in the political and media circus about anti-privatization,” Cutler said.

But the prison food contract isn’t the first state of Michigan privatization effort to run into major problems. The privately run Youth Correctional Facility in Baldwin, known as the “punk prison,” which opened in 1998 under former Gov. John Engler, closed in 2005 amid reports it was too costly to run and neglected the health and educational needs of its young inmates.

With the Aramark deal, fraternization between its workers and prisoners and growing inmate unrest have been major problems. But poor food quality, meal shortages, poor sanitation, and inadequate training, staffing and supervision resulting in extra work for corrections officers and other prison staff also are pressing issues, records show.

Jeff McClelland, Aramark’s food service director at the Egeler Center, where newly admitted prisoners are sent, is a former state prison food service worker whose job was among the 370 eliminated by the Aramark deal. He said he’s eaten prison food prepared by the state and by Aramark and “there is no difference in the quality.”

“Aramark is super strict,” McClelland said during a recent Free Press tour of the Egeler chow hall. “They’re following the menu to a T, a little bit more than the state did. There’s no room for error.”

Prison officials, who recently dealt with an outbreak of sickness among more than 100 prisonersat Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson that resulted in a partial quarantine due to an as-yet-undetermined bug, have a different view.

“When I entered the unit, it smelled like rotten meat,” Capt. Pennie Chappell of Baraga Correctional Facility e-mailed another Corrections Department official on Jan. 22, records how. She said when she inspected the meatballs they were “bright red inside and smelled rotten.”

Aramark workers told Chappell they flagged the smell of the meat, but the supervisor said “it only smelled funny because part of it was turkey, and they should serve it,” she reported in the e-mail.

The Aramark workers also said “they were worried about the food in the freezer as it had been down a couple of days and everything had defrosted and re-froze.”

In other e-mails, Aramark officials confirmed the freezer problems — which they said were less severe than what was described — but denied the meat was bad.

At Egeler, Capt. Jeremy Bush, who has since been promoted to acting deputy warden, reported in February that “we had an issue with the french fries being frozen,” and “this is a recurring issue,” with “meals ... reported as undercooked or frozen.”

When menu items run out, Aramark substitutes, in one case using hot dog buns to make pizza. Another time, “instead of getting juice for breakfast this morning, everyone got 2 Minute Maid popsicles,” Corrections Department official Kelly Wellman reported in a January e-mail. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Under its contract, Aramark is supposed to comply with a statewide standard menu that provides a daily average intake of 2,600 calories for men and 2,200 calories for women. Any variations must be approved by the Department of Corrections.

The department cites hundreds of incidents in which Aramark made unauthorized substitutions or did not prepare the required number of meals, records show.

Publicly, Aramark has minimized the problems as normal in any transition. Behind the scenes, however, the response has been more animated.

“Moving forward, any substitution not properly reported, forms not filled out and submitted you leave me no choice but to hold you accountable for your teams failure,” Flesch, the Aramark VP, e-mailed his regional directors on Jan. 13, according to records.

“I have been talking for weeks now and no progress is made in the field. Every day I receive e-mails about substitutions that are not approved and no forms are submitted. Enough is enough.”

Ironically, “enough is enough” is the very phrase state employee unions have seized on in urging Snyder to cancel the contract.

With most workers paid about $11 an hour in a high-stress environment with high turnover, Aramark has had persistent problems recruiting and retaining staff.

At Lakeland Correctional Facility, “the Food Service Director has resigned their position as did the initial manager,” Weissenborn of the Corrections Department e-mailed on Feb. 20. “They will also be losing two additional line staff by next Friday” and “have two vacancies already.”

Bush said in a Feb. 24 e-mail to Washington, the warden at Egeler, that Aramark made counting the number of prisoners who get fed — the company’s basis for getting paid — its top kitchen priority, meaning corrections staff had to pick up the slack in other areas, such as making sure prisoners on the meal line weren’t stealing food.

The e-mails also documented problems in the first two months of the contract with Aramark workers leaving knives unsecured — an issue that eventually led the company to remove all knives from prison kitchens.

Now, “we just have dough cutters,” McClelland said.

Bush said the combination of problems “absolutely” results in more work for other prison staff than when state employees ran the kitchen.

Union officials say the extra work and disruption will offset any savings, though they have yet to produce numbers to support that claim.

“We’ve found there is an extra added need for security and for some of the basic food service duties,” Bush said during the recent tour at Egeler.

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