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Mich. prison food contractor hit with $2M in penalties

The group has been hit with penalties for inadequate staffing levels and other problems since the company started providing meals in September 2015

By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan’s prison food contractor, Trinity Services Group, has been hit with penalties totaling just over $2 million for inadequate staffing levels and other problems since the company started providing meals in September 2015, an official said Friday.

The penalties, first reported Thursday by Gongwer News Service, show significant problems persist with the privatization of prison food services, after the state ended a contract early to replace its first prison food contractor, Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services.

Florida-based Trinity has been penalized $905,750 for unauthorized meal substitutions, $357,000 for delays serving meals, $356,000 for inadequate staffing levels, and $294,500 for sanitation violations, among other penalties, Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz said. Those penalties, which are assessed monthly, have all been imposed since about December 2015, when Trinity’s grace period ended, he said.

“We feel that staffing is the biggest issue and that if staffing issues were resolved, the other issues would decrease,” Gautz said.

“This contract is working well, and obviously we are working with them to do everything we can to make it work even better.”

Gautz said that through the end of December, the Corrections Department had issued 114 “stop orders,” barring from prison property former Trinity employees fired for offenses such as over-familiarity with prisoners or smuggling of contraband. At the same point in the Aramark contract, the department had issued 159 stop orders to former Aramark employees, he said.

A call to Trinity seeking comment was not immediately returned Friday.

The penalties imposed on Trinity, which is more than a year into its three-year, $158.8-million contract, far exceed those imposed on the previous contractor, Aramark, which replaced about 370 state kitchen workers, starting in December 2013. Aramark was subjected to one $200,000 fine after an earlier $98,000 fine was imposed, but later canceled.

But Gautz said that doesn’t mean Trinity is doing a worse job than Aramark did. Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington, who took office in July 2015, found that Aramark could have been subject to an additional $3.1 million in fines, which “for whatever reason” the previous administration under Director Dan Heyns had not imposed.

Washington made it clear to Trinity from the start that penalties would be clearly spelled out in the contract and strictly enforced, Gautz said. “This is us holding them accountable for not meeting the commitments laid out in the contract that both parties had agreed to.”

The Free Press published a series of articles on how the $145-million contract with Aramark had been marked by problems with food shortages, sanitation issues and Aramark workers getting too friendly with prisoners -- in some cases smuggling in drugs or other contraband or engaging in sex acts with prisoners. There also were inmate demonstrations and other unrest related to food issues.

Food provided by Trinity was among the complaints cited by inmates at Kinross Correctional Facility in a September disturbance that damaged the Upper Peninsula prison and cost the state nearly $900,000.

Gautz said Trinity is required to have 350 employees and currently has about 309, which represents an 88% staffing rate.

About 17 prisons are staffed at 100% or better, but staffing levels at others are below 80%, he said.

The state’s Department of Talent and Economic Development is working with Trinity to try to increase the pool of potential employees the company can draw from, he said.