BUSINESS

Michigan cuts short prison food contract with Aramark after problems, including $200,000 fine

07/13/2015 10:58 EDT | Updated 07/13/2016 05:59 EDT
LANSING, Mich. - Michigan has terminated a three-year, $145 million contract with Aramark Correctional Services a year after the company hired to feed state prisoners came under scrutiny for unapproved menu substitutions, worker misconduct and other issues, state officials announced Monday.

Gov. Rick Snyder's administration said the state and company mutually agreed to end their relationship 14 1/2 months early after being unable to resolve Aramark-initiated talks about contract revisions related to billing and menus. Michigan fined Aramark $200,000 last year for unauthorized food changes, inadequate staffing and employee misconduct such as fraternizing with inmates and drug smuggling.

There also have been maggot problems, though Aramark was cleared of responsibility for incidents in 2014. An Aramark kitchen worker was fired for ordering cake that appeared to have been nibbled by rodents to be served to prisoners.

Snyder previously defended sticking with Philadelphia-based Aramark, saying Michigan was on pace to save $14 million a year through privatization.

Trinity Services Group, based in Oldsmar, Florida, will transition to becoming Michigan's new vendor in the next two months under a three-year, $158 million contract up for approval by a state board Tuesday. The company was the only other qualified bidder when Michigan first privatized prison food services.

"Their business is correctional food service, and they have a proven track record across the country working in other facilities — some 44 states," state Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington said.

Aramark has food contracts with schools, colleges, hospitals and stadiums in addition to janitorial and uniform businesses. Michigan's contract with Aramark was supposed to run through September 2016.

Democrats and a liberal advocacy group, while pleased with the contract's cancellation, said the state should no longer bid out prison food services. The 2013 outsourcing led to the loss of 370 unionized state jobs replaced by lower-paid private workers.

"It's plainly obvious now that cutting corners to save money on prison services not only doesn't work, but puts prison guards and families living near prisons at risk," House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said.

Snyder, however, said Michigan will see "significant" savings — at least $11.5 million a year — by still having a private firm prepare food in its 33 prisons.

In a statement, Aramark said it was disappointed the deal didn't work out, but was proud to serve Michigan "during a major groundbreaking shift to privatization and delivering on our commitments to serve 65 million meals in MDOC facilities and save Michigan taxpayers more than $25 million."

Aramark, which on its website says it has retained 97 per cent of its correctional facility business in more than 35 years, said it takes "full responsibility" for its performance in Michigan prisons "while operating in a highly charged political environment that included repeated false claims."

The Snyder administration hired Aramark to prepare food for the Michigan's 43,000 prisoners after initially saying the move would not save enough money. Once Republican lawmakers objected, the administration reversed course, saying mistakes were made in evaluating bidders' proposals.

Ohio recently renewed a contract with Aramark to feed 50,000 prison inmates. The company had faced criticism in that state last year over understaffing, running out of food and a few cases of maggots near food prep areas.

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