Michigan poised to abandon failed privatization of prison food services

It is a measure of just how big a disaster privatization of prison food services turned out to be that the same state governor who originally proposed privatization is now proposing bring the services back under public control.

Ottawa (23 April 2018) — After 5 years and 2 different contractors, the state of Michigan is one step closer to ending the privatization of prison food services. This month a state legislature committee approved a proposal to bring prison food services back under public control at the end of July.

Privatization of food services in Michigan led to safety concerns for both staff and inmates. It is a measure of just how big a disaster privatization of prison food services turned out to be that the same state governor who originally proposed privatization is now proposing bring the services back under public control.

Serious problems with both private contractors

When prison food services were privatized in 2013, the contract was awarded to Aramark. The contract was supposed to be for 3 years, but after only 21 months, serious problems with Aramark’s performance led to the contract being canceled.

A 3-year contract was awarded to Trinity Services Group in the summer of 2015. Problems related to privatization continued.

Unfit and inadequate food

There were complaints about both contractors serving food that was not fit for consumption. A Trinity Services Group employee was fired for refusing to serve mouldy potatoes to prisoners. There were repeated problems with maggots in food. Cakes that had been partially eaten by rats were still served — after the contractor used icing to cover-up the problem.

Food was also less nutritious. A report from the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy (IRLEE) at the University of Michigan uncovered problems like using fillers or diluting food with water.

Portions have also become smaller since privatization. The reduction in the quantity of food inmates receive is for the same reason as the reduction in quality — so the private contractor can increase profits.

Food quality problems linked to increase in safety concerns

The link between problems with prison food quality or quantity and an increase in concerns about safety is well documented. Prison food quality and quantity issues have been linked to protests and riots in a number of different jurisdictions.

In Michigan, there were a number of protests following the privatization of food services. This included a riot at one prison in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

There are also safety issues related to the black market in food that result when there are problems with food quantity or quality. As Andy Potter, Vice-President and Chief of Staff of the Michigan Corrections Organization wrote in a recent article, “When inmates are forced to buy and trade food, it creates a black market of goods, opening the door to possible violence and chaos.”

Private contractors cutting corners on staffing added to safety problems

With both of the private contractors there were serious problems with their staff. Many of these issues could be attributed to a lack of training or other ways contractors tried to reduce staffing costs.

The problems included a failure to secure potentially dangerous kitchen tools such as knives, leaving doors unlocked, and staff not showing up.

Over 350 employees of the 2 private contractors have been barred from Michigan prisons for problems that included smuggling contraband for inmates and over-familiarity with inmates.

Problems inevitable when corrections services become a source for private profit

Cutting corners on correctional services — and on other on public services for that matter — is going to lead to problems. Privatization makes it inevitable that there will be attempts to cut corners. Sooner or later corporations running privatized services will be tempted to scrimp on services to increase profits. Most recently, we saw this happen in Canada when the Saskatchewan government privatized prison food services.

What happened in Michigan should be a lesson for any other jurisdiction looking at privatizating all or part of their correctional services.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE