The Nation: How Private Equity Is Turning Public Prisons Into Big Profits

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"In recent years, corporations have privatized almost every part of the public prison system..."

The Nation - April 30, 2019

When the Bellamy Creek correctional facility’s longtime kitchen officer decided to leave in 2014, David Angel requested the position. Angel, who was nearing retirement, had worked at prisons all over Michigan, including stints at three maximum-security facilities. “I wanted a permanent position for my last few years in the department. I had a lot of respect among the prisoner and officer staff, and I thought I could do the job and keep people safe,” he said. “Um… I was wrong.”

The Bellamy Creek kitchen is typical for a Michigan prison. Sixty incarcerated men staff it, doing everything from slicing potatoes with tethered knives to working the dish tank. Angel’s job was to provide security while six or seven outside employees oversaw the operations. The employees were new hires by Aramark, a food-service company recently contracted by the state to run its prison kitchens.

“It was a constant daily struggle,” Angel recalled. At first, it was the little things: Food was spilled but never cleaned up. Meals were served late, or the kitchen would run out of food and the staff would have to swap ingredients. “I saw peanut butter substituted for a hamburger patty more times than I care to count.”

Then came the day that he noticed spoiled bananas being unloaded from the supplier’s truck. He told the driver to take the bananas back but was refused. That day, he decided to wheel the bananas over to a dumpster. But trucks kept arriving with more bad food: “I threw out 700 pounds of rotten potatoes once.” Nevertheless, the spoiled food made its way into the kitchen, or fresh food would become spoiled because of Aramark’s poor storage practices, Angel said. He grew concerned about the safety of the food. “That’s when I saw maggots under the big commercial mixer.” He alerted his supervisor.

Angel laid the blame squarely on Aramark, and he wasn’t alone. Michigan’s switch to a privatized prison-food system was supposed to save the state money—$16 million, or more than 20 percent of what Michigan had been paying to feed the 44,000 people held in its prisons. But in order to make the numbers work, Aramark’s three-year, $145 million contract required the company to slash costs to an average of $1.29 per meal. One of the ways large companies like Aramark can do this is by taking advantage of economies of scale to get better prices on ingredients; they can also reduce quantities and serve lower-quality, less nutritious food. Probably the most effective way is to slash the payroll. In Michigan, unionized corrections workers earned $15 to $25 an hour, but the Aramark employees who replaced them were paid as little as $11 an hour.

As the months passed, stories like Angel’s began cropping up at prisons around the state. At the G. Robert Cotton facility, a prisoner spotted maggots on a vegetable slicer. At a neighboring facility, 30 people fell ill with foodborne illness after fly larvae were found crawling around the food-service line. At a prison farther north, an Aramark employee was caught serving meatballs fished out of a trash can. The state fined Aramark $200,000 for unsanitary food preparation, substituting nutritionally inferior ingredients, and routinely shorting prisoners on calories. In 2014, protests erupted throughout the state.

In 2015, Michigan and Aramark terminated their contract, over a year early. But prisoners and guards had little reason to celebrate, because the state quietly replaced Aramark with another prison-food giant, Trinity Services Group. The problems continued under Trinity, and by 2016, a second round of protests had erupted. Most of these were peaceful, but one, in the Upper Peninsula facility of Kinross, led to what the state Department of Corrections acknowledged internally was Michigan’s first prison riot since 1981, though some officials deny this publicly. No one was seriously hurt, but it cost the state nearly $1 million in damage. “It was a powder keg,” Angel said. (Neither Trinity nor Aramark responded to requests for comment.)

“This [situation] has created an environment of theft, extortion, and robbery—all in the name of survival,” said Ramone Wilson, who is imprisoned at the Cotton facility. “If you’re on an empty stomach, then you’re desperate.” ...
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