At least once a week Chris Minney, a corrections officer at Ohio's Ross Correctional Institution on the outskirts of Chillicothe, breaks up fights or food-related punch-ups in the "chow hall" — what inmates and guards call the food service area.
The state commissioned Aramark, the largest private prison food contractor in the US, to supply inmate meals at Ross nearly two years ago. Since then, there's been an increase in smuggled contraband, protests over food quality and quantity, and even mouse dropping sightings on food trays, Minney told VICE News. But it's the food shortages that create the most trouble, she said.
"We may start serving a meal and they don't have enough food prepared even to feed our population for that one meal," Minney said. "We will have to stop our entire operation. It used to take us about an hour and a half to feed 2,100 inmates. Now it can take as much as three hours."
"Any time there's disruptions it puts the staff at risk because the tension is so high between the inmates," she added. "If there's altercations in the dining room, we're responsible for breaking that up."
Aramark Correctional Services, headquartered in Philadelphia, provides more than 380 million meals to inmates at more than 500 detention facilities across America each year, according to its president, John Hanner. It also serves millions of more meals at 450 other venues across the US, including college campuses and hospitals. In Ohio, state authorities are recommending a renewal of its 24-month, $110-million contract with the company, despite allegations of prisoner starvation, food service workers having sex with inmates, and multiple maggot infestations.
The two-year contract allows a per-day meal cost of $3.71 an inmate, according to a state recommendation report obtained by the Associated Press on Tuesday. This pricing is comparable to prisons in Indiana ($3.46 per day) and Michigan ($3.86), where Aramark also has contracts.
"Though there have been issues with Aramark, the agency still wants to renew for 24 months," Department of Administrative Services officials said in the evaluation report.
But Ohio fined the food giant $272,000 for such "issues" in 2014. Since Aramark employees took over prison kitchens, replacing some 400 government workers, inmates across the state have logged thousands of complaints against Aramark, according to the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA), a union representing some 8,000 corrections employees.
"This is not about jobs and wages, it's about safety and security," OCSEA President Christopher Mabe, who has worked as a corrections officer for more than 25 years, told VICE News. "Food service is one of those issues on the top of the prison services list that either keeps the peace or can cause disruptions and possibly violence."
Mabe cited an incident recently where one Aramark employee had become locked in a kitchen cooler with six inmates in an Ohio prison with no key. "Thankfully no one was hurt, but it shows the security issues that can arise with inadequately trained staff," he said.
'More than 100 verified reports of food shortages have led to security problems.'
Minney said that Aramark employees are only required to attend a four-hour training course and sign some forms before being thrown into the prison food service system. In contrast, government employees must attend a minimum three-week course at a corrections training academy before they're allowed to set foot in a prison.
"If I'm working in there covering chow, and an inmate would attack me, the Aramark employees are not trained in self defense and how to react, which puts my life in jeopardy," she said. "We've all been on edge since [the company came in]."
A recent report obtained by the OCSEA reveals that since the contract began, at least 135 Aramark employees have been fired or left service — the majority being cook supervisors kicked out for various breaches of security or having "inappropriate" or "unauthorized" relationships with inmates. The report also showed that workers had been let go for sneaking in an array of contraband, including cigarettes, marijuana, and cell phones. One worker even reportedly "struck [an] inmate with food."
After the company received its first fine for infractions last April, Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler said in a statement that it was "working diligently" to resolve staffing and operational challenges, "expected with such a large, complex transition."
But Mabe told VICE News last week that the union is "still getting reports on the ground that nothing's changing."
Last summer, "maggot-gate," as Mabe called it, gestated into a full-grown grub problem in a number of Ohio prisons. In August, fly larvae were found rising out of a kitchen floor drain at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) at Marysville, which houses the majority of female prisoners in the state, with roughly 2,500 inmates. Other incident reports at the prison revealed maggots were also found in a hotbox and crawling in a turkey roll, while larva were also uncovered beneath a stainless-steel food-serving line, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
While maggots in prison kitchens is not a new phenomenon — at least nine cases were reported in Ohio prisons in 2014 — the July and August incidences spurred more than 1,000 inmates at ORW to dump their lunch trays into trash bins in protest. Maggots were also found in a food-service line at Trumbull Correctional Institute, near Warren, during the same week of the demonstration. An ORW spokeswoman maintained that no inmates were served contaminated food in either case.
In Michigan, similar reports were surfacing of maggot infestations in summer 2014. At least 30 inmates were treated for food-borne illnesses that July, while prisoners also found maggots in the cracks near a sneeze guard of a food-service line at Parnall Correctional Facility. The prison is serviced by Aramark.
Michigan also signed a three-year, $145 million contract with Aramark in 2013, but later fined the company nearly $100,000 in March 2014 for breaching its obligations, including by making unauthorized menu substitutions, as well as failing to address food shortages and employee misdeeds. At least 100 of its Michigan workers have since been dismissed and banned from re-entering Michigan prisons.
'I do not think we need to incarcerate people to the lowest bidder.'
One Michigan Aramark employee, who worked with the company at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, filed a whistleblower complaint in December after she was allegedly fired from her $11.50-an-hour job two months earlier for pointing out serious issues with food service at the prison.
Amy McVay, 25, said in the complaint she was harassed and intimidated for trying to report "illegal behavior" like serving undercooked food and meat that had dropped on the floor, re-labeling expired leftovers, cutting portion sizes, and falsifying records that said Aramark served more meals than it did.
Across at least six other states, similar problems have been reported among Aramark-contracted prisons, where more than 100 verified reports of food shortages have led to security problems, and low staffing levels, meal substitutions, false reporting, and poor food quality have resulted in many more complaints from inmates and staff.
"I don't know what it's going to take," Mabe said of Ohio's decision to renew its contract with the company. "We've been to arbitration and going back and forth with the state and Aramark, but the list just goes on and on with the all the things going wrong with the current situation."
The state maintains that its arrangement with Aramark, which ends June 30, has saved taxpayers $14 million a year, but Minney said there are all sorts of extra costs associated with privatization, beyond meal prices, that haven't been factored in. One example is that poorly trained Aramark employees have forced prisons to shift additional staffing and resources to assist service, which bumps-up expenditure.
Aramark did not respond to VICE News' request for comment on Friday, but released a statement this week saying the company had "delivered millions of dollars in taxpayer savings and are continuously improving our operations."
Alex Friedman, associate director of prison advocate group Human Rights Defense Center, told VICE News it's not just the training, but quality of employee that suffers when states turn prisons over to for-profit companies.
"Part of the ways these companies make profits is by lowering wages — typically your highest cost — which affects the type and experience level of the employee you're going to get," Friedman said. "They also skimp on quality of food or prepare less food per day… I do not think we need to incarcerate people to the lowest bidder."
"Any time that you try and insert a business model into a structured society that needs to be dealt with by public servants and security-trained staff, these are the types of things that will happen," said Mabe. "You'll get less oversight, more shortcuts, and more people who aren't trained properly."
Since getting wind of Aramark's contract renewal, Minney has been helping the OCSEA prepare a new bid to return prison food services to state employees, which she believes is "competitive" and will save the corrections department roughly $16 million a year. The group aims to present the bid to the state before the end of February.
"We're hopeful the department will take our bid seriously," she said, "because this can't go on for much longer."
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields