The Michigan Department of Corrections is cutting its ties with the beleaguered food provider Aramark over contractual differences, in a development that comes after the company's allegedly unsanitary and unsafe working conditions made headlines in the state and around the country.
Aramark provides food for more than 500 detention facilities across America each year as well as 450 other venues, including colleges and hospitals.
The company has been accused of serving spoiled food or food that had come into contact with rodents and maggots. Last July, four Aramark prison workers in the state were fired for having inappropriate sexual contact with prisoners.
It was also fined $100,000 by the state in March 2014 for making unauthorized menu substitutions, as well as failing to address food shortages and employee misdeeds. In neighboring Ohio, Aramark was fined nearly $300,000 for issues relating to their service.
State representatives told local media that the early end to the three-year, $145 million contract from 2013 was due to contract negotiations that stalled. The contract had more than a year left on it.
Brom Stibitz, chief deputy director of the Department of Technology, Management, and Budget (DTMB), confirmed to VICE News today that Aramark wanted to make changes to the contract's billing agreement, and the negotiations broke down last week.
Today the state approved a new three-year, $158 million contract to Florida-based Trinity Services Group, which provides prison food service in 44 states, according to a statement from DTMB.
"The contract with Trinity will ensure uninterrupted food delivery service in Michigan correctional facilities," Stibitz said in the statement. "Michigan taxpayers will continue to save millions of dollars per year, with assurance that the state will receive quality service in return."
Aramark told VICE News that there had been issues on both sides that were difficult to resolve.
"We take full responsibility for all aspects of our performance while operating in a highly charged political environment that included repeated false claims," said a statement from the company.
"We mutually agreed to part ways," Aramark spokesperson Karen Cutler added in an email. "I'm not going to re-hash the past; there were issues on both sides and last year we were cleared by the State and MDOC of false claims. Bottom line, we know public-private partnerships work, as evidenced by the fact that our contacts were recently renewed in three other states."
The shakeup comes as the outsourcing of prison management and services to private companies has been generating increasing controversy. Problems have been reported among Aramark-contracted prisons across at least six other states. More than 100 verified reports of food shortages have led to security problems, while low staffing levels, meal substitutions, false reporting, and poor food quality have resulted in complaints from inmates and staff.
"Why did it take so long?" Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, asked of the contract termination when approached by VICE News. Prison Legal News has regularly reported on problems with Aramark over the past several years.
"Given the horrific stories that came out of Aramark's food service for more than a year, if it was almost any other context the state would've acted much sooner," Friedmann remarked. "If Aramark was providing kids in schools with food with maggots, I don't think they would've waited so long."
Friedmann said the problem with privatized food service is that companies are looking to maximize profits and skimp on sanitation and hygiene in order to cut costs.
"Say what you will about prison food, it's universally bad whether it's public or private," he added. "But that being said, when you have DOC workers providing it, they are not incentivized to cut costs and to make money. They are simply getting paid their salary."
Aramark has lost contracts before but continues to find new jurisdictions to work in. Friedmann described how problems with the company are just one facet of a justice system which has outsourced "everything from the nuts to the bolts" to private companies, including transportation, food services, medical care, mental health services, private probation services, money-transfer services, and phone services. He cited research showing that in prisons that switch to privatization, rates of violence, staff turnover, and recidivism go up.
"It kind of speaks to the fact that a lot of people don't realize that a vast swath of our prison system is privatized," he said. "Basically we have sought to privatize or monetize every aspect of the justice system, which does in fact mean justice is for sale if you're one of these companies running these services."