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What It's Like to Eat Some of the Worst Prison Food in America

During my seven-month stay in a county jail, I experienced a culinary horror show at the hands of Aramark, a private contractor that has been slammed with accusations of serving rotten and maggot-infested food in prisons across the US.

by Stephen Katz
Jul 26 2016, 8:00pm

This article was originally published on MUNCHIES in September 2015.

As a former teenage delinquent whose Hollywood Knights-style relationship with the law got me well-acquainted with drunk-tank cuisine, I figured I knew what to expect in the county jail mess hall when, later in life, my behavior earned me a protracted stay.

But as I waded into my seven-month sentence, it quickly became apparent that there was simply no anticipating the daily culinary horror show that lay ahead.

Putting aside the possibility we were eating actual trash—a legitimate concern in Michigan—there's no imagining the cartoonish dishes that landed in front of us, like bologna soup. I couldn't have known beforehand that "meatballs" in fluorescent gray sauce would be cause for excitement because they were the best thing rolling out of the kitchen.

There's also no imagining the waves of despair that come with purchasing no-name, dehydrated beans off commissary and "cooking" them with tepid water in a fruit fly-infested shower that doubles as a laundry machine.

Aramark was in the process of being chased out of Michigan's prison kitchens over a succession of gruesome incidents involving tainted food, unsanitary conditions, and other alarming health violations.

The taste, however, didn't compare to the persistent hunger. No one straight up starved in jail, but the dinner line ran at 3:30 PM, at which time we received four slices of damp, white bread packed with a piece of sweaty bologna and a couple cookies. A small snack is the only thing one eats between the 10:30 AM lunch and 4:30 AM breakfast.

In a matter of weeks, a combination of inadequate calories, inedible food, and small portions reduced my already pencil-thin frame by more than 20 pounds. During the day, my cellmate and I debated which Detroit restaurants stacked the tallest Reubens and one-upped each others' potato salad recipes, while at night slices of pizza and chicken gyros danced and tumbled through my dreams.

What we also couldn't have imagined was that the company contracted to feed us, Aramark, was reported 240 times in 2014 in Ohio for shorting inmates on food, according to the ACLU. At the same time, it was in the process of being chased out of Michigan's prison kitchens over a succession of gruesome incidents involving tainted food, unsanitary conditions, and other alarming health violations.

Over the last ten years, Aramark's rotten food and low calorie counts sparked enough riots, hunger strikes, violence and protests that a growing number of voices in and around the prison industry are essentially labeling its recipe books a security threat.

To be clear, no one is asking guards to polish the silver and lay out a buffet for a bunch of thugs, dimwits, murderers, and goons.

In July, not long after my release, Michigan cancelled its three-year, $145 million contract with Aramark—though it remains the nation's largest prison cook, even if problems follow their employees into kitchens everywhere.

To be clear, no one is asking guards to polish the silver and lay out a buffet for a bunch of thugs, dimwits, murderers, and goons. A reasonable case can be made that jail food should be kind of gross, but what it shouldn't be is rotten, maggot-infested, pulled out of the trash, specked with rat turds, or tainted in some manner.

Lunch also shouldn't taste so bad that it destabilizes prison yards. That, however, is what happens with troubling regularity in Aramark-run kitchens, says Mike Brickner, the senior policy director at the Ohio ACLU.

"Prisons are very delicate environments and things like food become incredibly important to people who are incarcerated. It's a safety issue for other prisoners and corrections officers," he says. "What we're seeing with Aramark and around food privatization is that it injects chaos into the situation."

Aramark employees have been caught humping inmates and smuggling in drugs and cellphones. A former Michigan employee is now facing charges for putting out a hit on a prisoner.

Aramark is the world's largest institutional food conglomerate, serving dishes in prisons, jails, national parks, hospitals, schools, and ballparks. It plops 380,000,000 meals onto prisoners' trays at over 500 detention centers annually, according to the company website. But that figure is dropping, mostly because Aramark is also establishing itself as the poster child for all that's wrong with privatization, due in no small part to widely publicized incidents in Michigan and Ohio.

Over the last 18 months in the two states, Aramark employees were allegedly busted pulling food out of the trash to re-serve and ordering inmates to hand out cakes on which rats had nibbled. Prisoners in one jail discovered rodent feces on their trays, and the two states' prisons saw a combined 15 "maggot-related incidents," including one in a Jackson, Michigan, pen that forced 30 sick inmates to be quarantined. In Kent County, Michigan, 16 inmates are suing Aramark in federal court, accusing the company of sickening 250 prisoners by knowingly serving rotten chicken tacos. And in Macomb County, Michigan, prisoners ate cold food for months after a raging mold infestation shut down the kitchen.

Employees in both states were caught humping inmates and smuggling in drugs and cellphones. A former Michigan employee is now facing charges for putting out a hit on a prisoner. Hundreds of Aramark employees have been fired in each state, according to the ACLU and watchdog groups.

Unlike Michigan, Ohio opted to extend Aramark's contract in June by 24 months and boost its pay from $110 million to $130 million, and their same tune continues, Brickner says.

Does society find feeding people actual garbage, rotten food, and maggots acceptable if it means a state's taxpayers save $14 million annually?

"It really defies logic that the state would continue down this path with Aramark when we can see so clearly that it hasn't worked since they privatized," he says. "No one here is arguing that people should get lobster meals every day, but this is basically us saying, 'Make sure the folks that are incarcerated are getting the bare minimum in terms of what they're eating and what their bodies need to survive.'"

Of course, the headlines aren't limited to Ohio and Michigan. Several years prior in New Jersey, prisoners reported eating contaminated food, experiencing significant weight loss, and finding rodent droppings in their butter after Aramark took over the kitchens. The Florida DOC and Aramark parted ways in 2009 following similar problems along with a $5 million "phantom bill" for meals the company didn't actually make.

Ditto for Kentucky, where poor food quality and small portions ignited a 2009 riot that left eight guards and eight prisoners injured. Food substitutions—think ketchup packets instead of spaghetti sauce—were allegedly behind a 2015 Michigan riot and other Michigan DOC protests. The Internet is full of similar stories reported at county jails across the country.

Still, governments continue to ink deals with the company because it supposedly saves money. Michigan and Ohio claimed savings of around $14 million annually, which Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler has previously noted frees up budget dollars for other "vital" programs.

Given Aramark's track record, that begs the question: Does society find feeding people actual garbage, rotten food, and maggots acceptable if it means a state's taxpayers save $14 million annually?

In mid-July in Michigan, amid growing public disgust, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan DOC appeared to say "No!" in taking the rare step of cancelling Aramark's contract. The state clarified, however, that maggots didn't change any minds—Aramark's demand for a pay raise drove the decision.

Even if the state's Republican leadership isn't bummed that Aramark's cooking sickens prisoners, it recognizes phrases like "partial quarantine" and "maggot-infestation" regularly popping up in headlines will leave the public with a dimmer view of privatization.

Start serving lower quality food, serving smaller quantities—then you are creating significant safety problems.

But the state only swapped private vendors. Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, calls that a bad move. He explains the purpose of privatizing jail food service is to cut costs, and that's only accomplished by reducing food quality, reducing portions or cutting staff —the root of Aramark's and all other private vendors' problems.

Friedmann, who served ten years in prison, says from experience that meals are one of the few things to which prisoners can look forward each day. Messing with food is "not smart."

"In the prison setting, prisoners lose everything—their rights, belongings, their ability to move freely, and they're at the complete mercy of prison guards. So food is amazingly important. Start serving lower quality food, serving smaller quantities—then you are creating significant safety problems."

Indeed, meals are one of the few bright-ish spots in an otherwise dismal reality, and there's not much else from which to draw any pleasure.

Surviving jail with your sanity intact is all about pushing the clock forward, and hunger—the kind that leaves everyone in the room 20 to 50 pounds lighter—is a drag on the minute hand.

Those with people on the outside can have money put on their books for commissary and choose from a "convenience store" full of salty snacks, dehydrated beans, tortillas, candy, tuna, chips, beef sticks, and other crap. With the ingredients, one can cobble together junk food burritos the size of footballs. Those pack the flavor and fill lacking on state-issued trays, and are an immense joy that can swing a day from miserable to tolerable by offering some delight and variation that, by design, is in very short supply.

Brighten enough days, and time might not seem to stand quite so still.

But even the commissary is questionable. The items typically run at the twice the cost on the outside, and prisoners are buying the snacks from Aramark, leading to suspicions of an incentive to keep people hungry.

Yes, a maggot is gross and technically a constitutional violation, but an inmate would have to prove damages, harm, or an ongoing pattern that could be argued through a class action lawsuit.

So the meals are short on calories, taste like garbage (possibly because they are), and might be tainted. What's an inmate to do?

Not much.

Individual lawsuits aren't going to work, says Dan Manville, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University. Yes, a maggot is gross and technically a constitutional violation, but an inmate would have to prove damages, harm, or an ongoing pattern that could be argued through a class action lawsuit. A few maggots and missing calories won't cut it.

"Unless you can show that you really lost weight, the court won't find injury. You got the food the next day. Yeah, you're hungry, but there's no ongoing damage," Manville says.

Fortunately, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and other states have all hit Aramark with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Except Michigan secretly canceled half those fines and no one can really say for sure if the company ever paid a dime.

Brickner believes that public awareness is the best route to change. Before Michigan cancelled its contract, a state poll found 62 percent of state residents wanted Aramark gone, and that's likely because those locked up may be criminals, but most people feel treating them humanely is what a sane first-world country does.

"We want to make sure they're in an environment that supports their rehabilitation, and that's not going to happen in a place where there's constantly chaos and people fighting over food," Brickner says. "It's smart to make sure these people are treated humanely while incarcerated."

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