Food service giant Aramark, infamous for serving America's prisoners maggots, garbage, rotten chicken tacos, rat turds, and spoiled food, suffered a black eye last July when Michigan cancelled the company's three-year, $145 million contract.
That and the news that Aramark overcharged the state by $3 million contributed to the decision; and for months following, the change appeared to be a success.
But while the state's new food service provider, Florida-based Trinity Services, has yet to serve maggots, inmates who spoke with MUNCHIES say they're underfed, rotten food still lands on their trays, and food quality somehow dropped.
And that's leading to a new round of prison protests. On Monday, all but 30 of 1,300 inmates in northern Michigan's Kinross Correctional Facility skipped meals as part of a peaceful demonstration, according to a prisoner who spoke with MUNCHIES.
"The portions are smaller. The food is nasty and not thoroughly cooked. Young, old, and multiple races are involved in this," Lamont Heard, who is serving life for murder in Kinross, told me.
He adds that the food protest followed a Sunday demonstration over the prison's conditions, which he says include broken/overflowing toilets, poor ventilation, broken heaters (January's average low temperature is 12 degrees in Michigan's upper peninsula), problems with visitation, and other issues with prison services.
Trinity didn't return several requests for comment, but Heard's account contradicts the state's official explanation. A Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman told the Detroit Free Press the 1,200 prisoners organized over watery beef stew, and the protest is an isolated incident that's the only sign of discontent with Trinity.
However, Heard told The Detroit Metro Times in February that prisoners were filing grievances over mess hall problems and working with prison staff to find ways to improve the meals.
In addition, this isn't the first report of Trinity shorting inmates on calories. Last year, the Southern Center for Human Rights considered suing the company for allegedly starving Georgia's Calhoun County Jail prisoners, _The Atlanta Journal-Constitutio_n wrote. Inmates who contacted the center reported eating toothpaste to stave off hunger.
While Trinity didn't respond to requests for comment from MUCNHIES, a spokesman told the Journal-Constitution the conversation shouldn't be about calories, but about "why [prisoners] are there to begin with," adding "you're served what you're served."
Trinity and Aramark are the two largest institutional food service conglomerates in the nation, managing kitchens in roughly 950 American jails and prisons.
Michigan hired Trinity last year after it bounced Aramark, though state officials clarified maggots and rats had little to do with the change. Instead, the company charging the state for $3 million in "ghost trays"—meals for prisoners who didn't exist—drove the decision. Now the state is paying Trinity $159 million over the next three years to feed its prisoners. That's $14 million more than Aramark's fee.
Kinross's inmates say they suspect part of the reason for the continued problems lies in Trinity's decision to hire employees Aramark fired when it was booted. The area where those employees serve food is filthy and unsanitary, prisoners told me, and rotten fruit, rotten potatoes, and spoiled milk are just as common as when the employees wore Aramark uniforms.
Quality is another issue. Aramark's food is so bad that it sparked riots and protests around the country,. So inmates say it came as a surprise to find Trinity's food is worse, and some prisoners opt to go hungry even when there isn't a protest.
It's generally agreed that creating that type of situation is bad for everyone.
"We have kept down violence, and the facility has not responded with a kind accommodation. Thus, everyone, staff included, is on their toes," Heard said.
But the main complaint is portions size. Prisoners say they're always hungry and aren't receiving the 2,600 calories required by state law. Hunger in prison isn't new for Heard—he successfully sued the MDOC in federal court for starving Muslim prisoners during Ramadan.
"People are upset. When you go to the dining hall and you see portions this small and the food is nasty, then you get angry. People are fed up and angry with it," he said.
While the state defends Trinity and says its staff is responsive to issues, inmates claim they face retribution from Trinity staff if they file complaints. Prisoners who spoke with me also charged Trinity employees do their job properly when company bosses visit the prison, but return to regular habits when they leave.
Some argue that the problems aren't just an Aramark or Trinity issue, but a privatization issue.
The Free Press reported that 59 Trinity employees have been removed from the prisons during the company's first eight months over inappropriate contact with prisoners. Aramark fired 102 employees during its first eight months in the state.
And during Aramark's two years in the state prisons, its employees were busted for humping inmates, selling drugs, and putting a hit out on a prisoner.
So will a second round of bad press and the protests lead to any serious changes?
Dan Manville, director of the Michigan State University Civil Rights Clinic, says that's not likely to happen immediately, though he adds that the number of prisoners protesting indicates "the food must be really bad."
"Inmates generally don't rally together in in any meaningful way unless what they're protesting is really awful, so to get 1,200 prisoners together—the food has to be a lot worse than Aramark," he said.
But there's not much more prisoners can do from the inside because those organizing the demonstrations can be locked down or moved to a different prison, Manville says.
"Internally it's hard to do much because the state will take such harsh actions," Manville said. "The only other thing they could do is bring it to the media and legislature's attention and hope they step up and do something."