Privatized Prison Services: Food

Much ink was spilled in the days after the election over how the stocks of the two largest private prison companies, GEO Group Inc. and Corrections Corp, jumped in the wake of Trump’s victory. High hopes for the companies’ bottom lines rest primarily on the belief that the new administration will reverse the August 2016 decision by the US Department of Justice to end federal contracts with private prisons as well as the assumption that deportations will increase, thereby fueling the need for extra space in private immigration detention centers.

Both of these assumptions will most likely prove true. Yet perhaps an equal, if not greater, danger to the humane operation of prisons is the privatization of services. Over the coming weeks, Carceral Complex will lay out the terrain of a number of these privatized sectors. The first, explored here, is food.

In many, if not most, jails and prisons across the United States, food preparation is privatized. Menus are set to maximize profits, not nutrition. Incarcerated individuals, like in past decades, often still work in the kitchens, but their wages have been cut and the conditions have severely deteriorated.

Aramark, the private catering behemoth, is one of the leading contractors for providing jail and prison food. The conditions under which their incarcerated employees work and the quality of the food served has been reported as abysmal in various situations. In Ohio in 2014, maggots in food were reported at two different prisons. Similar maggot-related food problems occurred under Aramark in Michigan facilities.

Nonetheless, these two states have continued to contract with private companies to provide food in their state prisons. In 2016, a study of Ohio’s carceral food distribution found that the state saved over $10 million a year through their private food contract with Aramark. But at the same time, complaints regarding the quality of the food and employees’ behavior skyrocketed.

A similar story has taken place in Michigan. After the state ended its contract with Aramark in 2015, it immediately entered into a new contract with a different private provider. The contract with Trinity Services Group was more lucrative for the private contractor than the previous agreement the state had entered into with Aramark. And in addition to paying Trinity $13.7 million more than Aramark over three years, the state also waived the previously existing requirement that kitchen workers have previous experience. In doing so, it dismantled much of the system of food preparation and service oversight.

The results were not surprising. Just this week, the state fined Trinity over $2 million dollars for violations including unauthorized meal substitutions, delays in serving, inadequate staffing levels, and sanitation violations. Each of these transgressions indicate different sinister repercussions of privatization. There is no incentive to provide quality food, and therefore providers aim for the lowest possible threshold of nutrition and edibility. There is an unclear chain of command, and therefore little incentive to provide food on time. There is a desire to maximize profit, and therefore firms skimp on hiring (already severely underpaid) employees. And there is relaxed demands for inspection, and therefore cleanliness norms and standards drop or are ignored.

The horrific failures of private food contractors in Ohio and Michigan are just a small sample of the ways in which corporations fail to deliver even a basic standard of acceptable nutrition to those incarcerated. Many local jails as well as states have in recent years contracted out the feeding of those they detain. But little government oversight exists. And as a result, those with no option of exit and little voice suffer.