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Article on private prison food services in MI quotes PLN managing editor

Metro Times (MI), Jan. 18, 2018.

We spoke with Michigan inmates about rotten food, maggots, and more prison kitchen problems

Posted By  on Thu, Jan 18, 2018 at 10:19 am

Maggots, rotten food, unsanitary kitchens, staff shortages, calorie shortages, sick inmates, angry inmates, drug-dealing kitchen employees, employees having sex with inmates, quarantines — these are the issues that documents show and inmates say are taking place in Michigan's prison kitchens in 2018, which sounds just like what we heard about them in 2015.

That and other issues led the Michigan Department of Corrections to end its food service contract with institutional food giant Aramark nearly three years ago. But inmates tell Metro Times that the same issues persist with the new food provider, Tampa-based Trinity Services.

We spoke earlier this month with several inmates at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, who allege that the kitchen is highly unsanitary, Trinity regularly serves rotten or undercooked food, and inmates aren’t provided with enough calories. 

That’s in line with what we reported in February 2016, and the Detroit Free Press’s recent stories about officials discovering maggots in the prison's kitchen on three separate occasions. The Free Press also reports that the MDOC hit Trinity with $2 million in fines for unauthorized meal substitutions, delays serving meals, inadequate staffing levels, and sanitation violations, among other issues. 

Four years of problems suggest that it doesn’t matter which private company cooks inmates’ food because it's the prison privatization model that is fundamentally flawed

"The emphasis is not on safety or security. It's not on adequate, nutritious meals. It's on how to make a profit for the company," Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, tells Metro Times.

But why does it matter? After all, these are inmates. Aside from the basic moral question — are we OK with feeding people rotten food, maggots, and such if it saves the state a mere $12 million annually? — it’s a problem because prisons full of hungry inmates who have to eat what is sometimes literally garbage is what can eventually lead to protests and riots and a growing pile of evidence supports that.

An unsanitary kitchen

Among those we spoke with is Lamont Heard, who converted to Islam while incarcerated and successfully sued the MDOC in federal court several years ago for failing to provide Muslim inmates with enough calories during the holy month of Ramadan.

He says one of the overarching issues is sanitation, and alleges that Trinity employees prepare food without gloves, and the food service line is regularly crusted in old food and juice.

Samuel Thomas, who is a food rep for the prison population at Cotton, says he’s concerned that garbage bins used to defrost chicken are also used to hold potatoes and other vegetables.

He adds that it’s difficult to clean the kitchen because inmates aren't provided with the proper equipment, and mop water and rags aren’t regularly changed. Thomas also alleges that a roughly 200-person unit was recently quarantined with a flu virus, but Trinity didn’t switch to disposable styrofoam trays as is protocol. 

He says food or juice that was already served to inmates is sometimes grabbed off trays by a Trinity staff member and returned to the line. And he alleges leftover potatoes and vegetables are stored in coolers for up to four days, then mixed in with fresh batches.

“If a real inspector came through here, they’d shut this kitchen down,” Thomas tells Metro Times. “I’m not just concerned about my health and safety — we’ve got a lot of officers who treat us with respect who eat over here. I’m concerned about everyone … because Trinity’s staff ain’t helping us straighten this out.”

Food quality is also a concern, and Heard says that Trinity regularly serves rotten food, especially fruit.

“That’s one of the healthiest things you can get but it’s always rotten,” he tells us.

Beyond that, Heard says potatoes are regularly spoiled and not cooked because the kitchen’s ovens are broken. That lines up with the account of a former Trinity employee who says he quit because he was asked to serve rotten, moldy potatoes. 

Even when the food isn’t rotten, portions are so small that Thomas suspects that inmates don’t receive the 2,600 calories state law mandates. Similarly, Trinity serves food that’s of such low quality that it’s often inedible, Heard says.

“They serve mystery meat and people don’t eat it,” he tells us. “But when a person go hungry … the only thing it does is make them angry.”

And for those prisoners who don’t eat meat because of dietary restrictions or religious beliefs, Trinity sometimes provides soy alternatives, but it’s rarely cooked properly — again, Heard stresses that the ovens, toasters, and other pieces of equipment are regularly broken.

Still, MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz says there are no sanitation issues. "Our contract monitoring unit is there each month, and the monitor — who looks at a wide range of food safety, sanitation and food storage issues — has not found anything to substantiate the anonymous claims you have been told," he says. (None of our claims come from anonymous sources.)

It's also worth noting that these sort of issues aren't isolated. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Southern Center for Human Rights considered suing Trinity for allegedly starving Georgia's Calhoun County Jail inmates. Those who contacted the center reported eating toothpaste to stave off hunger.

A flawed model

Heard says the problems are made worse in Cotton because of how the kitchen is managed. Trinity verifies that it provides a meal by scanning each inmate’s identification bracelet. Once that's scanned, inmates can’t receive replacement food.

Heard says inmates sometimes grab a tray that has food that is undercooked, too small of a portion, or food that is otherwise inedible. If the issue is pointed out to Trinity staff, then the inmate doesn’t get a new tray — they simply lose out on that food.

In that situation, Trinity employees instruct prisoners to speak with a supervisor — but there is no supervisor regularly watching the chow line, Heard tells us. 

That means inmates have to file a grievance, but two weeks can pass before there’s even any kind of meeting. When it does happen, the supervisor tells inmates that there’s no proof of the problem, so there's no corrective measure, Heard says. At this point, lunchtime begins to feel Kafkaesque.

“It ain’t gonna matter to Trinity because they getting paid because they scanned my ID,” Heard says.

In an October story, the Free Press notes that Trinity recently purchased the company that sells packaged food and snacks to Michigan's inmates. The state also changed the way it pays Trinity — instead of paying the company for each meal served, it's paid based on the prison population's size. Under this arrangement, Trinity makes more money if it sells the prepackaged foods, so there's a financial incentive to serve lousy meals.  

Put each of the issues together — the rotten food, unsanitary conditions, small portions, undercooked and inedible food, maggots, dirt, the lack of oversight, and management — and a picture of an inhumane mess hall emerges.

Those we spoke with say some of the prison officers are sympathetic, but there’s little that they can do. Officers don’t have authority over and can’t issue orders to Trinity workers, Thomas and Heard say. 

“Officers can’t get involved. It’s not in their job description because food service is privatized,” Thomas says. “Officers have no say so over what’s going on with the food, but you have a lot of them that try to help us the best they can.”

Heard adds, “Even the warden doesn’t have power. The only thing he can do is make a complaint.”

However, MDOC's Gautz says that officers "do intervene if there are issues with the food and they can order Trinity staff to take food off the line or to prepare something else if it is called for."

Regardless, the issues lie with private food service employees. Trinity pays its workers far less than what the state paid its employees when it ran the mess halls, and it appears that Trinity gets what it pays for.

“Every month they hire new people in or some people quit when they come to work," Heard tells us. "The workers that they hire — Trinity — they don't really know what's going on inside a prison, and they don't care how the food is served because they are only there for a paycheck."

And that goes back to the idea that the private companies are there to serve their shareholders and not the state, inmates, or taxpayers. There are only a few ways to cut costs, such as hiring people who are less qualified, hiring at lower wages, skimping on food, and using lower quality food. 

But is it worth the headache? Friedmann notes that those savings are offset by the cost of dealing with disturbances — a riot at Kinross cost taxpayers nearly $900,000, the Free Press reports — and longterm health effects are going to eventually be paid for by the MDOC and taxpayers.  

"All for-profit companies that provide correctional services ... they have a fiduciary duty to put their profits first," Friedmann says. "Food service, medical care, transportation service, mental health care, phone services, money transfer services — the incentive is to generate profit, is to make money .... and when that's your main incentive, it skews your priorities in how you provide services in prison.

"Trinity's business model is not based on providing adequate or sufficient food for prisoners — it's based on providing a profit for the company."

What's a hungry inmate to do in this situation? There's usually no quick fix. Dan Manville, an attorney who represented Heard in his lawsuit and is also the Michigan State University's Civil Rights Clinic's director previously told me that there has to be a change at the top of the state government before there's a philosophical change in the MDOC. 

"Internally it's hard to do much because the state will take such harsh actions," Manville says. "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."