by Christopher Zoukis and Rod L. Bower
Prison food service vendor Aramark was included among 132 businesses in 21 countries that were named the World’s Most Ethical Companies in 2015 by Ethisphere Institute, a self-described “global leader” in defining standards for ethical corporate practices. According to the Institute’s website, the designation bestowed upon Aramark “recognizes companies that truly go beyond making statements about doing business ‘ethically’ and translate those words into action.”
“Honorees not only promote ethical business standards and practices internally, they exceed legal compliance minimums and shape future industry standards by introducing best practices today,” the Institute said. The 2015 designation marked the sixth straight year that Aramark has been included on the World’s Most Ethical Companies list.
Aramark Correctional Services, the arm of the Philadelphia-based company that caters to prisons and jails, boasts that it “provides a wide range of food, facility and other customized support solutions to over 600 correctional facilities across North America,” preparing “well over 1,000,000 meals a day for state and municipal facilities, partnering with our clients to meet the unique challenges of the corrections environment.”
Moreover, Aramark’s website says that it “endeavors to go beyond for its clients, delivering solutions to critical issues like recidivism, officer morale and retention, safety and security, and inmate behavior and health, whether through our commissary services, offender training and job-readiness certification, family-support programs or Meals on Wheels.”
Faced with the “unique challenges” of operating in prisons and jails, Aramark must have met a detailed set of criteria in order to qualify as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies, especially considering the firm’s recent performance problems in Michigan and Ohio:
• An Aramark employee in Michigan served prisoners food that was thrown in the trash, while another was fired after serving cake that had been nibbled on by rats;
• Aramark was held partly responsible for infestations of maggots found in three areas of an Ohio prison kitchen and dining hall, and maggots were also found in Michigan prison kitchens serviced by the company;
• Aramark food is blamed for sickening prisoners in a number of states and is the focus of several lawsuits;
• Aramark has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, and had its contract terminated in one state for violations that included unsanitary conditions, spoiled food, unauthorized menu changes and inadequate meal portions;
• Hundreds of Aramark employees have been disciplined, fired or prosecuted for smuggling contraband and engaging in sexual misconduct with prisoners; and
• Multi-year, multi-million dollar state contracts with Aramark have cost numerous unionized prison workers their food service jobs.
Unsafe and Unsanitary Conditions
Although complaints against Aramark are by no means geographically isolated, most recent criticism of the company’s performance has been centered in two states: Michigan, which signed a three-year, $145 million contract with the food service vendor that was due to expire in September 2016, and Ohio, which entered into a two-year, $110 million contract with Aramark for prison food services that went into effect in September 2013 and was recently renewed.
On March 30, 2015, Progress Michigan, a political watchdog group, released the text of emails between Aramark general manager Sigfried Linder and the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), in which Linder revealed that two employees, identified only as Mr. Chisolm and Miss Gibson, were responsible for serving prisoners at the Saginaw Correctional Facility food that had been thrown in the trash.
“Mr. Chisolm discarded the leftovers from the line before the last half unit was in the chow hall. He then realized that there were more inmates to serve so he rinsed them off, reheated them in the oven and instructed the inmates to serve them,” according to one of the emails. “They refused, so he and Miss Gibson proceeded to serve them to the remaining inmates.”
MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz said Aramark later fired the workers involved.
“I think they were meatballs or some sort of meat products,” he stated. “Obviously it shouldn’t have happened. It’s a health-code violation.”
“The fact that inmates refused to serve this food, and yet an Aramark employee felt comfortable doing so, speaks volumes about the company’s corporate culture,” noted Progress Michigan executive director Lonnie Scott. “This is just the latest – and one of the most disgusting – examples of Aramark’s incompetency in our state.”
Scott also blasted the secrecy surrounding Michigan’s contract with the food service company. “The public has a right to know what is really going on with this contract and it shouldn’t take thousands of dollars and FOIA’ed documents [records requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Act] to get the truth,” he added.
Just two weeks earlier, in mid-March 2015, Progress Michigan had released emails that indicated an Aramark employee was responsible for feeding cake that had been nibbled on by rodents to prisoners at the Central Michigan Correctional Facility.
The emails, obtained under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act and published by the Detroit Free Press, described an exchange between MDOC officials in which a prisoner working in the Central Michigan kitchen “reported to custody staff that he was ordered to serve cake that had evidence of rodents eaten from it.”
“The Aramark employee allegedly ordered him to cut the sides off the cake … and serve it to the population,” wrote prison official Dawn Livermore.
“Unbelievable!” replied Warden Jeffrey Larson, when he learned of the incident.
The Aramark employee who told the prisoner to serve the cake was reportedly fired; officials then dispatched a pest control firm to the facility’s kitchen. Gautz said the cake was served to prisoners, but added he was unaware of any illnesses that resulted.
Progress Michigan’s report escalated the war of words between the watchdog group and Aramark. Company spokeswoman Karen Cutler told the Free Press that she was “not going to comment on an allegation from eight months ago that is one of hundreds of allegations made by special-interest groups against our company and our hardworking employees in Michigan.”
Cutler also defended Aramark’s record. “Food safety is a top priority that we take very seriously,” she said, adding, “our processes and procedures are industry leading, and if issues are raised, we fix them quickly.”
Those issues have included maggots found in Aramark-run kitchens in Michigan prisons, such as when maggots and fly larvae were found on a serving line at the Parnall Correctional Facility in June 2014, and again in the kitchen at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in June 2015.
“We don’t believe the maggots got into the food, but finding them that close to where food trays sit during serving periods is a serious and significant sanitary issue,” said MDOC spokesman Russ Marlan.
“Although Aramark is responsible for its share of problems, they are not responsible for every issue that has been raised in recent months,” he continued. “We investigated recent allegations connecting Aramark’s services to inmate illnesses and pests. We determined none of these incidents were caused by Aramark.”
Aramark executive vice president and general counsel Stephen R. Reynolds threatened legal action if a media campaign proposed by Progress Michigan, over Governor Rick Snyder’s handling of the company’s contract with the state, moved forward. The group planned to include visuals of maggots in its campaign.
“The video advertisement, accompanying statements, publications … and event visuals will contain material falsehoods and/or distortions about Aramark’s performance under the contract with the Michigan Department of Corrections,” Reynolds wrote in a letter to Progress Michigan.
“The purpose of this letter is to demand that you and anyone connected to Progress Michigan immediately cease and desist from communicating, publishing, airing or causing others to air any false statements or distortions relating to Aramark’s performance under the contract with the MDOC.”
In Ohio, however, state corrections officials split the blame with Aramark over maggots found in prison kitchens. On June 30, 2014, authorities discovered a maggot infestation in the kitchen at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr said the company was partly at fault.
“We don’t tolerate maggots anywhere,” said Mohr, who added that fly larvae were discovered in all three prisons where he had served as warden. “It’s intolerable, but it happens.” Aramark and the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction were jointly responsible, he said, adding, “We all accept the responsibility; that includes me.”
About 1,000 of the 2,700 prisoners at the women’s facility threw away their lunches in protest after maggots were discovered beneath a serving line, in a refuse sink and in a dining hall wall, but prison officials said none of the prisoners were served tainted food.
The incident was one of several times that maggots were found in Ohio prisons in 2014; for example, maggots had previously been discovered at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in January 2014, and at the Trumbull Correctional Institution in June of that year. Maggots were found at the Nobel Correctional Institution at least six times.
Despite repeated problems related to understaffing, running out of food and maggots in prison kitchens, Ohio renewed its contract with Aramark to feed the state’s 50,000 prisoners in June 2015; the new two-year contract will cost the state $130 million.
Spoiled Food, Sickened
A lawsuit filed by 16 prisoners at the Kent County Jail in western Michigan was removed to federal court on April 7, 2015. The action stemmed from a 2012 incident in which about 250 detainees at the jail were sickened by chicken tacos that were later found to be contaminated by bacteria. The complaint named Aramark, as well as Kent County and Sheriff Larry Stelma, as defendants.
The prisoners’ attorney, Jason Barrix, said in court papers that they suffered diarrhea and cramps after eating the tainted chicken, and could face long-term health consequences. The suit alleged that Aramark failed to handle food safely, failed to hire and train enough people to keep food from spoiling and failed to use food equipment properly. At the time, Undersheriff Jon Hess said the chicken was cooked and, in order to keep it warm, was placed in a steamer that was later discovered not to be working.
Sheriff Stelma and Kent County “knew of the substantial risk of serious harm to the inmates of the Kent County Jail presented by improper food handling techniques, potentially resulting in a mass poisoning like that which occurred in mid-April 2012,” Barrix alleged in the lawsuit.
Further, he said, the county was guilty of deliberate indifference to the risk of harm by hiring a firm like Aramark as the jail’s food service vendor in the first place, “despite knowledge of those companies’ history of mass food poisoning caused by inadequate training, inadequate staffing, inadequate equipment and willful indifference to the health of those the companies are charged with feeding in institutional settings.”
The case settled in September 2015, following mediation. See: Beasely v. Aramark Corp., U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00374-GJQ.
A federal judge dismissed another lawsuit against Aramark brought by a Michigan state prisoner who claimed that the company routinely changed its menus and short-changed the amount of food served in meals. U.S. District Court Judge R. Allan Edgar held that Johnny Dar Eagle, 66, failed to present sufficient grounds for his suit, which alleged that Aramark violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
“While plaintiff alleges that he is not receiving the precise diet ordered by the MDOC, he does not allege that he is not being fed or that he personally has lost weight, become ill, or otherwise experienced a condition intolerable for confinement,” Judge Edgar wrote. “He therefore fails to state an Eighth Amendment claim.” See: Eagle v. Aramark, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00193-RAED-TPG.
An unrelated lawsuit, filed by a Michigan prisoner in September 2014, also challenged Aramark’s meals under the Eighth Amendment. Christopher J. Velthuysen, 43, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, claimed in his federal complaint that being denied “healthy, nutritional and edible” food constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
According to a news report on www.mlive.com, Velthuysen complained that one meal provided by Aramark consisted of “a green and spoiled hamburger patty, cold gravy, cold noodles with a vinegar odor, raw carrots, moldy bread and a green orange in place of dessert” plus warm milk that was beyond its expiration date, while lunch the following day included “a cup of cold noodles, white sauce, moldy bread, cheese, a rotten apple, a cup of cold spinach and warm milk.”
The lawsuit, which also names prison workers for their alleged “deliberate indifference,” remains pending. See: Velthuysen v. Aramark, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00192-GJQ-TPG.
Michigan prisoners have filed at least 14 federal lawsuits against Aramark since 2013; nationwide, prisoners have sued the company more than 200 times in federal court over the same time period. Prisoners are not the only ones upset with the prison food service vendor, though. A former Aramark employee in Michigan submitted a complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on October 23, 2014, claiming she was fired for insubordination because she complained about falsified records and kitchen practices that threatened food safety at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility.
“I started complaining to supervisors,” Amy McVay, 25, stated in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “They said, ‘This is a prison; not a five-star restaurant.’”
McVay alleged she was harassed and fired in retaliation for reporting problems that included serving raw or undercooked meat, serving meat that had been dropped on the floor, changing the date on leftover food so that it could still be served after its throw-away date, failure to monitor cooking temperatures, and falsified records concerning the temperature of dishwater and the quality of cleaning solutions.
Aramark spokeswoman Cutler called the allegations “another example in the long-running series of manufactured attacks against our company.” She added, “We stand by our food safety record and will not comment on allegations from disgruntled former employees.”
Approximately 200 prisoners at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan protested in February 2014, in part due to their dissatisfaction with Aramark’s meals. “You don’t screw around with prisoners’ food,” Mel Grieshaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union that represents state prison employees, told the Free Press.
And according to news reports, following the incident where maggots were found on a serving line at the Parnall Correctional Facility in June 2014, around 30 MDOC prisoners were treated for food poisoning symptoms.
Nor are Aramark’s troubles limited to Michigan and Ohio; the company’s poor track record extends to a number of other states. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.1; Oct. 2009, p.36; Dec. 2006, p.10].
For example, dozens of prisoners in segregation at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana staged a hunger strike in January 2012 to protest what they considered inadequate food provided by Aramark. The company had been serving cold sack lunches five days a week for seven months.
“A lot of people didn’t believe that we could win,” said one prisoner who was involved in the demonstration. “We proved them wrong,” he added, noting that following the protest they received hot meals. “It’s all about profit and all about profit motives; it’s not about nutrition or nothing.”
Prisoners at the Bayside State Prison in New Jersey staged a protest in October 2013 over the food served by Aramark. New Jersey DOC spokesman Matthew Schuman refused to confirm that the protest was a hunger strike, but said prisoners were skipping breakfast to bring attention to inadequate meals. [See: PLN, June 2014, p.56].
At a New Jersey county jail, Aramark’s food was not only substandard but often spoiled, according to employees and prisoners alike. Crystal Jordan, a 23-year veteran guard at the jail in Burlington County, said she filed complaints about Aramark’s health standards with the local Department of Health Inspection.
“The food was not great [before Aramark], but officers ate it along with the prisoners. Once Aramark came in, that changed,” she said in a December 2013 news article. “The bread was stale. I saw food in the kitchen with mold on it. The refrigerator broke down and the food was left outside in the cold or trucked in from another facility.”
“Those who ate the food began to get sick,” Jordan continued. “The officers demanded the right to bring in their own food or order out, which the jail authorities granted. But the prisoners had no choice. Diarrhea and vomiting is common among the prisoners.”
“The food gives everybody in the jail diarrhea,” agreed James Gibbs, 52, after spending two weeks in the nearby Union County Jail in Elizabeth, New Jersey. “There was never enough food. People were hungry all the time.”
In Kentucky, an October 2010 audit conducted by state Auditor of Public Accounts Crit Luallen found skimping on meals, food safety problems and excessive billing by Aramark. Poor food service was also cited as one of the reasons behind a 2009 riot at the Northpoint Training Center that left eight prisoners and eight guards with injuries. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.10]. At the time, Aramark had a $12 million contract to feed Kentucky’s approximately 21,000 prisoners; since the audit and remedial actions taken by the company, state lawmakers said they have heard few complaints about the food service vendor.
“The problem has been apparently cured,” said state Rep. Brent Yonts, one of Aramark’s most ardent critics. “I think that’s because Corrections has done the job they are supposed to have done.”
Misconduct by Aramark Employees
There are hundreds of reported incidents where Aramark workers have been disciplined, terminated or prosecuted as a result of misconduct ranging from smuggling contraband and engaging in sexual abuse to arranging “hits” on prisoners.
On June 13, 2014, Aramark employee Christopher Amando Mitchell, 19, pleaded guilty in Jackson County, Michigan to charges of smuggling more than five ounces of marijuana into the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility. Authorities said bags of weed were discovered taped to his body during a pat-down search.
At the Parnell Correctional Facility, Aramark’s top official was fired and banned from the prison for being intoxicated on the job, according to MDOC spokesman Marlan. He said prison authorities received an anonymous tip about the unidentified food service director and gave her a breathalyzer test which confirmed she was inebriated.
In May 2014, Aramark supervisor Letrice Drake, 25, was arrested after she tried to enter the Indiana State Prison carrying a package that contained marijuana, heroin, suboxone and tobacco products.
Ex-Aramark food service worker Robert Edward Brenner, 49, was arraigned on charges of smuggling drugs into the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility; faced with counts of possession with intent to deliver marijuana, conspiracy and attempted furnishing contraband, he pleaded guilty in March 2015 and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and four years of probation.
Further, on March 23, 2015, Timothy Cojocar, 30, formerly employed by Aramark at the St. Louis Correctional Facility, was sentenced to 60 days in jail, two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service for smuggling drugs. During his sentencing hearing, Cojocar said he had been manipulated by prisoners and was insufficiently trained.
“During the period of January 17, 2014 through February 28, 2014, a total of 12 instances occurred whereby Aramark staff violated rules and regulations pertaining to over-familiarity with prisoners,” Kevin Weissenborn, MDOC’s contract manager, wrote in a letter to Michael Flesch, Aramark’s vice-president of operations. “These actions have resulted in safety and security risks and additional costs to the Michigan Department of Corrections.”
Marlan said most of the incidents in which Aramark employees engaged in over-familiarity involved workers and prisoners exchanging notes. For example, in September 2014, a female Aramark employee at the Ionia Correctional Facility was fired when guards found a 65-page love letter she had written to a prisoner with whom she was involved in a relationship.
Some misconduct went far beyond letters, though.
Officials at the Carson City Correctional Facility entered a walk-in freezer in February 2014 only to discover the cooling unit shut off and an Aramark kitchen worker on her knees in front of a male prisoner, engaged in a sex act. The worker was banned from the prison and terminated. And at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, four Aramark employees were fired – all on the same day – for having inappropriate sexual contact with prisoners.
Marlan said the four female workers were caught on surveillance video engaging in kissing and sexual touching with male prisoners in a kitchen cooler; two were fired and escorted from the prison while the other two were terminated after they arrived for work.
“It’s unprecedented that four workers at the same facility, in the same day, are placed on stop order,” he noted. “It’s concerning on a number of levels.” However, in fairness he also said, “I don’t believe all four of them were in the cooler at the same time.”
On September 23, 2014, an Aramark worker at the Ionia Correctional Facility was fired because authorities suspected he had tried to pay one prisoner to beat up another. Only three days after that incident, an Aramark supervisor at the Kinross Correctional Facility was barred from the prison due to his involvement in a scheme to have a prisoner assaulted at a different facility. According to Michigan State Police Detective Michael Schroeder, a prisoner filed a complaint alleging that Aramark supervisor Michael R. Young, 27, approached him to see if he could arrange a hit on a prisoner at another prison. Young was arraigned in May 2015 on a felony charge of solicitation to commit assault causing great bodily harm, according to Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office.
“If it was one [employee], it would be one thing, but it is over and over and over again,” observed Nick Ciaramitaro, legislative director for AFSCME Council 25, the union local which represents the approximately 370 state workers who were displaced due to the MDOC’s food service contract with Aramark.
By October 2014, over 100 Aramark employees had been barred from MDOC facilities due to various types of misconduct. In Ohio, 135 of the company’s workers were fired during the first year-and-a-half of Aramark’s contract with that state’s prison system for offenses that included security violations, having sex with prisoners and smuggling contraband. Similar problems have been reported in other states that contract with the food service vendor.
In Indiana, Aramark employee Sonya Belik, 29, was arrested in September 2013 on felony charges of sexual misconduct after she was caught “in inappropriate activity with one of the inmate kitchen workers” at the Westville Correctional Facility, the News-Dispatch reported. In another incident, former Aramark worker Roberta Ashburn was sentenced to two years’ probation in August 2013 after officials said she smuggled tobacco, narcotics and a cell phone to a prisoner at the New Castle Correctional Facility. And in July 2015, an Aramark food service worker at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, Latasha Perry, was charged with multiple felonies after she was caught trying to smuggle drugs into the prison.
Even in small county facilities, Aramark employees have run afoul of the law. In Sunbury, Pennsylvania, a town nestled against the Susquehanna River, authorities charged Aramark cook Susan T. Studenski, 32, on April 2, 2015 with smuggling tobacco to six prisoners at the Northumberland County Jail as many as 50 times during the three-month period while she was under investigation.
Nick Perea, employed by Aramark in laundry services at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, admitted to smuggling drugs into the facility. He was charged on May 23, 2015 with trafficking a controlled substance, delivering contraband and conspiracy. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.63].
In July 2015, an Aramark food service worker at the Bexar County jail in Texas was busted in a sting operation. Mark Anthony Aguilar, 26, accepted a cash bribe to smuggle drugs, cigarettes and other contraband into the facility; he was charged with possession of a controlled substance.
And in Oregon, Aramark employee Buddy Gene Arnett, 46, was indicted on June 15, 2015 on charges of providing contraband to prisoners at the Jackson County jail in exchange for sexual favors. Accused of giving tobacco, alcohol and a cell phone to prisoners over a five-month period, Arnett pleaded guilty in November 2015 and was placed on probation for three years.
Joanna Saul, director of Ohio’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, offered a possible explanation for the rampant smuggling of contraband into prisons and jails by Aramark workers. In testimony provided to a legislative panel on July 30, 2014, Saul cited the low wages paid by the company as a contributing factor.
“You’re making $10 to $11 [per hour], you can bring in a pack of cigarettes and sell it for $300 – what are you going to choose?” she asked.
Hundreds of Thousands
of Dollars in Fines
Misconduct by Aramark employees and contract violations related to the quality, preparation and quantity of food served, as well as unsanitary conditions in Aramark’s prison kitchens, have repeatedly resulted in fines levied against the food service vendor.
“Michigan will assess a $200,000 fine onto Aramark and require the company to redesign their current training and staffing procedures in close coordination” with the MDOC, Governor Rick Snyder announced in an August 2014 news release. The state had previously fined Aramark $98,000 in March 2014, but that fine was quietly suspended by then-prison director Dan Heyns.
“It never was paid,” admitted MDOC spokesman Marlan, because Heyns “wanted to give them some time to solve the problems we were experiencing.”
A series of emails obtained by Progress Michigan revealed that Heyns wrote to one of Governor Snyder’s top aides to report that the $98,000 fine had been levied against Aramark because “we were concerned about losing control” of a prison. He then promised to retract the penalty, apparently because Snyder was supportive of the food service contract.
“I know where you want to go,” Heyns said in a March 13, 2014 email to Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore. “I will tone down my attack dogs, delay or cancel any fines and give Aramark time to solve the problems.” He added, “I met with one of their honchos today and he gets the picture.”
According to Marlan, Heyns’ suspension of the fine occurred after a top Aramark official “pledged his commitment and high-level support to resolve the problems we were experiencing at the time.”
“That’s outrageous,” said Nick Ciaramitaro with AFSCME Council 25. “Things only got worse after the first fine.”
The $98,000 penalty included 52 incidents where Aramark made meal substitutions that were not authorized and 240 times the company did not prepare the correct number of meals for prisoners.
“They’re [Aramark] required to follow our menu and they’re required to serve the same food and the same portions to the entire prison population,” Marlan noted when the fine was imposed. “And we found some examples after working through that transition period where that just wasn’t occurring.”
“Start-up transitions of this size and complexity can involve challenges and we are committed to resolving any issues as quickly as possible,” responded Aramark spokeswoman Cutler in an email to the Detroit Free Press. “We have been working closely with our partners at MDOC and are confident that we will deliver the service excellence that is expected and deserved, while also achieving substantial savings for Michigan taxpayers.”
In his August 2014 news release, Governor Snyder announced closer monitoring of Aramark’s performance: “Michigan will also establish a system of independent contract monitors, review the DOC warehousing system, and work with Aramark to establish a set of mutually agreed performance metrics to be used to objectively measure Aramark’s performance on a monthly basis.”
The governor said the state expected to achieve annual savings of $14 million as a result of the prison food service contract, but acknowledged that “the transition to utilizing Aramark’s services has seen errors on both sides of the relationship which are unacceptable and need to be corrected going forward. Therefore, we will be taking multiple corrective actions.”
Those actions included the hiring of a contract oversight advisor whose role was to report solely to the governor’s office and not to the MDOC or Aramark. That position, with the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB), was filled on September 2, 2014 by Edwin Buss, former director of the Florida Department of Corrections. Buss’ $160,000 annual salary was to be covered by the $200,000 fine assessed against Aramark, but after less than five months on the job Buss was gone, according to DTMB public information officer Caleb Buhs.
“Ed Buss is no longer a DTMB employee, he has moved back to Florida with his wife and family,” Buhs confirmed on January 29, 2015. “He made great progress during his time at DTMB, improving prison food service delivery.”
Buhs said that during Buss’ brief tenure, Aramark raised worker pay, increased staffing levels and began providing additional employee training. He added that while Buss served in the oversight position, the number of Aramark employees banned from MDOC prisons fell from 19 to only four. Buhs refused to say whether Buss departed voluntarily or was asked to leave.
“He was an unclassified at-will employee and served at the pleasure of the DTMB director,” Buhs said. Buss’ short stint was not the only time his public service has been brief; he lasted only six months as director of Florida’s prison system before being discharged. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.1].
Meanwhile, the state of Ohio fined Aramark $130,200 for contract violations on July 23, 2014, which was the second fine imposed on the prison food service vendor. In a letter to the company, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction director Gary Mohr cited continued staff shortages, unacceptable food substitutions, food shortages and sanitation issues, including maggots discovered at multiple prisons.
“There were and there are remaining concerns,” Mohr said in remarks to the state Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. “What was going on was just not adequate,” he added. Mohr emphasized that most of the problems were limited to seven Ohio prisons, and said a portion of the fine was earmarked for increased training for Aramark employees.
The fine was in addition to a prior $142,100 penalty levied against Aramark on April 18, 2014, which stemmed from a February 2014 report that detailed incidents in which the company failed to meet required prisoner dietary needs, failed to comply with state sanitary regulations and did not maintain sufficient staffing levels.
Mohr told the Committee that Aramark had saved the state $13 million since September 2013, and said savings from the prison food service contract were projected to reach $16.9 million in fiscal year 2015.
The financial penalties assessed against Aramark by Michigan and Ohio officials were not unique.
The state of Florida fined the company more than $240,000 in 2008 for “slow meal delivery, insufficient staffing and other contract violations,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. After Aramark took over food services in Florida prisons in 2001, an audit by the Florida Department of Corrections found that a significant number of prisoners stopped eating the meals, “creating a windfall for the vendor and reducing the value of the services provided without a proportionate decrease charged to the department.”
The audit also cited Aramark for repeatedly changing menus as a cost-cutting move, for example by substituting “less costly meat products such as ground turkey for previously required beef products.” The food service vendor terminated its contract with Florida at the end of 2008 when the state demanded improved quality and cost reductions.
To put the fines in perspective, it is pertinent to note that Aramark, which is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol ARMK, reported gross revenue of $14.8 billion in its 2014 annual report. The company had net income of around $149 million that year. This means that even if fines reached $500,000, they would still amount to less than one-half of one percent of Aramark’s net profit during a single year of operation, comparable to a man with $1,000 in his pocket paying a penalty of under five dollars.
Union Workers and Supporters Fight Back
In February 2015, the Ohio Civil Services Employees Association (OCSEA) submitted a third proposal to take back prison food service from Aramark in an effort to regain the 358 unionized positions that were eliminated with the implementation of the company’s contract. For the first time, however, the union claimed that it could beat Aramark’s bid.
“With well-trained staff who are compensated fairly, we believe many of the security and sanitation problems we’ve experienced in prison food service will be minimized,” OCSEA president Chris Mabe said in a press release. The union’s proposal claimed to be $2.9 million cheaper than Aramark’s contract bid.
Under OCSEA’s plan, prison captains would be relieved of their existing duty to monitor food services, saving an estimated $4 million that the state is spending outside of the Aramark contract. The union also proposed the creation of food kiosks in state prisons, where prisoners could purchase items such as sandwiches or cheeseburgers that are not currently part of the restricted prison menu. OCSEA estimated the proposal could generate $5.5 million in the first year alone if implemented statewide.
The union also calculated salaries at a new-hire rate, but under its existing contract with the state, employees who found work elsewhere in the prison system have the right to return to food services. As a result salary costs could vary, depending on the outcome of ongoing contract negotiations. Seventeen of the affected union employees lost their jobs when the Aramark contract went into effect in 2013; the remaining 341 were transferred to other positions.
Ohio union leaders have long pointed to Aramark’s staffing problems as a source of concern for prison officials. For example, the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee conducted prisoner surveys in 2013 and 2014 that found 78% of Ohio’s prison population was either unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with the food, listing as primary concerns the taste, portion sizes and lack of variety. The Committee found that the number of prisoner grievances related to food jumped 53% from 2013 to 2014, compared to just 5% from 2011 to 2012 when union staff oversaw prison kitchens.
As for employee misconduct, as noted above, 135 of Aramark’s Ohio employees were fired for various violations during the first 18 months of the company’s contract, ranging from smuggling drugs and other contraband to sexual contact with prisoners. In 2011 and 2012, the last two full years with union staffing, only 15 state food service employees were targeted by labor relations staff for removal.
Ohio prison system spokeswoman JoEllen Smith cautioned that the comparison is not an accurate indicator because unionized state workers are protected by a grievance process and can appeal disciplinary sanctions, while Aramark employees can be fired at will.
“There were likely circumstances where a state employee was disciplined based on the contractual guarantee of progressive discipline in the collective bargaining agreement and in accordance with our agency’s Standards of Employee Conduct, but was not summarily removed or resigned from employment for incidents that today would result in an employee being terminated from Aramark,” Smith said.
Beginning in August 2014, the director of Ohio state prison inspections recommended that the state begin researching alternative food service vendors, a move supported by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee in the wake of reports of maggots discovered in several prison kitchens. Then-Committee members Rep. Peter Beck, Rep. Robert Hagan and Rep. Nicholas Celebrezze all recommended that the state terminate Aramark’s contract. Beck called for the food service contract to be put back out to bid, while Hagan and Celebrezze sided with OCSEA in calling for a return to union staffing in prison kitchens.
“Aramark has had months upon months to clean up its act, and yet its dirty kitchens remain a breeding ground for maggots and pose continued health hazards to inmates,” Hagan said in a press release.
The Ohio American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined the call for terminating the state’s contract with Aramark. “This is not an isolated incident that prison officials can expect to solve without taking broader action,” said Mike Brickner, Ohio ACLU’s senior policy director. “Aramark’s long track record of incompetence and unsanitary conditions is well documented.”
“Officials have already tried to hold Aramark accountable by levying steep fines and that has not worked. It is time we recognize this experiment has failed and cancel the contract. Aramark’s failures not only put prisoners’ health and well-bring at risk, they also jeopardize the safety of employees at the prisons,” he added. “We must treat those we incarcerate with basic human dignity. Food riddled with maggots, scant portions, and constant incompetence is simply unacceptable. We must demand better from the state.”
While that was strong condemnation of Aramark, by far the most strident opposition to the company occurred in Michigan, where union leaders repeatedly challenged the food service vendor and garnered significant political support for terminating its contract. About 50 unionized state employees demonstrated outside Governor Snyder’s office on August 14, 2014 to protest his appointment of a contract oversight adviser, which they contended was an attempt to hide problems with Aramark.
“They’re going after less transparency,” Michael Migrin, legislative liaison for the Michigan State Employees Association, told reporters as a group of AFSCME, Michigan Corrections Organization and United Auto Workers Local 6000 members marched and carried signs in front of the governor’s office.
Union leaders said their concerns were based on the release of public records under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The governor’s office is exempt from FOIA requests, Migrin noted, and he and other union members were suspicious that monitoring of the Aramark contract was being shifted from the MDOC to the governor’s office in order to prevent the disclosure of emails and other documents pursuant to public records requests.
“Everything that’s been shared previously will continue to be shared,” insisted Governor Snyder’s press secretary, Sara Wurfel, who denied that secrecy was the motive behind the move. “Utmost transparency is in everyone’s best interests.”
MDOC spokesman Marlan said the change was “absolutely not” designed to shield issues involving Aramark from public scrutiny. “The rationale behind it is to make it more independent,” he explained.
The two state employee unions representing Michigan prison workers lost a previous bid to have the Aramark contract voided, when the state Civil Service Commission deadlocked 2-2 on a union appeal, which allowed the contract to remain in effect.
“How a contractor performs is not a matter for commission review,” wrote Commission Chairman Thomas Wardrop in announcing the decision in April 2014. Wardrop, along with Commissioner James Barrett, voted to reject the appeal filed by AFSCME Council 25 and the Michigan Association of Governmental Employees. “The DOC is closely monitoring contractual compliance and can make the appropriate choices to ensure that necessary services and service levels are maintained,” Wardrop stated.
“I’m not surprised by this outcome,” AFSCME Council 25’s legislative director Nick Ciaramitaro said at the time. “There are clearly those on the Commission who believe these decisions should be made by the department, and [the Commission] shouldn’t exercise that much oversight. We disagree.”
Union officials had testified before the Commission at a March 19, 2014 hearing that Aramark’s performance since taking over food services had threatened prison safety. At that time, MDOC officials acknowledged the problems but advocated no immediate changes.
“This is time to end this contract,” declared Michigan Corrections Organization director Mel Grieshaber at the hearing. “These are things that are dangerous in a prison,” he said, after the commissioners were told that Aramark workers had smuggled banned cell phones into prisons and exchanged love notes with prisoners.
“We have Aramark workers being fired for overfamiliarity with prisoners, which is a big no-no in prisons. It’s not just sex, but giving prisoners favors, things they aren’t supposed to have. It’s a safety and security concern when you’re overfamiliar because it can lead to blackmail,” Grieshaber added.
“Staff, prisoners and the general public have been put at risk while rules are being misinterpreted to ignore both quality and quantity of the services provided,” Ciaramitaro said, adding that problems with Aramark that he and others had warned about had come to pass.
“There’s been some serious contract issues,” but prison officials were “very diligent” in holding Aramark responsible, MDOC spokesman Marlan insisted at the hearing. “We recognize the importance that the food service operation has in the safety of our correctional facilities.”
Following the Civil Service Commission’s ruling, Aramark’s contract with the state came under fire in the political arena, including the 2014 gubernatorial election that ended with Governor Snyder’s close reelection in November 2014 with 50.9% of the vote. His opponent, Democrat Mark Schauer, had challenged Snyder to kick Aramark out.
“Governor Snyder’s decision to outsource prison food service has proven to be a serious mistake that is wasting millions of taxpayer dollars and putting the lives of our corrections officers at risk,” Schauer said during the campaign. “Aramark’s employees have repeatedly violated the terms of their contract, and their drunken and drug-dealing activities at Michigan prisons pose a very serious risk to public safety.”
“The governor should terminate Aramark’s contract immediately to protect taxpayers and public safety,” Schauer continued. “Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to pay for the kind of gross incompetence and dangerous behavior that Aramark is peddling.”
State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville called on the state to request new bids from other companies to provide prison food services. “It doesn’t matter if they’re prisoners or who they are, people don’t deserve that type of treatment,” he said.
“Once again, misconduct by Aramark employees have [sic] caused disruption in our prison system,” added state Rep. Sam Singh in a news release that called for an end to the company’s contract in the wake of continued negative media reports. “What started out as a few concerning incidents has grown into a pattern of continued poor performance,” he said.
“I can’t believe anyone would want to continue using Aramark after all that’s happened,” remarked state Rep. Dian Slavens. “It’s just irresponsible.”
Other legislators, however, believed the Snyder administration should not be influenced into cancelling Aramark’s $145 million contract based on media accounts of problems involving the company.
“Obviously it hasn’t gone as smoothly as we want,” admitted Rep. Joe Haveman, who at the time chaired the House Appropriations Committee. “I trust that it’s going to get better.”
Continued protests by unionized state employees in both Michigan and Ohio prompted a pointed response from the food service vendor.
“Aramark has served billions of meals, to millions of inmates, at hundreds of correctional facilities around the country and never encountered sudden incidences like those reported in two states in the span of one week,” said company spokeswoman Cutler, who added the firm was the victim of a “propaganda machine” run by union members.
In both states, she continued, Aramark faced “quite a bit of anti-privatization sentiment … that has not always presented the collaborative environment we’re used to. Each corrections system is operated independently and the only common denominator is that both of them recently privatized their food services in a decision that has drawn criticism from some special interest groups.”
Grieshaber countered that state prison employees are forced to deal every day with disciplinary problems that result from prisoners who are unhappy about the meals provided by Aramark. “I never heard so many complaints, worries, and concerns about problems they were going to have with the prisoners,” he said.
Michigan’s Last Straw
Following a series of adverse incidents involving food services at MDOC facilities, the number of reports of unsanitary conditions dropped significantly for a time, but headlines flared again when, at lunchtime on June 2, 2015, a prisoner discovered maggots while cutting potatoes in an Aramark-run kitchen at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility. Officials closed the prison’s food serving line for an hour while the area was cleaned and the potatoes were discarded, according to MDOC spokesman Gautz.
That was the last straw for some state lawmakers, who drafted bi-partisan legislation to subject Michigan prisons to the same food safety inspection requirements as other facilities that serve meals, such as restaurants, hospitals and schools.
“Just in the past few weeks there was yet another allegation of maggots in food served by Aramark in one of our prisons, so clearly fining the company and the bad press they’ve received over previous incidents hasn’t helped get them to run a good food service operation or clean kitchens,” said state Rep. John Kivela, who co-sponsored the bill, in a June 24, 2015 press release.
“Our prisons should face the same scrutiny as our schools, universities and senior centers,” added co-sponsor state Rep. Ed McBroom. “It seems only reasonable that those kitchens face the same strict inspections as required by any kitchen serving the public.”
After it was introduced, however, the legislation became bogged down in a debate over who should cover the cost of the inspections.
Regardless, in the aftermath of the latest discovery of maggots and a year-and-a-half of controversy and turmoil, and with the prison kitchen inspection bill pending, Michigan and Aramark officials finally decided to call it quits, reaching a “mutual agreement” in July 2015 to cancel the three-year food service contract 18 months early.
The MDOC said the decision was not based on Aramark’s performance, but instead was the result of “a discrepancy between the meal tracker system the department uses and what Aramark numbers showed,” said Gautz.
In other words, according to DTMB spokesman Caleb Buhs, Aramark was billing the state about $200,000 more per month than anticipated under the contract, a difference of about 4.5%. That discrepancy “was one of the key differences in our contract discussions with Aramark that could not be resolved, and ultimately led to the mutual decision to separate,” Buhs declared. Another contributing factor may have been the company’s request for billing and menu changes under the existing contract.
“We take full responsibility for all aspects of our performance while operating in a highly charged political environment that included repeated false claims,” said Karen Cutler, Aramark’s spokesperson. “Ultimately, we were unable to resolve a number of shared issues and as a result we mutually agreed with MDOC to end the contract.”
The Florida-based prison food vendor Trinity Services Group – a runner-up in the original bidding process – was tapped to replace Aramark under a new three-year agreement. Trinity provides food services at facilities in 44 states, supplying meals to more than 300,000 prisoners daily, according to a statement released by Governor Snyder.
“Michigan will now partner with Trinity Services Group to provide food service for prisoners in all state-run correctional facilities,” Snyder said. “We will remain focused on moving forward. Michigan will continue to realize significant cost savings from this new contract. Our departments will work tirelessly with both companies to ensure a smooth, collaborative transition as well as quality service, security and safety within the facilities during the change.”
However, research by the Detroit Free Press revealed allegations of unsanitary conditions and inadequate food in some of the other states where Trinity does business. For example, according to an October 2014 news report, prisoners at the Gordon County jail in Calhoun, Georgia claimed they were losing weight and eating toothpaste and drinking water to stave off hunger pangs due to the paltry twice-a-day meals that Trinity served.
“They don’t have a choice,” said company spokesman Jim O’Connell. “We could have a bigger discussion of why they’re there to begin with. But you’re served what you’re served.”
Trinity was sued last year by prisoners at the Schuylkill County jail in Pennsylvania over meager food portions. “Plaintiffs allege that they are not receiving proper portions, that they are not receiving proper nutrition, and that they are served spoiled food,” the complaint stated. The pro se lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court in December 2014. See: Murphy v. Berdanier, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:14-cv-00964-ARC.
Nationally, prisoners have filed suit against the company in federal court at least 130 times. Further, Trinity Services Group employees have been cited for misconduct, including sexual misconduct with prisoners, and the firm has faced allegations of operating kitchens contaminated with rodents and insects. Compared with Aramark’s track record, and with a nod to Yogi Berra, it appears to be déjà vu all over again.
In addition, despite Governor Snyder’s claim of “significant cost savings,” Trinity’s contract with Michigan will cost $158 million – around $13 million more than the state’s original deal with Aramark.
“Each vendor negotiation is unique, and it is not uncommon for there to be changes in the terms of a contract when there is a change in vendor,” explained Buhs.
Further compounding the issue is a challenge filed by the state employees union, alleging MDOC officials failed to comply with the law in seeking bids for vendors to replace Aramark as Michigan’s prison food service provider.
“The reason why government has an open bid process is to insure the public is getting the lowest price and best value for the services provided,” Ed McNeil, special assistant to the president of AFSCME Council 25, said in a news release. “Changing vendors two years after the open bid was first awarded without going back to the marketplace is bad business because it cheats the public out of the benefit of competitive pricing.”
Buhs defended the handling of the Trinity contract, saying the state was complying with “the spirit and the letter of the law.” The initial prison food service contract, Buhs said, “was competitively bid, and we’re going with the second-place vendor.”
“The failure of private companies to serve the public good is well-documented across the country,” McNeil countered. “We need to terminate this contract, bring it back in house and provide the high-quality service you can only get with dedicated state employees.”
Although Aramark may be gone from Michigan, the company’s legacy has not been forgotten. The watchdog group Progress Michigan issued a report on August 18, 2015 charging the Snyder administration with failing to properly oversee the Aramark contract, and saying it will likely be no more vigilant in monitoring the agreement with Trinity.
In examining more than 25,000 pages of emails related to Aramark’s food services at MDOC facilities that were released under the Freedom of Information Act, Progress Michigan found that nearly half of 4,000 issues with the company’s performance under the contract were persistent, recurring and never resolved.
“This experiment of privatization is certainly a glaring example of failure to hold them accountable,” said the organization’s executive director, Lonnie Scott. “Simply changing the vendor without changing the culture that allowed such egregious actions will do nothing but cost taxpayers more money.”
Back to the Ethics Award
With such an abysmal track record as evidenced in Michigan and Ohio, how is it that Aramark qualified – once again – for inclusion in the Ethisphere Institute’s annual list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies?
“Every day, everywhere we operate around the world, our dedicated associates enrich and nourish the lives of those we serve with innovative and meaningful solutions,” said Aramark Chairman and CEO Eric J. Foss, in a March 9, 2015 press release. “As a global leader, this prestigious honor reinforces our commitment to operating with the highest ethical standards and conducting business with the utmost integrity and respect, while delivering service excellence to our consumers, clients and community partners,” he added.
Foss, incidentally, received $32.4 million in total compensation in 2014, including his salary, bonuses and stock and option awards.
Ethisphere CEO Timothy Erblich lauded Aramark for understanding that ethics defines corporate leadership, and noted that “earning the World’s Most Ethical Companies recognition involves more than just an outward facing message or a handful of senior executives saying the right thing. Earning this recognition involves the collective action of a global workforce from the top down.”
On closer examination, however, the “prestigious honor” of appearing on Ethisphere’s list of ethical corporations may not be as distinguished as it seems. The Ethisphere Institute, a self-described “leading international think-tank dedicated to the creation, advancement and sharing of best practices in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, anti-corruption and sustainability,” is in reality a for-profit company that sells services to – and collects fees from – some of the companies that receive its “most ethical” designation.
Ethisphere bases the awards on a scoring system that relies primarily on information provided by the corporations themselves, using a questionnaire which, according to Ethisphere, takes 30 to 40 minutes to complete. An advisory panel assembled by the organization then examines documentation the companies submit in support of their survey answers. Ethisphere also compiles data from other sources, such as media reports, court records and magazine articles, including Consumer Reports.
“Could they be lying to us?” said Ethisphere Institute director Alex Brigham, referring to the self-reported questionnaires. “Sure, they could…. Over time, we’re going to have to figure out how to verify that. And no one is going to pay us to verify it, and if we try to charge them to verify it, we’re going to have reporters … make it sound like we’re getting paid off.”
Brigham admitted that Ethisphere charges companies to be certified with the “Ethics Inside” designation, but only if the organization determines a firm’s “compliance and ethics activities are demonstrably better than competitors.” He denied there was a conflict of interest because “our fees are so small.”
“If you’re getting money from something and you’re making ratings, you just have to be very careful that there’s no conflicts of interest,” agreed Stefan Linssen, the editor-in-chief of Ethisphere magazine. “If there was even a perception of conflict of interest, that would just lose all credibility for the list.” Linssen said he believes the Ethisphere Institute has avoided that dilemma by being transparent.
The World’s Most Ethical Companies list helps in “advancing the conversation about ethics and compliance programs in the executive suites and boardrooms,” conceded Gretchen Winter, director of the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society at the University of Illinois, and former ethics officer for Baxter International, one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies winners. Still, she cautioned, conflicts of interest and Ethisphere’s reliance on information provided by the corporations themselves make the awards “less credible.”
Chris MacDonald, a former member of the Ethisphere Institute’s advisory panel, was more blunt. Take the awards, he said, “with a grain of salt.”
Which means that reliance on Aramark’s inclusion in a list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies as a measure of its integrity, morals or quality of service is – as indicated by the firm’s dismal performance in Michigan, Ohio and other states – a recipe for disaster.
(Originally published by Prison Legal News)