LANSING, MICH. - Officials found maggots in food in three separate incidents at a Jackson-area state prison this summer, countering expectations that a change in contractors marked a significant reversal in the state's prison food woes .
The discoveries at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility came amid ongoing complaints and concerns about lack of sanitation, insufficient staff training and food shortages involving Michigan’s prison food contractor, Florida-based Trinity Services Group, according to records obtained under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act.
Corrections officers and managers say there is a strong connection between food problems and prison unrest, meaning contaminated or poor quality food can be a security issue.
Maggots in and around food were an issue with the state’s former prison food contractor, Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services, whose three-year, $145-million state contract ended more than a year early, by mutual agreement of the state and the contractor, in 2015.
The new records, obtained under FOIA by a department employee and provided to the Free Press, mark the first maggot incidents publicly reported under Trinity, which was awarded a three-year, $158.8-million contract to replace Aramark.
The records also show that officials at Cotton found “crunchy dirt” in served potatoes and mold in apple crisp and pancakes. They also show that one inmate was placed in segregation for “inciting a riot” over unhappiness with the food service and a large number of prisoners stayed away from the chow hall at the end of August as a form of protest.
“Trinity has voiced that many of these items have been resolved,” Cotton Warden Anthony Stewart said in a Sept. 6 e-mail to other top prison officials.
“We have been very clear that we feel they have not been resolved as of today. Many substitutions (of menu items) are still occurring due to running out of food or Trinity staff not preparing enough" and “there are many times that security and cleanliness are lacking due to lack of active supervision on behalf of Trinity staff.”
Trinity, which tells reporters who call its headquarters it has no public relations staff to take calls from the media and instead directs questions to a generic public relations e-mail address, has repeatedly refused to comment or respond to questions from the Free Press. The company did not respond to questions e-mailed Friday about the maggot incidents and other issues raised in the internal records.
Trinity, which has been on the job in Michigan prisons for just more than two years, has received $3.8 million in penalties through August for unauthorized food substitutions, inadequate staffing, and other contract violations, Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz said Friday. Also, 176 of its employees have received "stop orders," banning them from prison property for violations such as smuggling of drugs or other contraband or overfamiliarity with prisoners, Gautz said. Aramark, which was on the job less than two years, had 186 employees who received stop orders.
"The majority of the problems the vendor has had can be traced back to staffing," Gautz told the Free Press on Friday.
"When you don’t have the correct amount of staff, or the ability to retain staff so that you have people with experience in those positions, these problems can occur. That is why we have the contract monitors in place and whenever the vendor’s staffing is not adequate, they receive a financial penalty."
Gautz said "no decisions have been made" on whether Trinity's contract will be extended or put out for new bids next year.
On July 26 at Cotton, "an inmate approached the Officer's Desk and pointed at his tray," Sgt. Michael Demps wrote in a report to the warden and other officials.
"I looked at the tray (and) there were approximately 4 or 5 small worm-like bugs on the tray still moving."
The serving line was shut down and a Trinity employee found a decayed banana underneath fresh bananas on the tray, "which was believed to be the source of the bugs."
Bananas and other food items were removed from the serving line and "the serving line was wiped down and sterilized before the meal was resumed."
Four days earlier, Corrections Officer Cary Johnson reported she was searching part of the food service area when she found a bag of cheese.
"When I picked up the cheese, I noticed several 'maggots' crawling around," Johnson wrote. "The area was immediately cleaned out and sanitized."
And on Aug. 18, about three weeks after the worm-like creatures were found in the prisoner's food, "coolers behind the serving line were pulled out and maggots were found on a piece of chicken," Lt. J. Curtis reported.
"The area was thoroughly cleaned and put back in service."
Gautz said Friday there had been similar isolated incidents involving maggots at other prisons since Trinity took over, but he couldn't quantify them because the department doesn't track them separately from other sanitation issues.
On Aug. 21 at Cotton, Sgt. Scott McLain reported prisoners complained about several aspects of the meal, but "were mainly upset by the crunchy dirt in the potatoes ..."
The next day, McLain reported that the mashed potatoes were "full of dirt and skin pieces," and "it took three bites for me to find some dirt."
Stewart, the Cotton warden, said in the Sept. 6 e-mail that Level 2 prisoners — those with the second-lowest security level —- stayed away from the chow hall in large numbers on Aug. 31, complaining of "poor-quality food and constantly running out of food with inadequate substitutions," as well as "accusations of Trinity staff talking in an aggressive and disrespectful manner to prisoners when legitimate concerns have been raised." Prisoners who worked in the kitchen also complained Trinity employees were firing prison workers for minor infractions, Stewart said.
While sending a message to Trinity managers, Stewart also disciplined at least one prisoner over the food problems.
Stewart said he ordered prisoner Victor Stallworth, 56, who is serving time for armed robbery, moved into segregation after Stallworth was overheard in the kitchen area saying: "They're not going to change things around here until we tear this place up."
Food issues have been linked to earlier issues of prison unrest since December 2013, when the state replaced about 370 state employees in Michigan prison kitchens with lower-paid contract workers — a move the state says is currently saving taxpayers about $11 million a year.
Several demonstrations over food took place at Michigan prisons in 2014, and in March of that year, former department director Dan Heyns said in a e-mail to a state official that some wardens were concerned about losing control of a prison over food issues.
More recently, food was among the complaints at Kinross Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula, where prisoners in September 2016 set fires and smashed windows and fixtures in what corrections officers say was Michigan's first prison riot since 1981.
At Cotton, the actions the warden described taking in his Sept. 6 e-mail suggest he gave credence to some of the prisoners' complaints. He said he directed the deputy warden to meet with Trinity managers and prisoner representatives. The Trinity food director was instructed "to ensure that enough supplies are available throughout the weekend to provide the scheduled meal without the need for substitutions," and the deputy warden "emphasized the need for a quality meal with the property quantity of food," Stewart wrote.
The deputy warden also "emphasized the requirement of Trinity ... employees to maintain their professionalism at all times."
The reports also show that prison officials don't take the inmates' complaints at face value.
On July 14, a Cotton inmate "claimed that he found a bug in his rice and beans," according to another report from a corrections officer.
A sergeant "inspected the bug on the tray, and the bug was dead and cold to the touch," while "the rice and beans were hot," the report said.
"It was determined ... that the bug was not in the rice and beans as previously claimed by the inmate."
Gautz said weekly sanitation and contract reviews are now being conducted for any facility food operation that scores less than 90% on a review, with the weekly reviews continuing until a 90% score is reached.
"This process has been having a positive result statewide and at Cotton since the incidents you referenced," he said.
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.
© 2017 Detroit Free Press