LANSING, MICH. - A prison food worker says he was fired Saturday after he refused to serve rotten potatoes to inmates at Kinross Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula.
“It was the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in my life,” said Steve Pine, 48, of Sault Ste. Marie, who has worked for Trinity Services Group at Kinross since July 2016.
“They had about 100 bags of rotten potatoes,” Pine said. “You could smell them,” and “they had black and green mold all over them.”
A corrections officer on duty agreed the potatoes should be thrown out instead of being used to prepare meals for the next day, but a Trinity supervisor disagreed, Pine said.
When Pine, in front of prisoners who work in the kitchen preparing and serving meals, refused orders to have the inmates pick through the potatoes to find ones that could still be served, “they told me I was trying to start a riot," he said of Trinity supervisors.
Pine left Kinross on Saturday, having lost his job, believing the potatoes were served to prisoners on Sunday.
But Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz said Thursday that none of the potatoes was ultimately served.
"After inspecting them, it turned out only about a third of the potatoes needed to be discarded," Gautz said in an e-mail to the Free Press.
"But because the Trinity employee spoke about it in front of the inmates so loudly, the prisoners had concerns," he said.
"So the next day, when the potatoes were to be used, none were. Even though all the bad ones had been thrown out, to alleviate prisoner concerns, a substitute was used, instead."
Calls seeking comment to Trinity in Florida and the offices of a related company in St. Louis were not returned Thursday.
Pine, who said he has more than 20 years of experience in the food industry and managed a restaurant in Brimley, said until his firing Saturday, he had a clean work record with Trinity, except for once receiving a verbal reprimand for leaving early.
Pine said he was not trying to incite a riot. But he said serving rotten food can lead to the kind of unrest Kinross witnessed last September, when inmates barricaded themselves in their housing areas, smashed windows and fixtures and set fires in an incident that cost the state $900,000.
The quality and quantity of prison food was among the reasons cited for what corrections officers called Michigan's first prison riot since 1981. The administration refused to classify the disturbance as a riot, noting no prisoners or officers were injured.
"They told me I was trying to start a riot," Pine said. "I said: 'No, you're serving rotten potatoes. That's going to get to the yard.'"
Tom Tylutki, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing corrections officers, said officers who worked at Kinross in September "said in no uncertain terms that food quality and quantity was one of the inmates' complaints" that led to what he considers a riot.
"Poor food quality and quantity puts the safety of everyone inside a prison at risk, like we saw last year," Tylutki said in an e-mail.
"Everyone deserves healthy, nutritious food prepared in a sanitary environment, and that goes for inmates, too. This is a moral issue for all sides."
The state privatized its prison food service as a cost-cutting move in 2013, replacing about 370 state kitchen workers with contractor Aramark Correctional Services of Philadelphia.
That three-year, $145-millon contract, plagued with problems such as smuggling, sex between Aramark workers and inmates and unauthorized meal substitutions, ended early in September 2015, when the state replaced Aramark with Trinity.
Since then, officials say problems have decreased, but they have not ended.
Trinity, awarded a three-year, $158.8-million contract, has had 161 of its Michigan prison employees "stop ordered" — banned from prison property for various violations — since it took over the contract, Gautz said.
Trinity has also been hit with $2.1 million in fines for contract infractions such as unauthorized meal substitutions, delays in serving meals, inadequate staffing levels and sanitation issues, among other problems.
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