LANSING, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) — Michigan's beleaguered prison food contractor should find out in the next two weeks whether it will be subject to more penalties or even dismissal after its first eight months were marred by food shortages, kitchen maggots and high turnover as employees were caught smuggling contraband and engaging in sex acts with inmates.
Many Democrats and a few Republican lawmakers are urging Gov. Rick Snyder to terminate Aramark Correctional Service's contract and return state employees to the kitchens, saying safety and security must take precedence over estimated contract savings of about $16 million a year.
Smuggling and fraternization could endanger prison staff, and problems with food quantity and quality — including maggots found around food in at least two Michigan prisons — have raised inmate tension levels.
The Aramark problems were documented in a series of exclusive reports in the Free Press, some of which were based on more than 3,000 pages of Corrections Department records obtained under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act.
"Something different has to happen," said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba. "My concern right now is not so much the money, as the safety."
But others say the problems with Aramark are overblown. And at least one key Republican lawmaker said Friday the administration should not be pressured by negative media stories into canceling the Aramark deal.
"Obviously it hasn't gone as smoothly as we want," said Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. However, "I trust that it's going to get better."
Aramark, based in Philadelphia, displaced about 370 state workers when it took over food service for about 43,000 Michigan prisoners on Dec. 8. Most of the company's workers are paid about $11 an hour, roughly half what the state employees made. Since then, more than 80 Aramark workers have been fired and banned from prison property for various infractions.
The state put Aramark on formal notice in June that it would begin strict enforcement of the meal shortage and unauthorized menu item substitution clauses of the $145-million, three-year contract, effective July 1.
Later, officials said they would assess Aramark's July performance then decide whether additional contract enforcement — which could include termination — is in order.
Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan said he expects a decision early this month.
"We are actively conducting a review of July's incoming data and determining possible action," he said Friday.
Karen Cutler, a spokeswoman for Aramark, said: "We have been making progress across theboard since we started our partnership with the MDOC and are confident that this positive momentum will continue."
But the number of "stop orders" issued to Aramark employees, banning them from prison property, has not been declining. Last month, in an incident Marlan described as "unprecedented," four female Aramark workers at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility were fired in one day after surveillance video showed them kissing and inappropriately touching male inmates inside a kitchen cooler.
The state already fined Aramark $98,000 in March for various contract violations, mainly repeatedly running out of food before all prisoners are served. If that problem has persisted, the company could face more fines or rebidding of the contract.
Several lawmakers are discussing a plan under which the department would move to a regional arrangement that would have local food companies serving prisons in their areas. They say that could address another problem arising from the Aramark deal — local food suppliers that lost business to Aramark suppliers outside the state.
"I would definitely support that," said Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, who, like Casperson, wants the return of state workers to be part of a revised plan.
"Before, we had better control, we had much better security, and we were buying Michigan-made products."
Aramark buys some produce and other food from Michigan suppliers, but critics say local purchases are not what they were before the state privatized prison kitchens.
Haveman said the contractor should be able to base its purchasing decisions on how it affects the company's bottom line, and has got to get through the learning curve on who it hires to make sure people know the rules.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, and House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, are among those who have called on Snyder to terminate the contract.
But Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Jackson, who has several prisons near his district, said politicians should allow Corrections Department Director Dan Heyns and other state officials to decide what action is needed on the Aramark contract.
"If they were going to terminate it, I would want to know how we are going to achieve those savings," Poleski said.
Haveman said the state should "give it some time and see where it goes."
He acknowledged Aramark has had problems with employees getting too friendly with prisoners, and in some cases, smuggling contraband into state prisons. But he said some of the claims were overblown. One over-familiarity case involved an Aramark worker giving an inmate a "high five," he said.
Haveman also noted that a state corrections officer — not a contract employee — was suspended under suspicion of smuggling a cell phone to an inmate.
"We had this problem before; we'll continue to have it," Haveman said. "Some of it is sensationalized."
He said the state is saving money, but union officials questioned whether the savings are as great as promised, considering that wardens say they need to assign more corrections officers to the kitchen to keep order under Aramark.
The cost of assigning extra corrections officers to the kitchens was an issue when the food service contract was put out to bid initially, early in 2013.
The Department of Corrections and the Department of Technology, Management and Budget rejected bids offered by Aramark and other private firms because they said none demonstrated the 5% cost savings required before the Civil Service Commission would approve privatization.
But the savings low bidder Aramark offered were revised up after Republican lawmakers complained of flaws in the bid analysis.
Among the errors, Technology, Management and Budget spokesman Kurt Weiss said at the time, was that analysts didn't recognize Aramark was prepared to put its employees through the same security training state food workers received, meaning extra corrections officers wouldn't have to be assigned to the kitchens.
But Aramark workers still aren't able to pat down prisoners, and records obtained by the Free Press and interviews with prison managers show the department is assigning extra corrections officers to the kitchens.