Bad Food, Illicit Sex, Smuggled Drugs and Guns Inside Michigan Prisons Prompt Questions About Privatization

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As its name would imply, explosive diarrhea is never any fun.

Imagine how rough it would be to cope with the disease while sitting in a prison cell with one toilet, out in the open, no privacy, and two or three other fellows in your cell who were battling the same ailment.

Now, multiply that intestinal misery by a couple hundred people. That is how bad it was at the Kent County Jail in Grand Rapids, Mich., when 250 inmates came down with explosive diarrhea on the same night.

The prisoners blamed it on bad chicken tacos. Their attorneys branded it “cruel and unusual punishment” and filed suit against the food services provider at the jail, Aramark Corp., seeking at least $25,000 in damages.

Democrats and liberals say it is one more example of the folly of Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) attempt to cut spending by privatizing as many state services as possible.

A county health department inspection conducted the month that explosive diarrhea strained the jail’s plumbing system showed 21 health code violations, one of the highest rates of violation of any food service facility in the county.

This was not the first time inmates complained about bad food in county jails and state prisons in Michigan, where they are served food provided by Aramark.

It was revealed in mid-March that a state prison inmate had accused an Aramark employee in 2014 of ordering him to put extra frosting on a cake to cover the part eaten by some kind of rodent and then serve it to the prison population.

“The Aramark prison food service contract has resulted in drug smuggling, sexual contact between employees and inmates, an attempted murder for hire plot, maggots in and around food,” said Lonnie Scott, the executive director of Progress Michigan, a liberal lobbying organization.

Chris Gautz, the Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman, told PJM that officials confirmed the allegation — an Aramark employee did order a prisoner to sugarcoat cake eaten by a rodent.

The employee was walked out of the prison 45 minutes later and told never to come back. The Corrections Department also brought exterminators into the facility and “scrubbed and cleaned everything,” Gautz said.

Gauze said the Corrections Department felt the problem was dealt with quickly and adequately.

However, the quality and cleanliness of the food served wasn’t the only Aramark-related problem investigated by Michigan officials in 2014. Four of the Philadelphia-based company’s employees were fired in July for kissing and “sexually touching” inmates inside a walk-in cooler.

But the latest problem to be revealed with Aramark’s prison food service in Michigan doesn’t have anything to do with sexual advances, rodent nibbling, maggots, any kind of droppings or even drug smuggling.

This one involves bullets served on an Aramark breakfast tray in a state prison. Michigan State Police are still investigating the morning surprise — three .22-caliber bullets inside a sealed food tray.

Aramark began serving food in Michigan’s prisons in December 2013 under a $145 million contract.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has fined Aramark more than $200,000 for food safety violations since the contract began and improved state monitoring of prison food service.

But a $98,000 fine leveled against Aramark was canceled by state officials.

“It is no secret there were issues last year (2014),” Chris Gautz told PJM. “However, since then Aramark has brought in new employees and has instituted a new, improved training program.”

Gautz said thanks to better training and better selection of employees by Aramark, the Michigan Corrections Department has seen a reduction in “stop orders” that are issued when an Aramark employee is suspended, and, in effect, loses his job.

The Snyder administration also hired an outside monitor who was brought in to keep an eye on Aramark’s operations behind prison walls.

“We stand by the process we have in place. All of the incidents described happened prior to the contract monitoring system and there have been improvements through greater training and work on both sides,” Dave Murray, a spokesman for Gov. Snyder, told PJM.

Michigan is not the only state where Aramark had trouble with prison food. Ohio prisoners said they were served food covered with maggots in 2014.

Aramark did not respond to a PJM request for comment on this story.

However, some company officials have raised the possibility that much of the prison food outrage has been sparked by prison employees who lost their jobs when Aramark moved in.

“Over the last 38 years, 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,” Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler said in a statement following the July 2014 Ohio maggot report.

Even though a state investigation showed that the Michigan maggot-topping on food could not be blamed on Aramark but was instead the fault of the prison, Aramark’s contract became a short-lived campaign issue in Michigan’s 2014 gubernatorial election.

Democrats quickly jumped on the report that an Aramark employee had been caught smuggling drugs into a Michigan prison in 2014.

“(This reveals) a pattern of incompetence that is putting the safety of prison guards and other workers at significant risk,” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer said.

"Governor, fire Aramark, or the people of Michigan will have every reason to fire you,” she added.

Obviously that did not happen.

Despite the maggots, the explosive diarrhea, the sex in walk-in coolers, drug smuggling and bullets served with breakfast, Aramark does not seem in danger of losing its three-year, $145 million contract.

Why not? Where is the outrage?

As Gautz and Murray said, Michigan officials have not seen any reports of problems with Aramark occurring in 2015, even though stories of what happened in 2014 were just released this March.

But, perhaps the editors Detroit Free Press were correct when they pondered the reason for Aramark’s survival in a recent editorial, writing the people of Michigan have an “instinctive belief that prisoners don't deserve humane treatment."