Michigan prison food vendor fined $98,000 for worker fraternization, menu problems

March 12–LANSING — The Michigan Department of Corrections has fined its new prison food vendor, Aramark Correctional Services, $98,000 for violating its contract by employing workers who fraternized with prisoners and by making unauthorized menu substitutions and not preparing the correct number of meals, the department said Tuesday.

“During the period of Jan. 17, 2014 through Feb. 28, 2014 a total of 12 instances occurred whereby Aramark staff violated rules and regulations pertaining to over-familiarity with prisoners,” Kevin Weissenborn, the department’s contract manager, said in a March 6 letter to Aramark vice-president of operations Michael Flesch.

“These actions have resulted in safety and security risks and additional costs to the Michigan Department of Corrections.”

The department fined Aramark $1,000 for each of the incidents, for a total of $12,000. Details of the incidents were not given in the letter. In January, union officials said an Aramark worker was caught having sex with a prisoner, a charge department officials said was an exaggeration.

Russ Marlan, a department spokesman, said most of the over-familiarity incidents involved Aramark employees and inmates exchanging notes, though he said there was one incident of an Aramark worker kissing an inmate.

None of the fraternization incidents occurred at the women’s prison, Marlan said.

The department also disclosed that in a Feb. 25 letter it notified Aramark that it was fining the company $26,000 for 52 unauthorized meal substitutions and $60,000 for 240 instances in which the correct number of meals was not prepared.

Karen Cutler, an Aramark spokeswoman, said “start-up transitions of this size and complexity can involve challenges and we are committed to resolving any issues as quickly as possible.

“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,” Cutler said in an e-mail.

In December, the state eliminated 370 state jobs by awarding a $145-million, three-year prison food contract to Aramark Correctional Services of Philadelphia. The contract to feed about 45,000 state prisoners was estimated to save the state $12 million to $16 million a year.

Substitution of lower-cost menu items and reduced meal counts have been problems in states that privatized their prison food services under Aramark, the Free Press reported in May.

Unhappiness with Aramark’s food was one reason for a demonstration by about 200 prisoners last month at Kinross Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, in the Upper Peninsula.

Nick Ciaramitaro, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25, which represented state prison food workers, said today he anticipated the problems with menu substitutions and meal counts but did not anticipate the problem with Aramark workers fraternizing with state prisoners.

Since December, 29 Aramark workers have been banned from state prisons for fraternizing and bringing in contraband, among other issues. Fewer than five state food workers had received such bans, called “stop orders,” in the last five years, he said.

“I think the department is trying to deal with it, but they can’t because … the problem is the concept,” Ciaramitaro said.

“You’re shifting to a for-profit company who is going to try to put their profits first. That’s the problem.”

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