Canadian Charter
Story Archives

Illinios: ARAMARK under attack.
Aramark defends operations

By KATE CLEMENTS © 2002 THE NEWS-GAZETTE First Published Online July 14, 2002

SPRINGFIELD When Illinois solicited bids to take over its prison food service, only one company made an offer.

That company, Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp., has had some reported problems in Ohio, Florida and even Illinois, but state officials here say those types of incidents are no different from the ones that occur in state-run facilities.

The American Council of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31 disagrees.

In any prison, the dietary unit the kitchen is always the most dangerous place because the inmates do the cooking, said union spokesman Buddy Maupin. Those inmate cooks have access to food, fuel and knives, so overseeing how they utilize that access is a critical security function in a prison, and it needs to be performed by professional security staff, not minimum-wage, fly-by-night, for-profit companies like Aramark.

Dan Jameson, senior vice president of Aramark Correctional Services, a division of Aramark Corp., said the company has retained 98 percent of its business over the last five years and has a demonstrated record of performance.

I'm surprised that a $9 billion company that's been in business since 1959 with over 10,000 employees in Illinois is considered fly-by-night, Jameson said. Our people are professional; we serve 425 correctional institutions; we have been in the corrections business for the last 26 years; and we understand the security issues involved with running a correctional food service kitchen. And clearly, our employees are not paid minimum wage.

Aramark employees undergo a four-week orientation from Aramark, and, in Illinois, would also be required to go through the same training current state employees go through, he said.

A failed experiment in Ohio
Ohio union officials say their state's decision to return to running prison kitchens with state employees after hiring Aramark speaks for itself. It's surprising to us to see other states not learn lessons from Ohio and other states that have had negative experiences with Aramark, said Sally Meckling of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. There were problems with sanitation, quantity, security and quality of food, and the department had raised these concerns on a number of occasions, and they were never resolved, said David Simpson, a researcher at the same union.

In Ohio, Aramark sought and received verbal contract adjustments giving the company 59 percent more (nearly $2.1 million) than its initial $3.52 million contract to take over dietary services at Noble Correctional Institute in Caldwell, according to a report by Auditor of State Jim Petro. According to the audit, Ohio state inspectors also reported that sanitary levels observed were inexcusable and noted that the lack of correctional environment experience and the overtly evident disdain for the vendor by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction bargaining unit clearly contributes to inmate workers taking advantage of the food service line staff. Inspectors also reported a near-riot, attributed to Aramark's small portions, during a breakfast visit.

According to the audit, Aramark told state officials it could not live up to the requirements of its contract unless it got more money.

Jameson said the contract changes had to do with the lack of a standard method to count inmate meals served and the state's request for larger portion sizes than those required by the contract. He said that, in the end, the company actually billed less than the amended contract allowed. We completed the contract successfully, he said. When the contract expired, Ohio state employees took control of prison kitchen operations.

‘Growing pains' in Florida
The Florida Department of Corrections hired Aramark last year to take over 126 of its 133 prison kitchens, hoping to save as much as $8 million in the first year.

The savings were realized, but problems with the company's service led the state to fine it $110,000 within the first 12 months of the contract.

Daily logs of the state's correctional officers obtained by The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times reported problems at the privatized kitchens, including the following incidents:

Inmates were served spaghetti for dinner one night last year made with beef from chili con carne from the week before. Some of the meat used came from the previous day's creamed chipped beef after washing the cream sauce off.

Spring inspections in other Aramark-run kitchens in the Florida Department of Corrections found maggots on serving trays and kitchen floors. Inspectors reported kitchens were filthy, and even horrendous.

An Aramark supervisor ordered inmate workers in one facility to soak spoiled chicken in vinegar and water, then cook it anyway. In that instance, Florida corrections officers learned what was going on and discarded 500 pieces of chicken.

These are accurate descriptions of some of the problems that we have had initially with Aramark, said Florida corrections spokesman Sterling Ivey.

Aramark was fined for 28 separate violations, he said.

In addition, the contract allows the state to opt not to assess a fine if Aramark is notified of a violation and submits an acceptable corrective plan of action within 10 days, and that has happened, too, Ivey said.

Aramark's Jameson disputed the number of violations, saying it was less than 28.

The only violations we have been fined for down there have been paperwork violations, and we haven't been fined past the first month of the contract, he said.

Aramark has added an additional $2.3 million in labor to the Florida operation above and beyond the contract requirements and stabilized all of the operations there, Jameson said.

Despite the violations, Florida Corrections officials have defended their decision to privatize, and Ivey said the department is happy with Aramark's performance so far.

Have there been problems serving 204,000 meals a day nearly 75 million meals a year? Sure, Florida Corrections Secretary Michael W. Moore said in a written release. Do we expect no problems whatsoever with personnel or the ordering of food? Surely not. But now that we have reached the end of the first year of implementation, Aramark has gained knowledge and experience, and they are committed to our Florida system. They will continue to improve, and we will continue to expect full contractual compliance and fine them for any failures.

Before Aramark was hired, Florida had no central tracking system for problems related to prison kitchens, but Ivey said the types of problems before and after privatization were probably similar.

The degree of those problems probably are different, he said. Whenever you have a company whose bottom line is profit, you may have a difference in the types of problems in how severe they are. Fortunately, here in Florida, we haven't experienced any food riots, we haven't experienced any riots in the kitchen, and the problems that have been brought forth are being addressed aggressively.

Controversy in Illinois
Gov. George Ryan and the Illinois Department of Corrections say privatizing prison kitchens in Illinois will save up to $25 million, and they support contracting out those services, despite problems in other states and even here.

Aramark provided prison dietary services at the state prison in Joliet from the early 1980s until its recent closure and at adult work-release facilities.

A list of incident report highlights released by the American Council of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31 for a three-month period at Joliet in late 2001 included one instance in November when an Aramark manager allegedly took the key to the tool room home, preventing the duty manager from locking up a butcher knife, and another instance in September when chemicals were reported on a grill and an Aramark employee allegedly inspected it and proceeded to cook on it without cleaning off the chemicals.

Since incident reports are not public record, the Department of Corrections declined to comment on those specific allegations.

In response, I can only say the issues we experienced at Joliet were no different than the issues we've experienced at other facilities, said Corrections spokesman Sergio Molina. We don't discuss investigations in detail with anyone.

Grundy County Judge Lance Peterson has temporarily blocked the state from awarding a prison food service contract while a lawsuit challenging the privatization effort is resolved, so the Illinois Department of Corrections' plans to offer Aramark a contract are on hold. A hearing is set for late August.

This spring, state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill specifically banning private prison dietary service, but Gov. Ryan vetoed the measure. An attempt to override the veto failed.

Molina said the state intends to go ahead with privatization if and when the court injunction is lifted.

There are safeguards that we put in place and will put in place to address any of those issues, Molina said. I don't think anybody's ever made the claim that these services will be perfect and that we won't experience any issues with the delivery of service. What we've maintained time and time again is that the issues that we've experienced with a contractual provider are no different than those we've experienced now. Our oversight will continue. We will not relinquish that responsibility.

Managers (either a warden, assistant warden or a chief of security) must taste each meal before it is served to inmates, and that requirement will remain in place, he said.