Last Updated Feb. 8 at 12:50 p.m. EST
In the popular imagination, prison food is disgusting. The images crop up in films and TV shows as unidentifiable cafeteria slop or a sweaty slab of bologna on two pieces of white bread shoved through a cell door.
But the reality is sometimes even worse.
Incarcerated people are six times more likely to contract foodborne illnesses than people on the outside. Across the country, prisoners complain of hunger, sometimes intense enough that it drives them to eat toothpaste and toilet paper. They have been served rancid chicken, food infested with maggots, cake that was nibbled on by rats. Problems with food -- both in terms of quantity and quality -- have been the basis of prison riots throughout history.
To be fair, running a prison kitchen is no simple task. Staff oversee dozens of inmate kitchen workers and feed hundreds or thousands of prisoners at every meal.
But according to some prisoner advocates and prison workers, one of the biggest reasons for the problems is privatization.
Many state prison systems, in an effort to cut costs, have stopped providing their own food services and instead contract out to private companies. This is part of a growing trend toward prison privatization in general.
Private providers have a business incentive to keep costs as low as possible. That results in lower-quality food, says Tim Thielman, food service administrator at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minn., and the immediate past president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates.
“What it comes down to is whether it’s a self-operated facility or one that’s run by a contracted feeder,” he says. “You look at those companies, and they’re in it to make a profit. I don’t want to talk bad about the companies, but it’s about money to them, and if there are ways that they can feed [prisoners] products that are lesser quality, [they will].”
Prison reform advocates agree, expressing general reservations about privatization as a cost-saving measure.
“The problem with the privatization of anything in the prison context is that the market forces that we rely on in the rest of society don’t operate in prisons. There’s no consumer choice” says David Fathi, the national prison project director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “If a prisoner doesn’t like the food, he can’t just go somewhere else and put the company out of business.”
Some particularly egregious problems with prison food contractors in the last few years have fueled this argument.
In 2015, the Detroit Free Press uncovered years of problems in Michigan prisons, including meal shortages, rotten chicken and rodent-bitten cakes. One employee reportedly tried to feed prisoners food that had been taken out of the trash.
“The Aramark contract has been a nightmare from day one,” Michigan state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich told the Free Press in 2015. "This completely irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars has put hundreds of state kitchen employees out of work, and ... jeopardized the health and safety of inmates and prison employees alike."
The Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) terminated its contract with the food service company Aramark and switched vendors to Trinity, another major private prison food provider. But still, there are indications that the problems persist.
Late last year, officials found maggots in food in three separate incidents at a Michigan prison being served by Trinity. Prisoners have complained of "crunchy dirt" in potatoes they were served. The state has fined Trinity more than $2 million for staffing shortages, unauthorized meal substitutions and other violations. Trinity’s food appeared to be one cause of a riot in September 2016 at Kinross Correctional Facility.
But in early February, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced in his 2018-2019 budget plan that the state will end its relationship with Trinity and bring prison food back in-house.
And Michigan isn’t alone.
Inmates in Calhoun County, Ga., have complained they’re being underfed by Trinity, prompting a campaign against the jail by the Southern Center for Human Rights. In Ohio, where Aramark serves the state prisons, there were further reports of maggots in food and a litany of unauthorized meal substitutions after food ran out early. Tacos were replaced with bologna and tortillas, and spaghetti was replaced by mashed potatoes with tomato sauce.
The issues extend beyond the food itself. Officers interviewed for a study on Aramark’s services in Michigan said they often refused to eat any food being served in the kitchens because the area was so dirty.
"There was universal agreement across the focus groups that the kitchen areas became less sanitary with privatization," according to the study.
This could be because it's unclear exactly whose responsibility it is to keep the kitchen clean: In Ohio, the state Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and Aramark both stated cleanliness was a "shared responsibility."
For its part, Aramark charges that the accusations against it in Michigan and Ohio have been grossly overblown.
“There is a lot of misinformation and propaganda around Aramark and our service of food to the Corrections industry, as a result of a 2016 Netflix documentary [13th, a film that explored America's prison population boom] and ongoing activism around the prison industrial complex,” Aramark spokesperson Karen Cutler told Governing via email. “Opponents of outsourcing and special interest groups mounted campaigns against ... our company in [Michigan and Ohio]. These campaigns included many unfounded allegations about the quantity and quality of food for inmates, service levels and sanitation issues."
The company asserts that it feeds prisoners nutritionally adequate meals and that it works with state prison systems to create appropriate menus.
Aramark and Trinity are the two largest food service companies operating in U.S. prisons. Their contracts run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, but they still represent a significant cost savings over providing all prisoner meals in-house.
Ramsey County Correctional facility, the prison where Tim Thielman works, provides its own food services at a cost of about $1.50 per prisoner per meal, or about $4.50 per day. Some prisons that have privatized food services (and even some that don't), Thielman says, spend $1.50 on each prisoner for an entire day’s worth of meals, which he says he finds “hard to believe.”
Thielman says he understands that budget constraints can be difficult to work with, and that often, when costs have to be reduced, corners can get cut in the kitchen. He’s been lucky, he says, that the administration at Ramsey has understood how important quality meals are for safety -- and ultimately cost savings -- in a prison.
“Prisoners don’t have a lot of things in their lives, so the few things they do have become very important,” Thielman says. “Also, the majority of the prison population in the U.S. has some sort of chronic illness. It’s only in our benefit and the taxpayers' benefit to serve them healthy and wholesome food.”