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When Dollars Matter More than Food
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 12/10/2018

Money bag2009apr13 Corrections professionals know that in any prison setting, food matters. Low-quality food or small portions (or both) are a quick path to angry inmates, disciplinary issues, general unrest, and in the most extreme cases, riots. (The leaders of the notorious 1971 riot and takeover at Attica Prison included in their demands “a healthy diet” and “some fresh fruit daily.”) Unfortunately, in today’s environment of tight budgets, agencies have often turned to private foodservice providers or other food-related cost-cutting measures in an attempt to save money. The results have been less than stellar.

The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) privatized its prison kitchens in December 2013 in what became a five-year and ultimately unsuccessful experiment. Complaints about food quality were soon widespread. There were allegations about food being taken out of trashcans and served, rat-nibbled cake being served, and multiple cases of maggots. Foodborne illness affected 250 inmates at one facility. The shutdown of a kitchen for mold problems meant that offenders ate cold food for months. The repercussions were not limited to complaints, either. Inmates involved in a September 2016 riot at Kinross Correctional Facility (which cost almost $900,000) had two major complaints: wage rates for prison jobs and quality and quantity of food.

The problems for the most part stem from cost-cutting measures implemented so that the providers could fulfill their contracted rates yet still turn a profit. (MDOC non-renewed the first provider’s contract in 2013 but shifted to another private company at a higher cost. It was during the second contractor’s tenure that the Kinross riot occurred.) The cost per meal in a typical prison ranges from $1.00 to $1.50, but some facilities (not all of them with privatized foodservice) claim to feed inmates for about $1.50 a day.

In a foodservice operation, there are really only two major cost centers: labor and ingredients. In the case of MDOC, union workers making $15 to $25 per hour were replaced with the contractor’s employees at $11 to $13. The contractors generally used the lowest-grade food available and all but eliminated seasoning. In one of the more notorious cases, which led to an inmate protest at one facility, the contractor replaced spaghetti sauce with catsup.

Sanitation is another widespread complaint in privatized kitchens. Officers at many Ohio DOC facilities using the same contractor as MDOC refused to eat food prepared in the kitchen because the work areas were so dirty. MDOC’s first vendor was booted from a contract with Chicago Public Schools in early 2018 after inspections found “rodent droppings, pest infestations, [and] filthy food-preparation equipment.” Broken kitchen equipment was another frequent issue.

The workers employed by private contractors also pose problems. One is that because corrections staff have no authority over those workers, problems that would ordinarily be solved on the spot, such as food quality or portion size, have to go up the chain to facility administration, over to the contractor, and then down the chain to the employees—hardly the most efficient mechanism.

These employees also tend to present security and other risks. MDOC experienced numerous incidents of sexual contact and smuggling of contraband by these workers. There were also frequent staffing shortages and no-shows along with high turnover rates. In addition, some of the sanitation issues reportedly arose because of a lack of clarity over “shared” cleaning responsibilities between facility staff and the contractor, and officials complained that the contractor’s employees did not handle laundry, security, and other duties specified in the contract.

Both of the contractors used by MDOC have denied the allegations made in either general or specific terms. However, prison food problems are not limited to privatized operations. The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) now uses Correctional Industries (CI), which is a state-owned business division, to provide meals at all of its facilities. The intent was to centralize and vertically integrate food service, but much of what CI provides is highly processed and lacking in nutrition compared to pre-CI menus. A WDOC spokesman said that as of early 2018, a prison meal cost $1.64 compared to $0.92 in 2000; adjusting for inflation, that $0.92 would be $1.36 in 2018. A 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture study (albeit one which examined schools, not prisons) found no statistically significant price differential between scratch-cooked and pre-processed meals.

Retired WDOC food service personnel contend that the pre-CI way of preparing meals was more efficient and more cost-effective while providing better quality food. Meals included vegetables grown at facilities, with much of the rest locally sourced. While reminiscences about the “old way” of doing things may be less than perfectly accurate, much more fundamentally, WDOC failed to meet a December 31, 2016 deadline imposed by Executive Order 13-06 to comply with state nutrition guidelines.

Improved food has obvious benefits in terms of inmate compliance and health. However, there are other potential benefits. Kitchen work is often prized by offenders because it represents the ability to build marketable skills that improve their employment chances after release (which in turn reduces recidivism). A 2016 Arcadia University study showed that inmates who had the opportunity for farm-based vocational training enjoyed a greater likelihood of employment after release and a 20 percent reduction in recidivism. In facilities with privatized foodservice, this opportunity often disappears, but even if it does not, much prison meal preparation now consists of little more than heating pre-processed food, which does not constitute much in the way of culinary work experience.

Better food is certainly no panacea, but anecdotal data suggests significant potential benefits from improved diets. For example, an Oxford University study in 2002 provided 231 young male offenders with either a multivitamin and fatty acid supplement or a placebo for 142 days. Among those who received the vitamin and supplement, disciplinary incidents decreased 35 percent and violent behavior decreased 37 percent. Other research has shown that crime and incarceration rates are highest in nutritionally deprived communities, although one must be cautious in associating correlation with causality.

Corrections agencies are unlikely to see expanded budgets in the foreseeable future. However, a wide and significant range of evidence indicates that foodservice is simply the wrong place to look for cost savings.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Purdue University Global’s Dept. of Criminal Justice. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.


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