Last week, a 19 year-old Aramark employee was arrested for attempting to smuggle a significant amount of marijuana into a corrections facility near Jackson, Michigan — just two days after the state cited and fined his employer for numerous violations of their widely contested $145 million contract to provide food service in prisons across the state. Among the violations were food skimping, unauthorized food substitutions and improper contact with inmates.
Geez, talk about cruel and unusual punishment — giving the munchies to under-nourished or malnourished inmates — that’s just plain mean. But then again, maybe it would help them to choke-down the slop de jour with a degree of enthusiasm previously lacking.
Eighth Amendment jokes aside, it’s no laughing matter. Just a few weeks prior, 200 prisoners staged a protest at the Kinross facility in Michigan over poor food quality. While that was resolved without major incident, several years ago in Kentucky, officials claimed that a food shortage under Aramark sparked a riot at one of their facilities. A 2010 audit of the vendor in Kentucky identified food skimping and problems with food safety, among other significant irregularities.
Within hours of the Michigan pot arrest, another Aramark employee in Indiana was also arrested for possession of marijuana at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. The two incidents were unrelated and not the result of a sting operation. It was just another Thursday.
One day later, the Aramark director of food services in the Burlington Area Schools, near Madison Wisconsin, was collared for pocketing the kids lunch money at three different schools — to the tune of $14,000. Stolen, out of the mouths of babes.
On the same day, the editor of The Houstonian wrote an opinion piece questioning the wisdom of a recently renewed contract at Sam Houston State University with Aramark. The concern was over the blatant bypass of a proper bidding process in conjunction with the vendor simultaneously making a generous offer to donate $11 million to fund capital upgrades at the university. Calling the situation “deeply troubling”, they went on to say:
“Without a competitive bidding process, the donation seems less benevolent and simply a quid pro quo.”
Troubling indeed. There’s more…much, much more.
The Aramark corporate rap sheet is impressive. Here’s a sample menu of their offerings (source: In the Public Interest):
- The company has been subject to fully 18 National Labor Relations Board rulings and orders.
- Of the 127 OSHA inspections on record, the vast majority found health and safety violations.
- They were subject to a class action suit from workers at Boston’s Fenway Park for pocketing their tips. Settlement: $1.5 million.
- Another $2.4 million settlement was awarded in 2005 to the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency over an alleged scheme to bilk the state out of $5 million.
- Two employees were arrested in 2012 in New Mexico prisons for smuggling various contraband: cell phones, knives, liquor, prescription meds, illegal drugs, and most ironically — food.
- In 2012, New Orleans Health Department records found numerous critical violations in local schools, including the presence of rat feces.
- The Niagara Health System, which contracted for cleaning services, severed their contract in 2011 on the wake of a deadly C. difficile outbreak blamed on poor sanitary conditions due to improper cost-cutting measures taken by Aramark.
One would think that the 2005 multi-million dollar litigation between Aramark and the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency would have served as a giant red flag against the state’s decision to award the vendor a three-year $145 million contract with the Department of Corrections. And now, pile-on the $98,000 fine issued earlier this month — GOP lawmakers should be back-pedaling the contract as fast as their Republican legs can go…but no.
At a West Coast Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum attended by Michigan lawmakers held just six days after news of the Aramark contract violations were widely reported, Sen. Arlan Meekhof (R-30), when asked about the situation, boldly advocated for increased privatization of prison services, expressing no concern over the contract.
Putting their money where their mouth is, is what they do best — Aramark sure knows how to lobby state lawmakers. Since 2007, they’ve spent a whopping $566,669 greasing the skids in Michigan alone.
As the largest private food vendor in the world, they are also expert at public relations. Aramark is reported to have recently been rated among the top of the “world’s most ethical companies”, and just last year Fortune magazine listed them as one of the “World’s Most Admired Companies.”
The executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, Mel Grieshaber, begs to differ. Among others, he recently implored the Civil Service Commission to rethink the agreement, stating emphatically that it’s “time to end this contract”. He was joined by a lone Republican voice in the form of a staffer, from the office of none other than Sen. Tom Casperson (R-38), dispatched in a rare moment of cognitive clarity on the lawmaker’s part to urge the CSC to consider dropping the contract.
Aramark spokesperson, Russ Marlan, admitted that the company has already suspended 36 employees in Michigan for improper conduct. The vendor’s turnover rate is 30 percent. The Department of Corrections has been up-front about their concerns. Their attorney, Daphne Johnson, sent a letter to Aramark in late February warning them that the contract is currently being reconsidered.
It’s not as though we didn’t see this one coming.