You get what you pay when hiring private company for Michigan prisons: embarrassing failures

Jul 14, 2014

I’d like to start the week with a thought that some will consider heresy: sometimes, privatization just doesn’t work.

There are some functions and responsibilities that government handles better.

American is gung-ho for privatization these days, both to save money, and because government at all levels has become something we love to hate. Thanks to years of being told that government is bad, corrupt, expensive and inefficient, we are happy to reduce its size.

Well, we may not be quite ready to hand the nuclear arsenal over to an assets management firm, but apart from that, anything goes. And frankly, there are some things that probably should be privatized.

Garbage collection, for example.

But Michigan decided last year to privatize food service in our prisons, and so far, it has been a highly embarrassing failure.

The Detroit Free Press used the state Freedom of Information Act to find out what’s happened since the state contracted with a private food services company, Aramark Correctional Services of Pennsylvania.

To quote writer Paul Egan, here’s part of what they found:

“One Aramark food service director showed up drunk and failed a Breathalyzer. Another worker was caught trying to smuggle marijuana. Others have failed drug tests, kissed prisoners, threatened to assault inmates, or announced intentions to ‘go postal.’”

That, of course, is in addition to several incidents where maggots were discovered in food or food service areas.

So far, 74 Aramark workers have been banned from Michigan prisons for breaking all sorts of rules. 
 

And here’s the really shocking part: All these horrors have happened in less than seven months.

That’s when the state signed a three-year, $145 million contract with Aramark to feed our 44,000 prisoners. We were told this would save $12 million a year.

Inmates of state prisons are different from other people. They are, by definition, criminals, often wily ones, adept at beating the system. They need expert handling. Private companies save money by hiring workers at very low salaries.

Well, that’s nice, but pretty much chicken feed in a $2 billion corrections budget.

My guess is that this has already cost the state a fair amount in negative publicity. And worse could easily come: Many a prison riot has started over complaints about the food.

There are several things that aren’t clear about this.

One, is why the governor hasn’t moved to void the Aramark contract and call for bids from other providers.

Without criticizing Rick Snyder, the Senate Majority Leader last week indicated that’s what he thought the state should do. But beyond that, why didn’t we try to test this idea with a pilot program instead of an instant total commitment?

The problem is this: Inmates of state prisons are different from other people. They are, by definition, criminals, often wily ones, adept at beating the system. They need expert handling. Private companies save money by hiring workers at very low salaries.

You get what you pay for.

State Senator Bert Johnson turns out to have been a prophet here; last year he warned against privatizing prison food services, as weakening “the care and monitoring of Michigan’s incarcerated.”

If anyone should know, it’s him. He did time as a young man before turning his life around.

The senator openly admits he once made a bad mistake. On this issue, it would be nice to see the state admit it made one too.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.