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Food Behind Bars Isn’t Fit for Your Dog

Shares in the Philadelphia-based Aramark Holdings Corp., which contracts through Aramark Correctional Services to provide the food to 600 correctional institutions across the United States, went public Thursday. The corporation, acquired in 2007 for $8.3 billion by investors that included Goldman Sachs, raised $725 million last week from the sale of the stock. It is one more sign that the business of locking up poor people in corporate America is booming.Aramark World Headquarters in Philadelphia in 2006. (Photo: AP/Matt Rourke)

Aramark, whose website says it provides 1 million meals a day to prisoners, does what corporations are doing throughout the society: It lavishes campaign donations on pliable politicians, who in turn hand out state and federal contracts to political contributors, as well as write laws and regulations to benefit their corporate sponsors at the expense of the poor. Aramark fires unionized workers inside prisons and jails and replaces them with underpaid, nonunionized employees. And it makes sure the food is low enough in both quality and portion to produce huge profits.

Aramark, often contracted to provide food to prisoners at about a dollar a meal, is one of numerous corporations, from phone companies to construction firms, that have found our grotesque system of mass incarceration to be very profitable. The bodies of the poor, when they are not captive, are worth little to corporations. But bodies behind bars can each generate $40,000 to $50,000 a year for corporate coffers. More than 2.2 million men and women are in prisons and jails in the U.S.

Crystal Jordan, who has spent 23 years as a corrections officer in New Jersey and who works at the Burlington County Jail, and another corrections officer at the jail, who did not want to be named, told me that the food doled out to prisoners by Aramark is not only substandard but often spoiled. For nearly a decade Jordan has filed complaints about the conditions in the jail, including persistent mold on walls and elsewhere, with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state and county officials. The results of her complaints have been negligible.

“The big shift came in 2004 when the state got rid of the employees who worked in the kitchen and gave the food service contract to Aramark,” said Jordan, who has sent several complaints about jail kitchen conditions to state and county authorities. “The food was not great [earlier], but the officers ate it along with the prisoners. Once Aramark came in, that changed. The bread was stale. I saw food in the kitchen with mold on it. The refrigerator broke down and the food was left outside in the cold or trucked in from another facility. Those who ate the food began to get sick. The officers demanded the right to bring in their own food or order out, which the jail authorities granted. But the prisoners had no choice. Diarrhea and vomiting is common among the prisoners. A few weeks ago one of the officers got a bowl of the prisoners’ chili. We all told him not to eat it. He ended up with diarrhea in the bathroom.”

Many of those incarcerated in prisons or jails such as Union County Jail in Elizabeth, N.J., where Aramark runs the food service, echo Jordan’s account. They say that sickness and persistent hunger are becoming a routine part of being incarcerated.

“The food gives everybody in the jail diarrhea,” said James Gibbs, 52, who recently spent two weeks in Union County Jail and previously had spent two years there. “There was never enough food. People were hungry all the time.” 

Al Gordon, 45, said he was in Union County Jail when nearly everyone came down with food poisoning from tacos. “It was awful,” he said when we spoke in Elizabeth. “All the prisoners, except the ones who were vegetarian and who did not eat the meat in the tacos, had diarrhea for three days. Whenever we tried to eat anything for those three days we threw it back up. We were all sweating and felt dizzy.”

Gordon had a job in the jail’s kitchen, where he helped prepare the food, usually under the supervision of two Aramark employees. “There were mice running around and mice droppings everywhere,” he said. “The utensils for cooking were dirty. Many of the prisoners preparing the food would use the bathroom and then not wash their hands or wear gloves. Hair fell into the food. The bread was stale and hard. And the portions we were required to serve were real small. You could eat six portions like the ones we served ... and still be hungry. If we put more than the required portion on the tray the Aramark people would make us take it off. It wasn’t civilized. I lost 30 pounds. I would wake up at night and put toothpaste in my mouth to get rid of the hunger urge. The only way a person survived in there was to have money on the books to order from the canteen, but I didn’t have no money. It was especially bad for the diabetics, and there are a lot of diabetics behind bars.”

Aramark has been plagued by scandal across the country, but this does not seem to affect its ability to get new state and county contracts. More than 270 prisoners were sickened in April 2008 at Florida’s Santa Rosa Correctional Institution after eating Aramark chili. Some 50 prisoners at Colorado’s Larimer County Detention Center became ill in February 2008 after eating Aramark chili. Prisoners in Clayton County, Ga., were not served hot food from October 2009 to the following Jan. 22 because the pressure cookers in the jail kitchen were inoperable. In February 2009 a Camden County, N.J., health report found that the Aramark-run kitchen in the county jail had “mice throughout kitchen and storage area.” Mouse droppings were discovered in butter. Several food items, including grits, chicken, rice and beef, were not stored at temperatures low enough to protect against contamination. Prisoners at the county jail in Santa Barbara, Calif., went on a hunger strike last summer to protest the Aramark food, and inmates at Bayside State Prison in New Jersey went on a hunger strike in October for the same reason. Prisoners in Macomb County, Mich., are currently eating only cold food because of a mold problem in the jail kitchen. And auditors at Florida’s Department of Corrections have charged that Aramark billed the state for $5 million worth of “phantom” meals.

Aramark, the largest institutional food conglomerate in the world, assigns company employees to prison and jail kitchens to oversee the prisoners who do the cooking. Food is carefully measured and weighed under supervisors’ eyes so prisoners do not receive more than the fixed amounts. (Even the garbage is weighed.) Cheap soy products are regularly substituted for meat. Rice, potatoes and pasta are the staples of most meals. The best that most prisoners can do, if they have money in their accounts, is pay for the limited food items, such as packets of instant soup, pouched mackerel and candy, that are sold by prison commissaries. Persistent hunger, corrections officers and former prisoners say, is now part of doing time.

“The kitchen where the food for the inmates is prepared in Burlington is a disaster,” Jordan said. “The walk-in freezer is corroded. You can’t open it because of the stench inside. Stagnant water, mold and mildew is everywhere. The food vans that bring food from Mount Holly have maggots and no refrigeration. I have seen inmates served bread that has hair on it, luncheon meat that has mold on it, spoiled fruit and food on the trays that have bugs in it. But this is part of the deep cuts throughout the prison system. We have had periods in the jail when the inmates had no toilet paper, no sanitary napkins, no soap, and no surgical gloves for the officers, and there has been no bleach or Lysol available to disinfect the jail. Officers bring in their own personal supplies. We buy toilet paper and hand it out to the inmates ourselves.”

Jordan filed a complaint Oct. 25 with the Burlington County Department of Health Inspection, a copy of which she gave me, contending that Aramark employees had hidden a food van during a health inspector’s visit to the jail so it could not be checked.

Eric J. Foss, the chief executive officer and president of Aramark Corp., who made $8,055,495 in total compensation for the 2012 fiscal year,  probably spends more feeding his dog, if he has one, than his corporation does feeding the average prisoner. Abuse and exploitation of the poor have characterized the twisted pathology of the rich throughout history. Charles Dickens in novel after novel chronicled the cruelty and avarice of the privileged who, so they could satiate their gluttonous appetites and hedonism, deprived the poor of food and workers of a living wage. Our prison system, indeed our whole society, now replicates the corrupt Dotheboys Hall in Dickens’ novel “Nicholas Nickleby.” The headmaster, Wackford Squeers, the 19th century version of our corporate masters, feasts while the boys in his charge are made to go hungry.

“This is twopenn’orth of milk, is it waiter?” said Mr. Squeers.

“That’s twopenn’orth, sir,” replied the waiter.

“What a rare article milk is, to be sure, in London!” said Mr. Squeers, with a sigh. “Just fill that mug up with lukewarm water, William, will you?”

“To the wery top, sir?” inquired the waiter. “Why, the milk will be drownded.”

“Never you mind that,” replied Mr. Squeers. “Serve it right for being so dear. You ordered that thick bread and butter for three, did you?”

“Coming directly, sir.”

“You needn’t hurry yourself,” said Squeers, “there’s plenty of time. Conquer your passions, boys, and don’t be eager after vittles.” As he uttered this moral precept, Mr. Squeers took a large bite out of the cold beef, and recognized Nicholas.

“Sit down, Mr. Nickleby,” said Squeers. “Here we are, a breakfasting, you see.”

Nicholas did not see that anybody was breakfasting, except Mr. Squeers; but he bowed with all becoming reverence, and looked as cheerful as he could.

“Oh, that’s the milk and water, is it, William?” said Mr. Squeers.

“Very good; don’t forget the bread and butter presently.”

At this fresh mention of the bread and butter, the five little boys looked very eager, and followed the waiter out, with their eyes; meanwhile Mr. Squeers tasted the milk and water.

“Ah,” said that gentleman, smacking his lips, “here’s richness! Think of the many beggars and orphans in the streets that would be glad of this, little boys. A shocking thing hunger is, isn’t it, Mr. Nickleby?”

None of the reports of rancid food or meager portions in jails and prisons around the country affect the growing trend of states and counties turning their food service operations over to private corporations. Aramark has a new $145 million, three-year contract to feed Michigan’s 45,000 prisoners. It took over the prison food service in that state earlier this month. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing the 370 former state workers who have lost their jobs there, have protested the privatization. The union notes that the company ran out of food twice within the prisons since it began operating Dec. 8. But Michigan state officials estimate that replacing the unionized workers and using the food service company will save $12 million to $16 million a year. And in our corporate state, where corporations exploit the most vulnerable and siphon off massive sums of public money without outside restraint or regulation, that apparently is all that counts.

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