Prison inmate food vendor weighs recommendations

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The private vendor with the contract to feed Ohio prison inmates says it will work with the corrections agency to address several recommendations for fixing problems.

Ideas raised by a legislative oversight committee range from returning to a larger ladle size to scoop food; moving Dumpsters away from loading docks to prevent vermin from getting inside prisons; and scrapping the contract altogether.

The state has fined Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services $272,000 for contract violations. Most recently, it cited unacceptable food substitutions and shortages, continued staffing shortages and sanitation issues including maggots in food preparation areas at a handful of prisons.

Aramark is reviewing the recommendations and will work with the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to respond to them, spokeswoman Karen Cutler said in an email.

Last year, the state awarded Aramark a $110 million deal to feed some 50,000 Ohio prisoners beginning in September and running through June 30, 2015. The contract was signed over the objections of the state's largest public employees' union, which has filed a grievance over the decision.

Prisons Director Gary Mohr told the oversight committee in July those problems were limited to a handful of prisons and that Aramark has saved the state $13 million since September.

State Sen. Shirley Smith, chair of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, said her top priority is ensuring inmates are treated with integrity, including being well-fed, trained and educated while inside.

"They don't become better people if we don't treat them like they're human beings," Smith said.

Smith has recommended improving food quality and portions, and said dinner appears to be the meal skipped most often by inmates. The veteran lawmaker is resisting calls to end Aramark's contract, for now. She said there are kinks to be worked out and a lot of people are dealing with a new situation.

Two other state representatives on the committee, Democrats Robert Hagan and Nicholas Celebrezze, want the contract returned to union workers.

Joanna Saul, the executive director of the inspection committee, recommended 22 changes. Among those:

—Increase the number of Aramark staff at the facilities to properly supervise inmates: "Persons with prior correctional experience should be specifically recruited, perhaps through additional pay incentives."

—Consider asking a local exterminator to make weekly or bi-weekly visits: "Many institutions only use the exterminator once per month."

—Review the Aramark contract to establish a higher daily calorie count: "This would increase the cost per inmate meal but it could also decrease inmate concerns."