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Lawmakers Hear About Food, Security Problems In Prisons Blamed On Private Vendor

Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio

There are problems with maggots, food shortages and contraband in state prisons, and the committee that inspects those facilities is blaming a private vendor hired by the prison system.

The head of the state’s prison inspection team told lawmakers on the panel that oversees it Wednesday that there are problems with Aramark related to sanitation, food quality and supply, security training, staffing and documentation. This comes after reports of maggots in food, meal shortages and substitutions creating long lines, and the disciplining of nearly 100 Aramark employees who are banned from entering any Ohio prison for security violations such as bringing in contraband or having inappropriate relationships with inmates.  

 AJ Frame says he’s seen the maggot problem firsthand where he works as a corrections officer at the Noble Correctional Institution in southeast Ohio. He came to the hearing wearing a T-shirt that read, “Got maggots? We do.” He’s worried these food problems will spark a crisis.

“A riot eventually...they’re already getting to a point where every meal we’re trying to break stuff up to keep them off the coordinators and stuff right now. I wouldn’t want to eat maggots," he said.

Terry Hollon is a corrections officer at the Pickaway Correctional Institution. He says there’s been a large flow of contraband into that facility in the last year or so.

“We find heroin, we find cocaine, we find suboxone. Now there’s more than one way to get it in, and I’m not going to say that it’s all Aramark. But we never had these kinds of issues previously.”

The prison inspection committee’s report says Aramark employees only receive five hours of security training. The state has fined Aramark nearly $300,000 for ongoing issues at seven prisons, and that money will be used for more training of Aramark workers. And state prisons director Gary Mohr says he’s meeting with Aramark on a regular basis to make sure it’s following its contract – or that contract could be terminated.

“The tipping point is, are we getting better or not? And that has to be the gauge and that’ll be the gauge that we’ll use.”

But Mohr also says that the prisons department has checked out reports of maggots in food, and found sometimes the bugs were put there by inmates. Aramark President John Hanner also testified to the lawmakers that Aramark is committed to fixing these problems, but that they are very rare. For example, he says the food problems only occur in less than one percent of the 30 million meals they’ve served, which he admits is still a big number at 300,000.

“It’s not a small number, but look, here’s the other point. We wanted to represent 99% of the time, our people are doing a great job. You’re not going to hear that. Let me be clear about that. These are Ohio citizens that we’ve hired, that we are 100% staffed and these people come to work every day and do a great job under trying circumstances.”

And Hanner says he’s personally responsible for the Ohio prisons contract, and that he’s confident the company has the problems under control. Aramark says it’s saved the state $14 million a year since winning the prison food management contract. The prisons workers union has been critical of the hiring of Philadelphia-based Aramark, which has also recorded food problems in Michigan and had problems with previous prison food management contracts in Kentucky and Florida. The Ohio Civil Service Employees Union says if the prisons department is spending resources to deal with these issues, it doubts Aramark is saving the state much money at all.