The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has recommended the state sign a new two-year contract with the for-profit food vendor, Aramark. The ODRC did not announce the recommendation, which was actually completed last year. The Associated Press got wind of it only after “a records request said the prisons department was satisfied with Aramark’s performance and wanted to renew despite issues with the contract.”
Those “issues” refer to the long list of offenses and contract violations, including food shortages, contaminated food supplies and ‘improper relations’ between employees and inmates, for which Ohio fined Aramark $272,000 last year. Since then, Ohio prison officials say Aramark’s service has improved.
There are scant details on why the ODRC thinks Aramark is fit to continue serving Ohio prisons. According to the Sandusky Register, the evaluation form the AP obtained was little more than a series of check boxes, yes/no answers and standardized questions, “not a detailed analysis.” But one thing the evaluation did show was that state officials were impressed that Aramark’s cost-per-prisoner was similar to that of Indiana and Michigan, where they also have contracts.
The comparison to Michigan, in particular, is interesting because things are not exactly going smoothly there with regards to the state’s contract with Aramark. Similar accusations of misconduct and subhuman food service conditions were made against the company in that state, but the response there has been much less forceful than in Ohio.
MI Governor Rick Scott previously cancelled a $98,000 fine against the company and then moved oversight of the contract into his office, where it was shielded from public disclosure laws. Now Ed Buss, who was hired to monitor Aramark’s contract in the wake of the allegations in Michigan, is suddenly “no longer working” for the state and has returned to Florida. It’s unclear if he resigned or was fired, or for what reason, but the Detroit Free Press notes he had a series of significant clashes with Governor Scott.
The point here is that governments like these contractors not because they provide quality services, but because they appear to save them money, which in turn makes them look good. Someone like Governor Scott, who has been a champion of privatization in Michigan, will not want to see his experiment fail, no matter the odds. His legacy’s on the line.
But these companies are not creating savings by cutting corners on office supplies and holiday parties. That money is coming directly at the expense of the well-being of other people. It’s coming out of the quality of their food and medical care — out of things prisoners must have to survive.
The ODRC’s decision to make this recommendation unannounced is highly suspicious in this context. Given the deeply disturbing reputation the company has built for itself in Ohio and elsewhere, it would only be fair for the ODRC to reconsider and allow a public, transparent bidding process to move forward.
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