Prison food costs less, but at a price
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Take any cross-section of Floridians and poll them about prisons. Few would care that, one day last February, lunch at the Madison Correctional Institution featured a particularly soupy batch of sloppy joes.
But corrections Capt. Hugh Poppell took notice right away. He saw the prison's new civilian food service staff dilute the entree even more, adding ketchup and tomato paste to make it stretch among the 700-plus inmates still lined up to be fed.
Poppell reported what he saw to warden Joe Thompson, who quickly investigated and found the workers had shorted the recipe by 70 pounds of ground beef and turkey. The warden also noted: "The other ingredients such as onions, celery and green peppers in the entree were not observed."
Far from a show of concern over the inmate palate, the officers were heeding an age-old canon of prison administration: A hungry, discontented inmate is often a problem inmate -- and a potential threat.
The culprit in the sloppy joe episode and scores of other recent food foibles across Florida was Aramark Corp., the cost-conscious Philadelphia company hired last year to feed inmates in 126 of Florida's 133 corrections facilities.
The contract is part of Gov. Jeb Bush's push to reduce payroll by privatizing many state operations. But a rocky first year has prompted the state to assess $110,000 in fines against Aramark.
Though the company has saved money for Florida, its stewardship over the state's prison kitchens has created a new set of concerns for frontline corrections officials, including: dirty kitchens that in one county produced maggots, frequent cooking delays that throw off prison schedules, food quality that often falls beneath expectations and a chronic inability to follow a state rule that requires every inmate to receive the same meal.
In a world where eating is perhaps the day's only pleasure, the rule is a security measure to prevent petty jealousies over food from exploding into fights. When the first 600 inmates in line get a whipped dessert and the rest get an apple or some lesser treat, as often happens under Aramark, bad things can happen, officials say.
The Department of Corrections acknowledges the problems but contends the contract is working and that Aramark is improving.
"It was a bumpy start," said corrections spokesman Sterling Ivey, who blamed the problems on the fast startup last summer.
"We asked Aramark to come into Florida and open 126 kitchens around the state in 90 days," Ivey said. "As we're going through the contract, we're learning how to be better partners with Aramark. . . . We feel like we're moving in the right direction."
The five-year deal is projected to cut the state's prison food costs from $80.2-million in 2000-2001 to $72.2-million in the fiscal year that ends July 1. Aramark will earn an estimated $58-million in the first year, providing meals at a cost of $2.32 per inmate each day.
Meanwhile, corrections officers have been frustrated by hundreds of food episodes, according to their daily logs from February to May, which the St. Petersburg Times reviewed this month.
Some scenes from the prison system's privatized kitchens:
In Marion County, inmate kitchen workers, on orders from an Aramark supervisor, soaked spoiled chicken in vinegar and water to take away the smell before cooking. Corrections officers found out and ordered 500 pieces of chicken thrown out.
In Brevard County, inspections in March and May found maggots on serving trays and kitchen floors. Inspection reports in other institutions described Aramark kitchens as "filthy" and in one case, "horrendous."
In Indian River County, inmate workers struggled one morning to cook pancakes while an Aramark supervisor was found sleeping at his computer terminal. Other institutions across the state reported problems with Aramark employees who were late to work or didn't show, leaving corrections officers to start preparing meals.
In Putnam County, corrections officers discovered pans of refrigerated food with altered dates, a serious infraction that sparked a major investigation. Officials suspected Aramark was subverting the prison system's strict rules on using leftovers -- rules intended to prevent mass inmate sickness.
In Hernando County, officers discovered that Aramark prepared a spaghetti dinner using chili con carne from the previous week and creamed chipped beef from the day before. The cream sauce was washed off and the beef reused.
At an Avon Park work camp, inmates complained when the pork roast servings were the size of Saltines. It was one of many reports logged by corrections officers across Florida who thought Aramark's portions were too small.
So vigilant is Aramark's cost-cutting that a supervisor ordered workers to scoop food from pans in a way that wouldn't jam too much into the ladle, said Norma Schamens, 33, an Aramark employee for three months in Gulf County before she was fired in May.
"There were some decent meals," she said. "But they were few and far between."
Also, the logs contain evidence of food-related unease among inmates.
Hardee County inmates staged a one-day food strike in February.
In Jackson County -- where inmates recently had received watered-down pork roast, cold spaghetti, undercooked meat and heated jelly in place of pancake syrup -- there was "tension in the dining hall" when Aramark served crumbled cake that had to be served by spoon, a corrections officer wrote.
At a medical prison near Starke, officers recently reported that "inmate complaints are on the rise."
And when Aramark served up undercooked potatoes and grits to Walton County inmates, one officer wrote that they "began to yell. Rattle cell doors and became disorderly."
"Any corrections officer will tell you that when inmates don't get fed right, that's where the riots start," said Al Shopp, a former corrections officer who monitors working conditions in prisons for the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
"It's an officer safety issue . . . It's just a situation that I'm afraid will eventually go awry."
Before Aramark, Florida corrections officers cooked meals.
"It was like a military operation. You got them in, you got them fed and you got them out," Shopp said. "There were bumps in the road, but nothing like it is today."
State officials have a different view.
Though inmates have complained, "there have been no security incidents whatsoever," said Elizabeth Hirst, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bush. "There have not been any riots or lives in jeopardy. The inmates are not always pleased with the food, but that's going to happen from time to time. . . . No one's going hungry."
Hirst said the state's contract with Aramark is designed to work out the glitches.
"With a savings of $8-million in the first year," she added, "this is operating in the manner that the governor and the corrections secretary (Michael W. Moore) had hoped. We are off to a good start with the program."
Shortly before signing with Aramark, Florida prison officials were made aware of similar problems at an Aramark-run prison food service in Ohio.
There, an inspection team in 1999 found "inexcusable" sanitation problems and "observed a near riot during breakfast as a result of (Aramark's) strict compliance with portion size(s)." The team suggested Aramark "should be liable for damages as a result of the lack of training, cleaning and maintenance."
Ohio's contract with Aramark was not renewed.
Last summer, Moore said in a letter to the Tampa Tribune that Florida's contract was "quite different" from Ohio's, with better controls to force compliance. He said it was wrong to think the same problems would occur in Florida.
On its Web site, Aramark promises to reduce the costs of its corrections customers without "shortcuts" or a drop in quality. It boasts of a computerized recipe and menu system that reduces waste and prevents the ordering of excess meals.
In Florida, however, the problems have been caused by not enough meals.
On many days throughout the state, according to the logs, Aramark ran out of food, sometimes with a handful of inmates left in line, but often with as many as 200 or 300 to be fed.
The shortages sent Aramark workers scurrying to cook more food while inmates waited 10, 20 or 30 minutes and sometimes an hour or more. Often, the hastily prepared food had no relationship to the day's scheduled menu, a violation of the rule that mandates consistency for security's sake.
Ivey, the corrections spokesman, explained how the feeding should work, saying: "What the first inmate eats, the last inmate eats."
Meanwhile, the longer delays have thrown off prison schedules, sometimes preventing inmates from getting to their job assignments.
In a statement Friday, Aramark said last-minute substitutions are bound to occur when feeding 63,000 inmates three meals a day.
Addressing the meal shortages, the company said: "Making too many meals means waste for the taxpayers." Aramark also blamed the problem on the fact that varying numbers of inmates come to eat each day.
But Shopp said Aramark too often gambles on a lower number of inmates. Too often, he added, corrections officers are forced to intervene when quality is low or the portions too small. In effect, he said, they "prop up" Aramark.
"For each of our clients," the company's statement responded, "we continually strive to improve the quality of service while managing such services in a cost-efficient manner."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire