FRANKFORT — A corrections officer at Northpoint Training Center told lawmakers Friday that an August riot at the prison near Danville was caused by inmate anger over bad food and was planned.
"It's over the food," corrections officer Matt Hughes told the Interim Judiciary Committee. "The food was slop."
State corrections officials did not speak at Friday's meeting but have said that as early as next week they will issue a report based on a Kentucky State Police investigation.
State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said that corrections officers at Northpoint said they doubt officials will admit it in the official report but that "it was about the food."
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State Rep. Brent Yonts — who has filed a bill that would cancel the $12 million annual contract of Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services, food provider for Kentucky prisons — said the General Assembly should launch its own investigation. He wants lawmakers to go to Northpoint to interview inmates.
Yonts, D-Greenville, said the problems exist at state prisons all over Kentucky. He told the committee of lawmakers that a corrections officer at Green River Correctional Complex in Central City told him about "a very large body of worms that boiled to the top of a pot of soup" that had to be removed from a serving line.
Yonts said human feces was found in a burrito at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville and just this week he received information that an Aramark supervisor allowed inmates at Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington to eat brownies containing human feces.
Citing numbers showing the state might not be getting its money's worth in the contract from Aramark because fewer inmates were eating in prison cafeterias, Yonts said that the state needed to take back food service operations.
"It's not working," Yonts said.
Aramark spokeswoman Kristine Grow said Friday that the company "had received no official complaints regarding our food before the riot occurred" and had no "absolute proof" of the allegations that Yonts made.
"We stand by the quality of our service and our food, and we look forward to the state's official report," Grow said.
Aramark officials have previously said that there's no evidence that anything but gang violence and anger over yard restrictions caused the riot.
Hughes, however, told lawmakers that the explanation about yard restrictions was "bogus." He said that inmates were betting over high-priced packaged food from the Northpoint canteen because they couldn't eat the cafeteria food.
Hughes also said the gambling was leading to fights and security problems for corrections officers.
In the riot at Northpoint on Aug. 21, inmates burned and damaged buildings, several of which were a total loss. Eight guards and eight inmates suffered minor injuries.
Hughes was one of three corrections officers from various prisons who appeared at Friday's meeting. All said they were members of the union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Union officials also attended.
Yonts acknowledged he is supportive of unions and of labor, but he said "that has nothing to do with the validity of this bill."
If the bill is passed by the Kentucky General Assembly in 2010, food service to inmates at state prisons could be provided only by state employees, inmates or volunteers. That was the case until January 2005, when the state contracted with Aramark.
The contract was renewed in January 2009 and expires in 2011. State corrections officials have said that with the savings from the Aramark contract, they were able to give corrections officers a nearly 7 percent raise in 2005.
Jennifer Brislin, a spokeswoman for the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said that in October 2005, corrections officers' hours were increased from 37.5 to 40 hours a week, resulting in a 6.67 percent increase.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who heard the testimony said they wanted a special meeting with Department of Corrections officials and representatives of Aramark to find out the truth.
"It's only one side," state Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, said of the allegations raised Friday. He said that lawmakers could have a "direct impact" on fixing the situation if the complaints were valid.
Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said he had doubts about the allegations: "I find it amazing that the riot would be based on food."
But Hughes, the Northpoint corrections officer, was adamant: "The reason that it happened was poor food," he said.