Inmate surveys show plummeting approval ratings of prison food in Kentucky since the state outsourced the work to a private company in 2005, creating unhappy prisoners that some believe have become a security problem.
In 2003, state inmates rated the food 5.84 on a scale of 1 to 10. By early 2009, that number had dropped to 3.24. The decline in inmate satisfaction was particularly steep at Northpoint Training Center in Boyle County, where prisoners rioted and burned much of the complex on Aug. 21.
State Rep. Brent Yonts, who has filed legislation that would cancel Aramark Correctional Services' $12 million annual contract with the state, said corrections officers, other lawmakers and inmates have all told him that unrest "over food" figured into the Northpoint riot.
In 2003, inmates at Northpoint rated the food a 6.13, but that number had dipped to 2.66 by early 2009.
Officials at the Philadelphia-based Aramark have said there's no evidence that the Northpoint riot was caused by anything but gang violence and anger over prison yard restrictions. Their food played no role in the riot, they said..
Kentucky officials have not yet said what led to the incident in which inmates burned and damaged buildings, several of which were a total loss. Eight guards and eight inmates suffered minor injuries.
The legislature's Budget Review Subcommittee on Justice and Judiciary is expected to get an update Thursday about conditions at Northpoint.
Inmates surveyed across the state often commented on small portions, cleanliness and food shortages.
"Get rid of Aramark, bring back the state," an inmate at Roederer Correctional Complex in LaGrange wrote in an anonymous 2009 survey obtained by the Herald-Leader under the Open Records Act.
At the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, an inmate wrote, "I would like not to be hungry all the time."
Officials from Aramark and the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said Tuesday that the inmate surveys did not signal inadequate service by Aramark.
Jennifer Brislin, a spokesperson for the Justice Cabinet, said Aramark's food "meets all recommended daily allowances and dietary requirements."
"This drop in ratings may correlate with the emphasis on a more heart-healthy menu (non-fatty foods), less seasoning (salt and sugar.)," Brislin said.
She noted that the surveys showed more inmates were eating in prison dining halls in 2009 than in 2008.
"The inmate responses are typical for a correctional environment," said Sarah Jarvis, a spokesperson for Aramark. "Prisoners and others complaining about Aramark's service appear to have questionable and self-interested motivations, and we will not be distracted from our goal of providing top quality service and significant taxpayer savings to the people of Kentucky."
Yonts, D-Greenville, said the legislature's Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary will hear testimony on Nov. 6 about the legislation he has introduced to cancel Aramark's contract.
For the most part, Northpoint officials who monitored Aramark's food service on a daily basis gave satisfactory ratings in 2009, documents show. However, some inmates wrote "still hungry" and "more portions" on surveys taken early this year.
The state pays Aramark $2.63 for each inmate served each day.
Internal documents from Northpoint show that a corrections officer complained in July that "rancid" peanut butter was served to some inmates.
The Northpoint documents also detail several instances of food shortages since 2005, but state officials said Tuesday that the shortages were typical for correctional institutions and that no inmate went without food as a result.
"There was not a prevalence of food shortages at Northpoint and when one did occur, a pre-approved substitute was immediately provided," said Brislin. Delays in serving inmates because of shortages sometimes occur when preparing food at large volumes and occurred before Aramark got the contract, she said.
Dan Troutman, environmental supervisor for the Boyle County Health Department, said Aramark's kitchen at Northpoint received an 89 out of 100 in a June inspection. That rating was raised to 93 later the same day after a door frame was repaired.
Inspectors said some kitchen equipment was dirty. Jarvis said Aramark was not responsible for peeling paint and other building problems in the inspection.
"Typically, they are in compliance," Troutman said.
Meanwhile, Jarvis said Aramark continues to receive "very positive feedback from the officials who actually run and manage the state's correctional facilities."
She said Aramark's registered dietitians assist the state in ensuring that meals are nutritionally sound and meet contract specifications and the guidelines of the American Correctional Association.
Meanwhile, Vicki Gorbett, whose husband is an inmate at Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington, said she has complained to officials about infestations and under-cooked food at that prison.
"The men are buying a lot of food in the canteen because they can't eat out of the cafeteria," said Gorbett of Metcalfe County.
If Yonts' bill is approved by the Kentucky General Assembly in 2010, food service to inmates at state prisons could be provided only by state employees, inmates or volunteers. The Aramark contract with the state was renewed in January 2009 and expires in 2011.
Yonts' son Harrison Yonts is serving a nine-year sentence for murder and tampering with physical evidence in a fatal drunk driving case in 2005. He is eligible for parole in 2013. Yonts said Tuesday that his son is at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex at LaGrange.
"He has made no complaints about prison food," Yonts said.