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Prison food bill stalls in committee

A bill that would cancel a private company's nearly $12 million annual contract to serve food at Kentucky's prisons is stalled in the House budget committee.

Budget Chairman Rick Rand, D-Bedford, said last week that he is waiting for more information about whether the state is getting its money's worth from food service giant Aramark and hasn't decided whether to hold a hearing on the bill.

An investigative report released in January showed that anger over food contributed to an Aug. 21 riot at Northpoint Training Center near Danville. Inmates set fires and damaged six buildings, including the kitchen and canteen. Eight inmates and eight corrections officers were injured.

Rep. Brent Yonts, the sponsor of House Bill 33, said he's concerned that time is running out to move the proposal through the legislature. But Yonts, D-Greenville, said House Speaker Greg Stumbo told him that Stumbo will ask the committee to hold a hearing on the legislation that was approved last month by the House Judiciary committee.

"It's not a dead issue," Yonts said.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.

At the urging of lawmakers, State Auditor Crit Luallen in January agreed to audit Aramark's contract with the state Department of Corrections, which has been in effect since 2005.

If Yonts' bill is passed, food service to inmates at state prisons could be provided only by state employees, inmates or volunteers. That was the case until the state contracted with Aramark.

The contract was renewed in January 2009 and expires in 2011.

Rand said Aramark appears to be saving the state $4 million a year. For that reason, doing away with the contract "is a big concern," he said.

But Rand says he wants to look at issues in the dispute over whether "Aramark is fulfilling their obligation ...and are they providing services that are adequate."

The investigation of the Northpoint riot concluded that the main cause of the riot was inmate anger about a lockdown and other restrictions imposed after a fight at the prison. But the investigation also showed that virtually every inmate and employee interviewed by investigators said Aramark's food and its prices at the canteen were among the reasons for the riot.

Yonts has said there have been widespread complaints about Aramark's food, including: food-borne illnesses at Western Kentucky Correctional Facility, worms being found in food and food being watered down. Corrections officers have testified at legislative hearings that unrest about food quality is jeopardizing their safety.

Although there have been three incidents of widespread illness at Western Kentucky Correctional Facility since 2005, Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson has said there was no conclusive evidence that any of the three incidents was caused by the food.

Thompson has confirmed there was one grub worm found in soup at Green River Correctional Complex before it was served to inmates. Inmates at other institutions have found bugs in their food, Thompson said, but she said that's because produce grown at the prisons hasn't always been properly cleaned and that the state was working on the problem.

Meanwhile, Rand said he was getting more information from Yonts about whether Aramark was complying with the contract.

And an Aramark official said Friday that the company also would provide information.

"We will certainly provide any insights into our operations that the House committee requests," said Aramark spokeswoman Sarah Jarvis.

"Aramark stands behind the quality of service, value and taxpayer savings we provide to the commonwealth," Jarvis said.

Rand also said his committee will ask Gov. Steve Beshear to review several state contracts, including the one with Aramark.

"That's probably one we are going to ask him to take a closer look at to make sure we are getting our money's worth out of Aramark, that they are performing as per their contract," Rand said.

Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said the governor would wait until he had received the request before making a comment. In January, Beshear said he was "loath to consider millions more dollars for criminals who wish they could go to Wendy's instead."

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