Watchdog

Bill would cancel prison food contract

Complaints about the quality and quantity of food that a private company provides to Kentucky state prisons has led a state lawmaker to file a bill that would cancel the $12 million annual contract.

Northpoint Training Center, where there was a riot last month, is one of several state prisons where inmates and corrections officers have complained about the food provided by Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services, said state Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville.

Yonts said he also is concerned that the illness of as many as 300 inmates at a Western Kentucky prison might have been caused by food.

"There's no reason for people to be treated inhumanely," Yonts said. "I don't think the system is recognizing the problem with Aramark. I'm hoping the administration will ... cancel the contract."

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.

Yonts said he received many complaints from across the state about food quality, shortages and even "crawling creatures in the food" in the past year.

Inmates at Boyle County's Northpoint staged a sit-in in 2007 over the quality of food and prices of snacks in the prison canteen, according to the American Correctional Association.

In a 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.

Yonts said that he sent a questionnaire about the food to corrections officers. The replies said that food problems have caused "control" problems with inmates.

Sarah Jarvis, a spokeswoman for Aramark, said Tuesday that the company "has an excellent track record" and has received many accolades.

"We reduce the costs to taxpayers of feeding inmates, while providing nutritious meals in close consultation with dietitians and nutritionists," she said.

In January, Aramark stopped serving meals at Florida prisons, citing rapid rises in food costs and a poor working relationship with the state. In 2008 alone, the company was fined $241,499 by Florida for problems with the food and service, according to news reports.

Saving millions

State corrections officials say the contract with Aramark saves $5 million each year and allowed them to give corrections officers a nearly 7 percent raise in 2005.

Northpoint inmates and family members have told the Herald-Leader that the quality and price of food and canteen items continues to be a source of unrest at the prison and might have figured in the August riots.

Jarvis said there is no evidence that the riots "were the result of anything other than gang-related activity and yard restrictions. Some of the facts in this story seem to be based on anecdotes, half-truths and suspicious complaints by inmates and others who ... ignore official reports and contradictory facts."

Incidents that led to the riot and fire are under investigation by the state Department of Corrections and State Police.

Source of illnesses unknown

At the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex at Fredonia, James Tolley, the public health director at Pennyrile District Health Department, said his staff has investigated three cases in 2009 in which inmates had gastrointestinal distress.

In one instance in the spring, Tolley said, as many as 300 inmates fell ill there.

State Corrections Department spokeswoman Cheryl Million said a foodborne illness was suspected, but it could not be verified in lab tests. Tolley said that even though lab results did not confirm that food was the problem, his staff advised food service employees on safe food handling.

Yonts said he is looking into those cases.

"Inmates do complain about Aramark," Million said. However, she said, there were similar complaints before Aramark took over food service. The Department of Corrections receives, on average, 21 food grievances among 13 institutions each month, she said.

The state pays Aramark $2.63 for each inmate each day, Million said.

Yonts said he also has received complaints about the food at Blackburn Correctional Complex in Fayette County.

Yonts' legislation barring private companies would not apply to canteens where inmates at state prisons can buy food, to local jails or to food provided to inmates being transferred from one prison to another.

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