Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2018 budget proposal announced that starting in August, the state’s Department of Corrections (MDOC) no longer will rely on Trinity Services Group to handle food operations at the state’s 31 correctional facilities. While the state noted some savings from the agreement, both parties agreed to not renew the contract, citing performance issues that plagued the agreement from its inception.
In roughly the first two years of the contract (September 2015–August 2017), Trinity amassed $3.8 million in fines over a combination of improper meal substitutions, delays and staffing shortages, as well as multiple reports of maggots, mold, and dirt being found in food. In addition to inadequate staffing levels, numerous Trinity staff received “stop orders” from the state, which means a ban on entering prison property due to contraband smuggling or “improper conduct” with inmates.
Notably, this came after Michigan’s first prison food contract with Aramark, which started in 2013 and brought similar results. An audit found the state could have fined Aramark up to $3.3 million—mostly for improper meal substitutions—in addition to stop-orders being issued to numerous staff. Ultimately, given the performance issues with Aramark, the state opted to cancel that contract and rebid it, leading to Aramark being replaced by Trinity.
The contracts with both Aramark and Trinity contained performance metrics and were monitored by the state. “We control the menu, we control what ingredients are used, we enforce the caloric amount that has to be present in every meal,” MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz told Prison Legal News in January, with the article further noting that “MDOC was monitoring its contract with Trinity and would enforce any violations with more fines.” Additionally, Michigan expanded monitoring of its corrections contracts—which includes medical services and reentry programs, in addition to food services—in 2016 by creating a new 30-person team dedicated solely to ensuring the state’s corrections contractors meet the terms of their respective agreements with MDOC.
Typically, the presence of performance metrics tied to contractor pay, when combined with public-sector monitoring results in a mutually-beneficial relationship that incentivizes the contractor to avoid fines for nonperformance. Instead, both contractors continued to amass fines for poor performance, leading to the end of both contracts.
After two unsuccessful attempts to outsource to the private sector, MDOC looks to take its prison food operations back in-house, which it plans to have ready by the end of July when the Trinity contract expires. Although further consideration of outsourcing prison food services is nowhere on its radar for likely a long time, MDOC would be wise to call for a post-mortem analysis to identify why the Trinity relationship, like the Aramark one before it, was so prone to failure. Replacing contractor staff with in-house staff may improve outcomes in this situation, but the fact that two performance-based, state-monitored contracts led to such bad results suggests that MDOC may have a deeper issue with regard to prison food management, regardless of who is responsible for service delivery.
With the majority of contractor fines resulting from poor meal substitutions prompted by inadequate foodstuffs, food supply chains may be one area to examine more closely, as continued fines of vendors demonstrate an inability to overcome challenges of having enough food. Complaints about sanitary conditions may result from poor contractor performance, but the state of prison kitchen facilities in Michigan (especially in older prisons) may make keeping spaces clean more difficult.
Since the new in-house arrangement will almost undoubtedly lack the ability to fine state-employed staff for not serving appropriate meals or keeping facilities clean, ensuring proper foodstuffs are available and are both prepared and served in a clean environment may be an even more difficult obstacle to overcome for MDOC.
Since cost concerns brought about MDOC outsourcing to the private sector for food operations in the first place, maintaining higher and consistent levels of funding presents another issue. MDOC could undoubtedly learn valuable lessons from a thorough examination of its latest failed attempt to outsource its prison food operations, lessons that could help its new in-house relationship run more smoothly.