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Food becomes a source of camaraderie through cook-ups or a spot at the blackjack table, for which one must ante up a pack of cookies. Inmates steal for food, barter for food, argue about it, and physically fight for it.
In other words, food becomes directly or indirectly involved in almost every aspect of jail life, and at a sentence's outset, one goes hungry. But hunger is a powerful motivator, and it doesn't take long to learn where to find a few extra calories in the day.
That means swallowing whatever pride remains and cooking refried beans in a cum-covered shower/washing machine/mildew factory, but it's a small price to pay for satiation.
Chicken Rueben Wrap
1 package pre-cooked chicken
2 scoops of state-issued coleslaw (no dressing)
1 pickle package
1 pack of ketchup
5 slices jalapeno
1 package mayo
1 packet jalapeno squeeze cheese (if desired)
1 state-issued hard-boiled egg
Save the state-issued "coleslaw," which is often just shredded cabbage and carrots with no dressing, in a clear plastic cup bought out of commissary.
Pour the brine from the pickle bag into the cup and let the cabbage sit for at least four hours.
Dice the pickle into small pieces. In a container mix the pickles with the mayo and ketchup to make Thousand Island dressing.
Dice up the hard-boiled egg. Break up the packaged chicken and mix it in with the egg.
Place the tortilla on a "plate." Add chicken and egg. Cover chicken with the "sauerkraut." Squeeze jalapeno cheese over the kraut and spread on Thousand Island dressing. Wrap and enjoy.
Because food takes on a whole new meaning and a whole new level of importance in jail, it should come as no shock that Aramark's incompetence generated anger inside the walls, prompting hunger strikes, protests, and lawsuits. The company's problems with food shortages and quality managed to piss off everyone from murderers to the American Civil Liberties Union to the bean-brained reps in the Michigan Legislature who thought switching to Aramark was a good idea in the first place.
While anyone with a shred of foresight could've seen these problems a mile beyond the horizon, privatizing prison functions in Michigan is considered a great way to free up some budget dollars. While the state's incarceration rate is in the middle of the pack nationally, it still jails more people per capita than places like Russia, Iran, or Cuba.
Even with an average incarceration rate, Michigan makes headlines because it spends 21 percent of its general fund jailing people — a greater portion than any other state and more than it spends on higher education. Since 1980, its biggest growth industry has been the prison system.
In other words, Michigan throws a ton of people in jail, but really sucks at housing them.
Naturally, when in 2013 the Republican-led legislature put their heads together to come up with a solution to out-of-control prison costs, they failed to think long and hard about the correlation between absurd, new minimum sentencing guidelines and the state's prison population growing by nearly 250 percent between 1986 and 2006. Instead it saw an opportunity for privatization.
Enter Aramark, which signed a three-year, $145 million contract in late 2013.
The food service megacorporation grossed over $14 billion in 2014 and is the nation's 23rd largest employer. Not only does it provide food for jails, its cuisine, to use the term generously, is also served at ballparks, on airplanes, in national parks, in hospitals, or in corporate boardrooms. Of course, it offers varying levels of quality, and by the looks of its growth, it does something right.
But, hoo boy, are those reports on its correctional food services division disturbing. In the Saginaw Correctional Facility, the company was busted serving prisoners food pulled out of the garbage. The latest of three "maggot-related incidents" was reported in June in Jackson, where a year prior 30 inmates were sickened and quarantined after maggots were found in their potatoes. In Kent County, 16 inmates are suing Aramark in federal court after the company sickened 250 prisoners by allegedly knowingly serving rotten meat on chicken taco night.
In the Central Michigan Correctional Facility, an Aramark employee allegedly ordered inmates to serve cakes that rats partially ate, and in Macomb County prisoners ate cold food for months after a raging mold infestation shut down the kitchen.
But the issues with Aramark aren't restricted just to food quality. Its employees were caught humping inmates in a walk-in refrigerator, smuggling in drugs and cellphones, and putting out a hit on a prisoner.
Democrats are naturally pissed because these problems didn't exist when the union ran the mess hall, but even conservatives recognize that terms like "partial quarantine" and "prison riot" give privatization "a very bad name," and last year Republican leadership in the Senate joined the call for the cancellation of Aramark's contract.
One would think clearly serving garbage to humans is indefensible and grounds for action, but against all the evidence, Aramark essentially said the problems are lies made up by unions, and even the MDOC doesn't seem too concerned.
The tainted meals have received so much attention over the last 18 months that, in its most recent poll, Public Policy Polling included a question on whether Michigan should dump Aramark: 62 percent of respondents said "yes," while 25 percent said they weren't sure. In an interview with MLive, Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesman, hilariously defended the contract by pointing out that 12 percent of respondents don't think the state should fire Aramark.
He also stated the company doesn't use public polling to guide its decision-making. In other words, the agency that takes over 20 percent of our general fund just told us it doesn't really give a shit what we think.
But, hey, at least the exceedingly pro-business Snyder administration fined Aramark $200,000.
Oh, wait — it secretly canceled half those fines and no one can really say for sure if the company ever paid a dime.
Naturally, Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler defended the company.
"There have been hundreds of unfounded allegations made by special interest groups against our company and our hard-working employees in Michigan. Privatization is a political issue that prompts emotional responses on both sides. Despite the ongoing manufactured attacks, we continue to serve quality meals to 45,000 offenders daily and save the taxpayers of Michigan more than $14 million per year that can be used to fund vital programs in the state," she told the Metro Times.
The last line, which is completely bananas for several reasons, presents an interesting question. It's prisoners who are the victims here, and contracting with Aramark saved Michigan $12 million in 2014 and $16 million in 2015. With that kind of money for "vital programs" at stake, should Michiganders accept that a few people are going to have to eat maggots and rotten chicken?
Classic Jail Cake
1 state-issued pack of peanut butter
2 Oreo cookies
½ Snickers bar
½ package of peanut M&Ms
Spread peanut butter across the honeybun frosting. Crumble two Oreo cookies onto the peanut butter. Crumble ½ Snickers bar. Halve peanut M&Ms and top the cake.
Deep in the state's contract with Aramark, where the specifics on nutritional benchmarks are laid out, is a food pyramid followed by a quote from Hippocrates: "If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health."
Rich stuff, guys.
Though no one expects anything that would land on a prison cafeteria tray to approach healthy, it appears someone put some time and thought into designing a full day's menu devoid of nutritional value. No one could have accidentally assembled meals with so little nourishment.
The contract also stipulates Aramark must serve 2,600 calories to male inmates each day in addition to meeting the weekly nutritional benchmarks. According to an Oakland County official, the same goes for the Oakland County Jail. The idea that Aramark puts 2,600 calories in front of the jail inmates daily would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that going hungry isn't very funny. The state even cited Aramark hundreds of times for shorting meals and making unauthorized substitutions, though it should be noted none came out of Oakland County Jail.
Of course it's difficult to prove Aramark, which is charging the state just under $4 a day to feed an inmate, is cutting calories, but the unique meal schedule and menu at the jail supports the claim. The breakfast bell rings promptly at 4:30 a.m. each morning and we dragged ourselves out of bed for something like a hard-boiled egg, frozen apple cubes, and plain oatmeal or grits along with powdered milk. Lunch, which was an actual meal, arrived at 10:30 a.m.