More than 100 food-service employees have been banned from state prisons for violations such as smuggling cellphones or drugs and sexually abusing inmates during the first year of a contractor’s deal to feed state prisoners, an investigation by this newspaper found.
Taxpayers have saved more than $13 million since Philadelphia-based Aramark took over the job in September 2013, but the agreement with the state of Ohio has been tarnished with maggot-ridden food and security concerns.
State records show 62 food workers were fired and banned from working in prisons over innapropriate relationships with inmates. Two Aramark employees “struck inmate with food” while others were accused of security violations or bringing inmates contraband.
Last month, two Aramark workers were indicted on sexual battery charges for allegedly having sex with inmates, one at Dayton Correctional Institution and the other at Lebanon Correctional Institution. One of those workers, Von Thomas of Dayton, had a criminal history that included felony non-payment of child support, drug and theft convictions.
Sanitation issues, food shortages and staffing problems have led the state to issue $272,000 in fines this year against Aramark for violations of its two-year, $110 million contract. These issues have been concentrated at seven prisons, including the the two in Warren County.
The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which previously provided food service at the state’s 26 prisons, proposed to a legislative watchdog agency that it could take back the contract and next year save the state more than $12 million.
But despite the troubles, state leaders say the contract with Aramark has been a success and likely will save taxpayers more than $16 million next year compared to when the union ran the kitchen.
“The contract with Aramark has exceeded financial expectations as it relates to savings and the majority of prisons are experiencing few, if any, incidents,” said Gary Mohr, the director of prisons, in response to the the state’s bipartisan prison legislative agency. “The issues which have been seen are not uncommon to issues that we encountered when the food service was state-operated.”
Opponents of privatization say corrections officers have to fill in for the “revolving door” of Aramark employees who don’t show up or are fired.
“A lot of times, the officers will get pulled off their post to make sure the food area is up and running, clean and secure,” said Phil Morris, a corrections officer and union president at the Lebanon facility. “We can’t be pulling our officers off a security post; that sets precedent for a safety risk.”
In the same period that saw 113 Aramark employees banned from working in prisons, state records show 40 corrections officers were fired.
The difference, according to Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler, is that the state no longer has to negotiate with union officials when it tries to fire a misbehaving kitchen employee.
“Prior to Aramark’s contract, it could take up to three months to terminate a food service employee who was suspected of improper behavior (contraband or inmate relationship) because there was a lengthy grievance process,” Cutler said. “Now employees can be dismissed swiftly, which improves safety and security.”
State officials say a contract worker can be banned from prisons for the same level of offense that would get a state worker a written reprimand.
Since Sept. 1, 2013 the Ohio State Highway Patrol has launched more than 1,200 investigations in the state’s prisons. Roughly 6,400 correction officers work in those prisons and 96 state employees were named suspects in the investigations, with allegations including smuggling contraband and inappropriate relationships.
Meanwhile, Aramark, which employs 400 employees in the state prisons, had 20 employees named as suspects.
“This does happen across the board when it’s private or public (management),” said Greg Lawson of the Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank. “There’s a union involved and they’re very interested in acquiring some of the positions they don’t have at this point.”
Tracie Hollon, 41, of Middletown and Thomas, 48, were banned from working again at a state prison after being charged with sexual battery of an inmate. Hollon was indicted in Warren County earlier this month for allegedly having sex between May and June with an inmate at the Lebanon prison.
A Montgomery County grand jury in August indicted Thomas on a sexual battery charge. He is accused of having sex with an inmate in October 2013.
In November 2011, Thomas was released from community control sanctions stemming from a 2008 conviction of receiving stolen property, a fourth-degree felony.
This newspaper found that Thomas’ criminal record also includes a 2009 conviction for felony non-payment of child support in Portage County, a 2006 petty theft conviction in Middletown, a 2007 misdemeanor drug abuse conviction in Dayton, and public intoxication and traffic charges.
“Allowing individuals with criminal histories to work within ODRC facilities is not uncommon,” saidScott Flowers, a spokesman for the prisons agency. “ODRC completes background checks on employees and contractors to determine if the individual is suitable to work for our agency.”
The state could be open to liabilities when inmates are raped or assaulted, said Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
“No one who is critical of Aramark is arguing that prisoners should have lobster dinners while they’re in prison,” Brickner said. “Food service affects the safety in the prisons. If you want to make sure the people who are incarcerated there, who work there and live around that area are safe, it’s important that we make sure people are treated fairly and humanely.”
One of the biggest problems with privatizing the food service in prisons, critics say, is the lack of training Aramark employees are offered.
For the past year, Aramark employees could walk onto kitchen duty after watching a three-hour video and reviewing state policies — a significant change from the six-week training union employees say was required to work in the kitchens. Last month, Aramark agreed to provide up to eight hours of training for workers.
“I think everyone in the state of Ohio should ask this question to themselves: ‘Do I think I can walk into a prison with eight hours of training and do this job?’ ” said Chris Mabe, the state union president.
State leaders will ask Aramark to give employees six days of training, to be paid for from the $242,000 fine levied against Aramark earlier this year.
Ohio is among a handful of states to face challenges with Aramark’s services. Last year, Aramark took control of food services in all of Michigan’s prisons for $145 million.
Since then, Michigan officials have fined the private company $298,000 for similar issues — inappropriate relationships with inmates and subpar menus. The Detroit Free Press reported last week that an Aramark employee was fired after allegedly propositioning to pay an inmate for the murder of a fellow prisoner.
Ohio officials are working to alleviate concerns expressed by the state’s bipartisan prison watchdog group, the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, with a series of recommendations. Several Ohio representatives sitting on that committee requested changes to Aramark’s food portions, quality and training.
State officials have developed a new menu for Aramark to roll out next month. They also plan to increase county health inspections of prison kitchens and raise the score necessary for the private company to pass an evaluation.
“We have made significant progress in addressing any operational and staffing challenges that both Aramark and the (state prison agency) anticipated during a transition of this size and scale,” Aramark’s Cutler said. “And, the (state) has acknowledged a shared responsibility for sanitation issues involving pest control and infrastructure, which are under their control.”
But state Rep. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, a CIIC member, said the only meaningful solution is to fire Aramark and bring back state workers.
“They have (privatized the system) on the backs of quite a few hundred corrections officers, endangering the public by allowing some of the systems of protection, not only for the officers but for the inmates, to fall by the wayside,” he said.