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Ohio levies 2nd fine against prison food vendor over shortages, staffing, maggots concerns

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The state on Wednesday announced a second fine against the private vendor that took over the job of feeding inmates last year as the company defended its operations before a prisons oversight committee.

The $130,200 fine against Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services covered continued staffing shortages, unacceptable food substitutions and shortages and sanitation issues, including maggots observed in food service operations at five prisons this month and last, according to Ohio's July 23 letter to the company.

"There were and there are remaining concerns," Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told members of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.

Mohr emphasized that problems are largely limited to seven prisons. He said some of the fine will be used to increase the training Aramark employees receive. "What was going on was just not adequate," he said.

Mohr said Aramark has saved Ohio $13 million since September and likely prevented the state from having to close Hocking Correctional Facility in southeastern Ohio. The Aramark contract is on track to save Ohio more than $16 million next year, Mohr said.

The state levied a $142,000 fine against Aramark in April.

John Hanner, president of Aramark Correctional Services, defended his company's record in Ohio to the committee, saying food delays and substitutions have happened less than 1 per cent of the time.

Afterward, he said the company is committed to improving its Ohio operations.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the time our people are doing a great job," Hanner said. "These are Ohio citizens that we've hired. These people come to work every day and do a great job under trying circumstances."

The quality of food has gone down since Aramark began work last September and food service concerns are more significant than in the past ten years, Joanna Saul, chief of the oversight committee, said in earlier testimony Wednesday.

Aramark's low wages lead to high turnover and a temptation to smuggle in contraband, Saul said.

"You're making $10 to $11, you can bring in a pack of cigarettes and sell it for $300 — what are you going to choose?" Saul said.

Numerous reports have documented cases of Aramark running out of main and side dishes over the past several months. Reports also indicate several days when Aramark employees simply failed to show up, cases of unauthorized relationships between inmates and Aramark workers, and the reports of maggots.

Ninety-six Aramark employees are banned from working in Ohio prisons, according to the state.

Aramark's $110 million deal to feed some 50,000 Ohio prisoners began in September and runs through June 30, 2015.

The prison employees union has filed a formal grievance over the Aramark contract. It said it offered a competitive proposal to keep food service in-house.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder's administration is approaching a decision on possibly reconsidering Aramark's 3-year, $145 million contract. Earlier this year, Michigan officials reported two incidents of maggots found in a prison's food service area in Jackson.

Michigan also fined Aramark $98,000 for making unauthorized menu substitutions, not preparing the correct number of meals and employees having improper contact with inmates.

At issue is a bigger national debate over privatizing prison services — from food preparation to the running of entire facilities — to save money at a time of squeezed state budgets.

The seven prisons with the most problems, according to the state: Warren, Belmont, Noble, Mansfield, Pickaway, Lebanon and the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.

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