The dark side of prison food service
There are good things that Aramark can do for people outside of prison: the corporation has good connections with sports stadiums, hospitals, and colleges that need reliable food-service assistance. But in state prisons in Ohio, where Aramark is contracted to provide food to prisoners, it does not live up to its contract with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC). I am a living witness to the dark side of Aramark.
While incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) I was assigned by ODRC to work in MCI food service. On April 28, 2017, while working in food service, I witnessed disgusting occurrences that were a threat to my health and safety: I saw meat food service workers using broken push carts, stack racks, kitchen equipment (like cook paddles, butter scoopers, etc.), brooms, mops, and beverage containers that could have injured someone or could have been used as a weapon. I have seen food-service workers use broken ovens, kettles, cook grills, dish machines, oven steamers, and other appliances that are not operating properly. As a result, food is undercooked and overcooked by inexperienced inmate cooks.
I alerted Aramark staff about these issues, but they have done nothing to address them – and it’s like they don’t care if inmate food-service workers are deprived of their basic needs like safe food and safe working conditions.
Food is placed in dirty pots, pans, trays, and containers to be served to inmates for regular meals and fundraiser meals. Aramark staff have inmates cook the staff meals correctly, but for inmate meals, the meat is either burnt or raw. The side meals (mashed potatoes, beans, pasta, etc.) are watered down. The food is already cross contaminated from being in half-cleaned pots, pans, containers, and cutting boards. The inmate food service workers who do not properly wear their beard and hair masks or even their gloves contaminate raw, prepped, and cooked foods. Inmates drink out of beverage containers that are not properly cleaned. For example, juice and coffee are served during breakfast, which makes the water being served at lunch and dinner taste like coffee and juice.
I alerted Aramark staff about these issues, but they have done nothing to address them – and it’s like they don’t care if inmate food-service workers are deprived of their basic needs like safe food and safe working conditions. This is a violation of the eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. But this is what Aramark corporation is in prison care for… monopolizing!
Since 2018, Aramark has brought in Fresh Favourite fundraisers. Inmates can go to the MCI commissary to place their orders, and proceeds from the sales go to non-profit organizations like the Red Cross, NAACP, and Kairos. Then MCI warden gave the green light for Aramark to cook food for many of these fundraisers, rather than allowing the organizations to supply the food themselves. This takes away from the donations that are supposed to go back to these organizations for rehabilitation programs, work supplies, and more.
But instead of wages, Aramark staff give the students and graduates Styrofoam trays of leftover food from the fundraisers.
Aramark also runs a vocational program called the IN2WORK food management program. This program helps inmates learn about food safety, health and sanitation, food service management, and proper cooking techniques. Now the IN2WORK students and graduates are supposed to work only on the Fresh Favorites fundraisers, and are supposed to be paid minimum wage. But instead of wages, Aramark staff give the students and graduates Styrofoam trays of leftover food from the fundraisers. To me it’s basically the same as working under Jim Crow laws – by being a minority (because I am Black), I work hard and am humiliated, untrained, and paid less. This is a violation of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slave labour.
To top it off, in 2020 Aramark installed the iCare program where your family can order a meal for you with their debit or credit card. This fundraiser is not in their ODRC contract and is a violation of the Ohio valentine act, which prohibits acts like price-fixing. Then inmates are not experienced or trained by Aramark staff in prepping, cooking, or serving the meals, or proper use of safety and kitchen equipment. I have also learned that Aramark orders out-of-date produce (like apples, salad, lettuce, bananas). The produce is frozen while fresh, but once it is thawed it turns to waste. Aramark does the same thing with bread. Aramark staff do this because it’s cheaper than ordering fresh food from better distributors.
Once I saw that Aramark was not physically training inmate food service workers
, that’s when I knew that I had to exhaust my administrative remedies. For inmates, that means going through the Ohio prison grievance system. I sent my informal complaint to the MCI food service supervisor for ODRC bracket, and to the MCI health and safety officer. Instead of addressing and investigating my issues, they showed no interest in dealing with the issues I raised. The next step was to send a grievance of both complaints to the MCI institution inspector, after which the inspector tried to put me on grievance restriction for complaining about Aramark. Then I sent both grievances to be appealed to the ODRC chief inspector, and the chief inspector insisted that Aramark was following all safety and training protocols.
It’s a big business taking advantage of vulnerable inmates who are reliant on a corporation to meet their basic needs.
Right now I am in the U.S. District Court on a 42 USC 1983 lawsuit against Aramark staff and MCI staff concerning these issues. It’s not looking good for me but I have faith and trust in God to keep fighting the good fight – not for me but for inmates around the country who eat and work in a prison food service department with Aramark as a private contractor. The Aramark staff have retaliated against me by accusing me of stealing and being out of place, to get me terminated from my food service work assignment. The Aramark staff have tried to shut me up so people can’t see how corrupt Aramark and the MCI food service department is. It’s a big business taking advantage of vulnerable inmates who are reliant on a corporation to meet their basic needs.
This article is part of Briarpatch's Prison Abolition Issue. Read other articles in the issue, and read more about the issue's creation and our fact-checking standards.