The Unappetizing Record of Prison Food Privatization

In the United States, prisons and privatization have become as American as apple pie. Today, approximately 130,000 people are incarcerated by for-profit companies in the United States, an 1,664% increase over the last 19 years. Even those prisons that remain state-run have sought to turn over almost every conceivable service – medical, mental health, educational, food, maintenance and security – to the private sector. Indeed, the Americans have demonstrated an almost devout ideological commitment to prison privatization even in spite of the perverse incentives it causes, such as the reprehensible “kids for cash” scandal. With such a wealth of experience and dedication to prison privatization, we should probably pay close attention to the American experience – particularly when we seem determined to emulate it.

The Saskatchewan government has decided to take the American road with their recent decision to privatize food services at various provincial correctional centres. According to the government, an internal review has determined that food delivery should not be considered a “core function” of the Ministry of Corrections and has slated food service for privatization in the hopes of also achieving cost-savings through “efficiencies and economies of scale.”

So before the Saskatchewan government moves forward with this plan, perhaps it would be educational to take a look at the American experience with the privatization of prison food services and why we should be wary.

Ohio

A 2001 report by the Ohio State Auditor finds that the state corrections department had paid it’s private food services vendor for almost 4.5 million meals rather than the 2.8 million actually served from November 1998 to October 2000, adding $2.1 million to the contract cost. On-site visits also found “inexcusable” sanitation conditions, a lack of training and “a near riot” at breakfast over the private vendor’s strict adherence to contractual portion sizes.

Florida

A 2007 internal audit by the Florida Department of Corrections concluded that the private vendor delivering prison food services was charging the state for 18,000 meals per day that were never served, costing the state $5.6 million annually. The vendor was also accused of switching menus to substitute less expensive ingredients into meals without authorization. In a stinging indictment of the level of service provided by the private vendor, the audit determined that “service levels have deteriorated both in relative quantity and in quality, and windfall savings from this declining service have not been passed on to the Department.” In comparison, the audit found that the previous in-house operations had provided  “a reliable, economical and quality level of food service,” all while costing $7 million less than the private contract.

Kentucky

A 2010 audit of Kentucky’s private food services contract found the private vendor overbilled the state by as much as $130,000 a year, received $150,000 worth of inmate-grown food virtually cost-free, failed to follow approved recipes and couldn’t properly document the safety, quality and quantity of food. The audit was prompted by the 2009 Northpoint prison riot in which food quality and portions were cited as a major cause of inmate unrest. Citing the almost $10 million in repairs required to the Northpoint Centre, Ohio House Speaker Greg Stumbo said the state’s decision to privately contract prison food services appears to “be penny wise and pound foolish.” After reviewing the report, the House Judiciary Committee voted 9-4 to approve a bill that would cancel the state’s $12 million annual contract with Aramark Correctional Services to provide meals at 13 prisons.

Michigan

The Wayne County Auditor General determined in a 2013 report that the private contractor, Canteen Correctional Services, had been delivering 530 extra meals per day to Detroit-area jails and detention centres. In all, auditors found that Wayne County could have saved $2.5 million because of those excess meals. Investigations of the food services contract remain on-going.

What this record shows is that privatized prison food services does not always deliver the cost-savings that politicians seem to expect. From the above examples, over-charging and extra-billing appear to be the norm rather than the exception. To combat this tendency, governments will have to factor in the extra-costs of rigorous monitoring and ensuring private vendor compliance, a cost of privatization that is rarely considered. More importantly, given the very real connection between food-related problems and institutional unrest, the delivery of quality, nutritious meals to inmates simply must be viewed as a core function of any modern and just corrections system. Our current system of public food service provision – which provides both skills and training to inmates and sources food locally from Saskatchewan-based producers – has served the province well. Given the U.S. experience with privatization, why should we risk following their example?

Simon Enoch

One comment

  1. I know it’s a rhetorical question. However, the answer seems clear, and very common these days: “Because we value millions for wealthy, powerful individuals and corporations far more than we value the public good.”

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