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Food Behind Bars Isn’t Fit for Your Dog

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Posted on Dec 22, 2013
AP/Matt Rourke

Aramark World Headquarters in Philadelphia in 2006.

By Chris Hedges

Shares in the Philadelphia-based Aramark Holdings Corp., which contracts through Aramark Correctional Services to provide the food to 600 correctional institutions across the United States, went public Thursday. The corporation, acquired in 2007 for $8.3 billion by investors that included Goldman Sachs, raised $725 million last week from the sale of the stock. It is one more sign that the business of locking up poor people in corporate America is booming.

Aramark, whose website says it provides 1 million meals a day to prisoners, does what corporations are doing throughout the society: It lavishes campaign donations on pliable politicians, who in turn hand out state and federal contracts to political contributors, as well as write laws and regulations to benefit their corporate sponsors at the expense of the poor. Aramark fires unionized workers inside prisons and jails and replaces them with underpaid, nonunionized employees. And it makes sure the food is low enough in both quality and portion to produce huge profits.

Aramark, often contracted to provide food to prisoners at about a dollar a meal, is one of numerous corporations, from phone companies to construction firms, that have found our grotesque system of mass incarceration to be very profitable. The bodies of the poor, when they are not captive, are worth little to corporations. But bodies behind bars can each generate $40,000 to $50,000 a year for corporate coffers. More than 2.2 million men and women are in prisons and jails in the U.S.

Crystal Jordan, who has spent 23 years as a corrections officer in New Jersey and who works at the Burlington County Jail, and another corrections officer at the jail, who did not want to be named, told me that the food doled out to prisoners by Aramark is not only substandard but often spoiled. For nearly a decade Jordan has filed complaints about the conditions in the jail, including persistent mold on walls and elsewhere, with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state and county officials. The results of her complaints have been negligible.

“The big shift came in 2004 when the state got rid of the employees who worked in the kitchen and gave the food service contract to Aramark,” said Jordan, who has sent several complaints about jail kitchen conditions to state and county authorities. “The food was not great [earlier], but the officers ate it along with the prisoners. Once Aramark came in, that changed. The bread was stale. I saw food in the kitchen with mold on it. The refrigerator broke down and the food was left outside in the cold or trucked in from another facility. Those who ate the food began to get sick. The officers demanded the right to bring in their own food or order out, which the jail authorities granted. But the prisoners had no choice. Diarrhea and vomiting is common among the prisoners. A few weeks ago one of the officers got a bowl of the prisoners’ chili. We all told him not to eat it. He ended up with diarrhea in the bathroom.”

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Many of those incarcerated in prisons or jails such as Union County Jail in Elizabeth, N.J., where Aramark runs the food service, echo Jordan’s account. They say that sickness and persistent hunger are becoming a routine part of being incarcerated.

“The food gives everybody in the jail diarrhea,” said James Gibbs, 52, who recently spent two weeks in Union County Jail and previously had spent two years there. “There was never enough food. People were hungry all the time.” 

Al Gordon, 45, said he was in Union County Jail when nearly everyone came down with food poisoning from tacos. “It was awful,” he said when we spoke in Elizabeth. “All the prisoners, except the ones who were vegetarian and who did not eat the meat in the tacos, had diarrhea for three days. Whenever we tried to eat anything for those three days we threw it back up. We were all sweating and felt dizzy.”

Gordon had a job in the jail’s kitchen, where he helped prepare the food, usually under the supervision of two Aramark employees. “There were mice running around and mice droppings everywhere,” he said. “The utensils for cooking were dirty. Many of the prisoners preparing the food would use the bathroom and then not wash their hands or wear gloves. Hair fell into the food. The bread was stale and hard. And the portions we were required to serve were real small. You could eat six portions like the ones we served ... and still be hungry. If we put more than the required portion on the tray the Aramark people would make us take it off. It wasn’t civilized. I lost 30 pounds. I would wake up at night and put toothpaste in my mouth to get rid of the hunger urge. The only way a person survived in there was to have money on the books to order from the canteen, but I didn’t have no money. It was especially bad for the diabetics, and there are a lot of diabetics behind bars.”


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