Privatization of Michigan’s prison food service industry pays off in maggots, violence and increased corporate earnings


    Rick Snyder, the 48th Governor of Michigan, took office in 2011 pledging to put politics aside, and do what was best for the State. Unlike other Republicans, he said, his intention was not to push a hardline agenda of privatization and union busting. “I don’t believe in privatization,” the self-proclaimed ‘tough nerd’ said in 2012. “I believe in being competitive.”

    Sure, as a result of being competitive, some jobs previously done by state workers, like preparing the food we serve to Michigan prisoners, may eventually be done by for-profit corporations that promise cost savings, but the self-proclaimed ‘tough nerd’ assured is that it wouldn’t be for ideological reasons. No, if these jobs were privatized, it would just be because these companies demonstrated that they could operate lean, effective operations that could both provide superior service and help set our state back on a path toward fiscal solvency.

    So it was, in September, 2013, that Snyder signed a three-year, $145 million dollar contract with a corporation called Aramark to handle prison food service across the State. Aramark, we were assured, had demonstrated that they could do more will less.

    It would also mean, of course, that 373 union workers represented by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), would lose their jobs, helping to further the conservative agenda… But that, we were told, wasn’t what this was about.

    “We went through an extensive process to look at doing it in-house versus looking to the outside,” Snyder told a WJR reporter. “I believe in competitive bidding — versus privatization — but we went through a competitive bidding process and we found a good answer. It will save us money and hopefully provide better service.”

    Of course, there were claims at the time that the administration had put forward false information in order to justify privatization. Nick Ciaramitaro, an AFSCME lobbyist, told the Detroit News that Snyder and company had “cooked the books” in order to sell privatization. Ciaramitaro questioned the estimated savings that Aramark could achieve, as the State had already gotten the prison food service system to a point where Michigan prisoners were being fed for $2 a day. He also pointed out the fact that the food service workers his union represented actually did more than just prepare food, as they were also trained as corrections officers, who knew how to handle Michigan’s inmates.

    There was also ample evidence that Aramark was failing elsewhere. As the Detroit Free Press pointed out in May, 2013, the company’s practices were being called into question in both Florid and Kentucky, where violations were mounting… Here’s a clip.

    …Florida and Aramark parted ways in 2008 after the state repeatedly fined the company for contract violations and an audit accused Aramark of cutting costs and boosting profits by skimping on meals.

    In Kentucky, corrections officers and others said a 2009 prison riot was provoked by poor food service by Aramark, state Rep. Brent Yonts, a Democrat from Greenville, said Monday.

    A 2010 report by Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Crit Luallen identified food skimping, food safety issues and excessive billings and said Aramark refused to provide requested records related to its food costs, personnel costs and bonuses paid to managers…

    But we went ahead with the deal, knowing full well what Aramark would likely do. They’d achieve financial gains by paying their employees considerably less, and cutting back on things like food quality and employee training. They’d cut costs to the bone, with no thought as to the consequences… The worse the food, the less prisoners would eat, and the more corporate profits would grow.

    And, guess what? Once Aramark took over the contract in Michigan, that’s exactly what they did.

    Here’s a clip from the Detroit Free Press.

    Gov. Rick Snyder and his officials are now considering scrapping the $145-million, three-year contract before the summer heat intensifies unhappiness over prison food and possibly threatens security and safety….

    Maggots in the kitchen and on the chow line. Workers caught smuggling contraband or engaging in sex acts with inmates. Food shortages and angry prisoners.

    Those are among the problems that have plagued Michigan prisons since December when the state — in a move aimed at saving more than $12 million a year — switched from using state workers to feed prisoners to a private contractor, Aramark Correctional Services of Philadelphia.

    Ongoing turmoil with the 7-month-old contract — including many instances never previously disclosed — is detailed in more than 3,000 pages of state records obtained by the Free Press under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act: One Aramark food service director showed up drunk and failed a Breathalyzer. Another worker was caught trying to smuggle marijuana. Others have failed drug tests, kissed prisoners, threatened to assault inmates, or announced intentions to “go postal” inside a facility, records show.

    “I’m at my wit’s end,” Kevin Weissenborn, the Michigan Department of Corrections manager in charge of policing the Aramark contract, e-mailed one Michigan warden in March, records show.

    …But the prison food contract isn’t the first state of Michigan privatization effort to run into major problems. The privately run Youth Correctional Facility in Baldwin, known as the “punk prison,” which opened in 1998 under former Gov. John Engler, closed in 2005 amid reports it was too costly to run and neglected the health and educational needs of its young inmates…

    As you may recall, the same thing happened not too long ago in Muskegon Heights, where the Governor-appointed Emergency Manager determined that, in an effort to save money, they’d eliminate public education altogether, replacing it with an an all-charter system, run by a for-profit corporation. As Democratic candidate for Governor Mark Schauer told us on this site a few weeks ago, that failed too.

    “They see kids with dollar signs on their foreheads,” Schauer said. “I’ll give you an interesting case in point. Muskegon Heights schools were in financial distress. So Governor Snyder sent in an emergency manager. And the emergency manager chose a for-profit charter school company to run the entire district. It was a company called Mosaic. Well, recently, Mosaic ended their contract. Three years early. And the emergency manager said, Mosaic was doing a good job academically… I can’t really speak to that part… but, he said, this did not fit their financial model. They could not make a profit, he said. So they quit. The public shool district did not have an option of quitting. Elected school boards don’t have that option.”

    How many of these examples do we need to see before we stop voting these people into office? How much evidence do we need before we see privatization for what it is? This pro-privatization jihad isn’t about making life in our state better for Michiganders. It’s about destroying public unions, slashing taxes and siphoning public money into the bank accounts of corporations and their shareholders. It’s about allowing our most wealthy citizens to contribute less, and, at the same time, cutting the union funding for those progressive candidates who would demand that these entities do things like pay their employees a living wage, provide safe workplaces, and contribute taxes toward things like public education and infrastructure.

    I don’t know that it would change anything, but I’d love to go to Lansing with a truck of Aramark meals and hand-deliver them to the offices of Rick Snyder and those legislators who voted for privatization, asking that they eat them. I think the looks on their faces would speak volumes on the subject of privatization.

    [note: The meal featured above is an Aramark breakfast. You can read about the contents here.]

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Corporate Crime, Food, Michigan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

    Are iPhones, social media, selfies and other societal trends fucking up the restaurant business?


    My friend Rhonda Crosson, who left a career as a biochemist in Michigan to become a baker in the big apple, recently shared the following from Craigslist NYC. Personally, I suspect it’s fiction, but, as it raises a number of interesting issues concerning how personal technology is impacting the restaurant business, I thought that I’d share it here, in hopes that it might lead to an interesting conversation. [note: I've edited a bit for grammar.]

    Busy NYC Restaurant Solves Major Mystery by Reviewing Old Surveillance:

    We are a popular restaurant for both locals and tourists alike. Having been in business for many years we noticed that, although the number of customers we serve on a daily basis is almost the same today as it was 10 years ago, the service just seems super slow, even though we added a lot more staff and cut back on the menu items.

    On review sites, one of the most common complaints against us, and many restaurants in the area, is that the service is slow, or that the wait for a table is a bit long.

    We decided to hire a firm to help us solve this mystery, and, naturally, the first thing they blamed it on was our employees. We were told they needed more training, and that maybe the kitchen staff just wasn’t up to the task of serving that many customers.

    Like most restaurants in NYC, we have a surveillance system. Unlike today, where it’s a digital system, 10 years ago we used special high-capacity tapes to record all the activity. At any given time we had 4 special Sony systems recording multiple cameras. And we would store the footage for 90 days just in case we needed it for something.

    The firm we hired suggested that we locate some of the older tapes and analyze how the staff behaved 10 years ago versus how they behave now. We went down to our storage room, but we couldn’t find any tapes at all.

    We did find the recording devices, though, and, luckily for us, each device had 1 tape in it that we simply never removed when we upgraded to the digital system.

    The date stamp on the old footage was Thursday, July 1, 2004. The restaurant was real busy that day. We loaded up the footage on a large monitor, and, next to it, on a separate monitor, we loaded up the footage of Thursday, July 3, 2014. The number of customers we served that day was only a bit more than 10 years prior.

    I will quickly outline the findings. We carefully looked at over 45 transactions in order to determine the data below:


    Customers walk in.

    They get seated and are given menus. Out of 45 customers, 3 request to be seated elsewhere.

    Customers on average spend 8 minutes before closing the menu to show they are ready to order.

    Waiters show up almost instantly to take the order.

    Food starts getting delivered within 6 minutes… Obviously the more complex items take way longer.

    Out of 45 customers, 2 sent items back that, we assume, where too cold. (Given they were not steaks, we assume the customer just wanted the items heated up more.)

    Waiters keep an eye out for their tables so they can respond quickly if their customers need anything.

    When customers are done, checks are delivered, and, within 5 minutes, they leave.

    Average time from start to finish: 1:05.


    Customers walk in.

    Customers get seated and are given menus. Out of 45 customers, 18 requested to be seated elsewhere.

    Before even opening the menu they take their phones out. Some are taking photos, while others are simply doing something else on their phone. (We have no clue what they’re doing, as we don’t monitor customer WIFI activity.)

    7 out of the 45 customers had waiters come over right away, showing them something on their phones. On average, these exchanges took 5 minutes of the waiter’s time. Given this is recent footage, we asked the waiters about this and they explained those customers had a problem connecting to the WIFI and demanded help.

    Finally the waiters are walking over to the table to see what the customers would like to order. The majority have not even opened the menu and ask the waiter to wait a bit.

    Customer opens the menu, places their hands holding their phones on top of it and continue doing whatever on their phone.

    Waiter returns to see if they are ready to order or have any questions. The customer asks for more time.

    Finally they are ready to order.

    Total average time from when the customer was seated until they placed their order 21 minutes.

    Food starts getting delivered within 6 minutes, obviously the more complex items take way longer.

    26 out of 45 customers spend an average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food.

    14 out of 45 customers take pictures of each other with the food in front of them or as they are eating the food. This takes on average another 4 minutes as they must review and sometimes retake the photo.

    9 out of 45 customers sent their food back to reheat. Obviously if they didn’t pause to do whatever on their phone the food wouldn’t have gotten cold.

    27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo. 14 of those requested the waiter retake the photo as they were not pleased with the first photo. On average this entire process between the chit chatting and reviewing the photo taken added another 5 minutes and obviously caused the waiter not to be able to take care of other tables he/she was serving.

    Given in most cases the customers are constantly busy on their phones it took an average of 20 minutes more from when they were done eating until they requested a check. Furthermore once the check was delivered it took 15 minutes longer than 10 years ago for them to pay and leave.

    8 out of 45 customers bumped into other customers or in one case a waiter (texting while walking) as they were either walking in or out of the restaurant.

    Average time from start to finish: 1:55.

    We are grateful for everyone who comes into our restaurant, after all there are so many choices out there. But can you please be a bit more considerate?

    Like I said, I find the whole thing a bit suspect. Not only do the numbers sound inflated, even by NYC standards, but the whole thing just seems a little too perfect. More importantly, though, I don’t know that I trust the science. How, for instance, did they choose these 45 individuals in each cohort that they focused on? And how many of these 45 were in groups with others being studied? For instance, if there was a group of 10, and all of them were among the 45 observed in 2014, then it would be relatively easy to see how they could have gotten to the “27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo” number. If, however, these 45 people were all in different groups, that would indicate something completely different.

    For the purposes of our discussion, I don’t think it really matters, though. Whether or not the person who posted this really has data indicating that evolving consumer behavior is what’s driving wait times, etc, I think we can probably assume that personal technologies, the advent of the selfie, and the rapid proliferation of food review sites, are changing the restaurant landscape. And it’s probably fair to assume that these trends would probably be felt more at a New York restaurant that’s popular with tourists, than, say, in Ypsilanti.

    I mean, I know that this kind of thing is increasingly an issue in more prosperous areas, where there’s more of a developed “foodie” scene. I have a friend in Austin, for instance, who travels with a portable lighting setup that she uses to photograph the meals she writes about on Yelp. While I’ve yet to see anything that intense happen here in Ypsi-Arbor, I suspect it’s on the horizon.

    So, while the narrative above reads as somewhat extreme, I suspect it hints at trends that restauranteurs need to be aware of.

    For what it’s worth, I suspect there’s also an up-side, in that people who own restaurants now have more of an insight as to how their customers are thinking. Also, I wouldn’t imagine that it hurts to have people sharing images of your food, etc. The question is, does the good outweigh the bad?

    As someone who has thought for years of opening a restaurant of his own, I find all of this incredibly interesting… Can you still make money in an environment, I wonder, where tables are harder to flip, and people are spending more time on their phones than they are eating and drinking?

    Posted in entrepreneurism, Food, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

      The Ramones are dead. Long live the Ramones.

      It’s being reported this morning that Tommy Ramone, co-founder of the seminal New York punk band The Ramones, and last surviving member of the original group, died yesterday at the age of 65.

      If I had to credit one band with setting me on the path that led me to where I am today, it would probably be the Ramones, and it makes me incredibly sad to know that they’re all now gone. Some of the best nights in my young life were spent at Ramones’ shows, and I will be forever grateful for the work they did to drag rock ‘n roll from the high-end studios of corporate America and into the garages of gutters of the not-terribly-proficient, the angry, and the previously voiceless.


      Now go fire up the turntable, put on a copy of The Ramones, and show your kids what real music is supposed to fucking sound like.

      Here’s what they looked and sounded like in 1974.

      update: Someone in the comments section asked what I meant when I said that I credited the Ramones with “setting me on the path that led me to where I am today.” Here, in case you’re interested, is my response: “Maybe it was a bit of an overstatement, but there’s likely a hint of truth in it. It never crossed my mind to pick up an instrument and make noise until I heard the Ramones. And, had I not started making noise, it’s doubtful that I would have found myself on the tiny, filthy stage of Ypsilanti’s since-condemned Cross Street Station that night in 1992, where I met Linette. So, yeah, had I not heard that first Ramones song as a kid in New Jersey, it’s likely that my life might have gone in a different direction, and my daughter, who just turned 10 yesterday, may never have existed. So, thank you Tommy.”

      update: I just happened across this 1975 bio for The Ramones, written by Tommy, who also managed the band at the beginning.


      [Tommy Ramone, born Thomas Erdelyi in Budapest, Hungary, had been suffering from cancer of the bile duct, and was in hospice care.]

      Posted in Art and Culture, Mark's Life | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

      Immigration crisis on the Mexican border brings out the worst in Michiganders

      Since October, more than 57,000 children have crossed over our border with Mexico, requesting asylum. These children, it would seem, are being sent north by their families not only to escape poverty, but the gangs and organized crime syndicates that are increasingly a part of life in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. And, now, thanks to a contract recently awarded to Grosse Pointe Park-based Wolverine Human Services, it looks as though some 120 of these children between the ages of 12 to 17 may be temporarily headed to the small town of Vassar, Michigan… And, judging from the response of Michiganders, you’d think we were being overtaken by an invading army.

      Actually, that’s not an exaggeration… “We are under military attack. You can’t tell me to be quiet,” a man yelled during a public meeting in Vassar last night. And he wasn’t alone. Based on video shot at the meeting, which drew over 200 people, a number of folks shared the opinion that what we’re seeing unfold is a coordinated attack meant to undermine our sovereignty as a nation. “The children that are involved here are only pawns,” said Tamyra Murray, a self-described anti-immigrant activist who took the podium last night in Vassar. “They’re a game to control our nation. It’s an invasion, nothing less than an invasion.”

      Not only is it a coordinated attack against our nation, in the eyes of some, but our President could very well be behind it. At least that seems to be the opinion of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who yesterday reiterated his opinion that Obama is actively encouraging Latin American countries to send their children to the United States in hopes of overwhelming our immigration system and forcing open our borders.

      Here, if you’d like to see what Michiganders look like when they get scared and freak the fuck out, is video shot yesterday in Vassar, where the 145-bed Wolverine Human Services-operated juvenile facility, called the Pioneer Work and Learn Center, is located.

      And, now, the national press is all over the story.

      “Protesters carrying Gadsden ‘Don’t tread on me’ flags and placards promoting conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ InfoWars website gathered outside the event,” reports RawStory, “and some of them took the microphone to share claims circulating on right-wing websites and social media.”

      Pure Michigan, indeed.

      Nothing makes me prouder than to hear people of my own state screaming about these children will be infecting the good people of Vassar with everything from lice to tuberculosis while recruiting for South American drug cartels.

      I’ll grant you that we need to have a serious conversation about immigration, which is likely only to get worse in the coming years, as people around the world begin to suffer the results of global warming more acutely, but it certainly doesn’t help when you suggest that this is all part of Obama’s grand plan to bring America to its knees… The truth is, we desperately need immigration reform, and, if we’e going to do it right, it’s going to take compromise. We can neither afford to build an incredibly tall wall along the entire 1,989-foot border we share with Mexico, or let in every young person with a heart-breakingly sad story. The answer is somewhere in between, and, sadly, I don’t have much faith that we’ll ever get to it, given the level of polarity that’s been fostered over the past several decades.

      In conclusion, here’s one of my favorite Facebook comments from a thread started today by Michigan Congressman Kerry Bentivolio. It’s not one of the most extreme. I just like it because it’s from a man whose Facebook page features a header of Jesus on the cross. I found the irony delicious.


      Another mandate of the government, if I’m not mistaken, is to given asylum seekers an opportunity to plead their case… Apparently, though, we can pick and choose what laws we follow, and the fear of dark-skinned, lice-covered foreigners trumps everything else.

      Posted in Civil Liberties, Michigan, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

      Checking in with Ypsi’s least favorite son, Tom Monaghan

      avemariamonaghanThe new issue of Businessweek has an interesting piece comparing and contrasting Michigan’s aging pizza barons, Tom Monaghan and Mike Ilitch. And, as it’s been a while since we’ve discussed Monaghan, who started Domino’s here in Ypsilanti in 1960, I thought that I’d share a bit.

      Tom Monaghan was once a billionaire. He owned 244 classic automobiles, including a rare Bugatti Royale. He built a $30 million resort on a Lake Huron island. He hopped helicopters from the headquarters of the company he founded, Domino’s Pizza, to watch the Major League Baseball team he owned, the Detroit Tigers…

      The Tigers, the resort, and the cars are gone. The man who invented 30-minute pizza delivery sold Domino’s and eats less pizza these days because he’s gluten-free. He spent most of his fortune creating a foundation, a university, a law school, a mutual fund, and a radio station that embrace his Roman Catholic beliefs. At 77 years old, he rises each day at 1:50 a.m. After prayer, reading, exercise, and Mass, he goes to work in his cubbyhole of an office in the building that houses his old company, surrounded by milky glass statuettes of the Virgin Mary. Monaghan says his ultimate goal is “to get into Heaven and take as many people as I can with me.”

      …In 1998 he sold his company to Bain Capital for more than $1 billion. His legal pads were crammed with ideas for building a conservative Catholic university that would churn out theologians, priests, nuns, and school principals. “There’s so much you can do at a university that can change the whole world,” he says. “I didn’t want a diploma factory, I wanted a saint factory.”

      He put $300 million into the construction of Ave Maria University and a new town, also to be called Ave Maria, on a stretch of tomato fields inland from Florida’s Gulf Coast. The media lit up when Monaghan suggested condom sales would be prohibited in the town. Construction costs soared. Accreditation took longer than expected. Monaghan tangled with professors and others he’d hired at Ave Maria. He twice fired Catholic priest Joseph Fessio. “Tom is intelligent, very energetic, but nobody will contradict him,” says Fessio, who was fired the second time when he told a board member that the school’s finances were in disarray. “Just because you can afford a 747 doesn’t mean you should try to fly it.”

      Enrollment at Ave Maria today is 900, with an expected incoming class of 400. The budget, once $10 million in the red, is balanced, says university President Jim Towey, formerly President George W. Bush’s head of faith-based matters. Monaghan loves pointing out that 20 percent of Ave Maria’s graduates are married to each other and that the most popular campus organization is a pro-life club.

      Monaghan’s investment in the town, however, “has been a bloodbath,” he says. The town has grown slowly, partly because of the recession, forcing Monaghan to pay $5 million a year for roads and other upkeep. Although he’s far from broke, he’d like a steadier source of revenue to plow into his philanthropy. Monaghan’s trying to build a chain of hamburger delivery joints modeled on early Domino’s. So far he has one, called Gyrene Burger, in the college town of Knoxville, Tenn. “If it gets to 100 units, that could make me $3 million to $4 million a year,” he says.

      Domino’s went public in 2004. Monaghan says he admires how the company has evolved, but he doesn’t own any shares. With a wife of 51 years (whom he met while delivering a pizza), four daughters, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, he says he has everything he needs. He drives a two-year-old Ford Taurus. “I’ve got better things to spend my money on,” he says…

      OK… Upon further reflection, I think I may have overstated things a bit when I called Monaghan Ypsi’s least favorite son. While it’s true that he’s roundly disliked for his attempts to criminalize homosexuality, and his views on birth control, among other things, there are likely worse people who have lived in Ypsilanti since its founding, like the serial killer John Norman Collins and Henry Ford’s right hand man Harry Bennett, who almost assuredly is responsible for having killed people on behalf of the company. Monaghan, sadly, is just the most recent in a long line of mother fuckers to call Ypsi home.

      Posted in History, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments


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