Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Prison food takes $83 million bite out of state budget

Auditors say privatizing service could save up to $38M per year.

Charlie Cain / Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Taxpayers spend $83.4 million a year feeding Michigan's 51,000 prison inmates, and could save nearly half that amount by hiring a private food service company, a critical new state audit says.

Furthermore, the State Auditor General's office says, even more money could be saved by cutting back on fresh produce and milk, trimming overall calories and preventing convicts from stealing additional meals.

"Reducing costs would assist (the Department of Corrections) in achieving its goal to provide the greatest amount of public protection while making the most efficient use of the state's resources," said the auditors, whose job is to make sure the state is getting the best bang for taxpayers' bucks.

Their review found that it costs nearly $5 per day to feed each inmate: $2.48 in food, plus $2.50 to pay the state employees who supervise food service.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard has been bugging the state for years to trim prison costs, including reductions in its food service budget.

"The state could provide the same three square meals with someone else doing the cooking," said Bouchard, whose jail food service costs dropped by half when the county hired a private company.

"If they could get the cost down to my price, it would save the state $39 million without breaking a sweat," he said.

Bouchard, a former state senator, is among those pressuring Gov. Jennifer Granholm and state lawmakers to trim prison spending so other state programs -- such as higher education and revenue sharing with local governments -- will stop being shortchanged. Prisons eat up one-fifth of the state's general fund spending: $2 billion a year.

Russ Marlan, spokesman for the state corrections department, believes $2.48 per day for inmate food is a bargain, when you consider how far that money would stretch at a fast food drive-through. The national average for food stamps is about $21 a week, per person.

"I know some people think inmates should get bread and water and live in tents with dirt floors," Marlan said. "But I know I couldn't feed myself for $2.48 a day."

Bouchard isn't convinced. His 2,000-inmate jail hired a private company for jail food service in 2000, and overnight, he said, its food budget dropped from $3.3 million to $1.6 million.

"My cost is about 88 cents per meal," Bouchard said. "With a contract as large as the state's, I would think any good negotiator could get a lower price than mine. But, even if they got only the same price as I get, the savings would be around $39 million on food alone."

State auditors, urging the state to look into privatization, said Florida privatized its prison food operation in 2001 and now pays $2.56 per prisoner, per day. Kansas, which went private a decade ago, pays $4.14 per day to feed each inmate.

Based on those costs, the auditors estimated Michigan could save $10 million to $38 million a year if it negotiated a similar deal.

The corrections department will consider privatization, but it isn't all it's cracked up to be, Marlan said.

"The auditors didn't go to Florida to look at the system but just took numbers off the Internet. Florida is having some real issues with people getting sick and other problems," he said.

Last month, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Florida prison officials fined their private food contractor $241,000 this year for violations that included insufficient staffing, insufficient food and slow delivery of meals. In April, 277 inmates at a Panhandle prison complained of getting sick after eating chili.

Marlan said the Michigan corrections department does all it can to save money. In 2005, for example, it eliminated coffee from the chow line because it has no nutritional value. That saved $500,000 a year. Inmates can still buy java from a vending machine.

Prison farms help out, he said. Last year, inmate farmers harvested more than 257,000 pounds of produce worth $276,000 -- including asparagus, green beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, tomatoes and pumpkins.

Marlan said the state buys $14.5 million in produce and other food from farmers and firms in Michigan, but there's no guarantee that a private contractor would continue to patronize Michigan farmers and suppliers.

Other audit findings:

• Auditors questioned whether Michigan should reduce the amount of milk and fresh produce inmates get, noting that Oakland County and other states have gone that route and still meet federal dietary guidelines.

"We won't do that," said Marlan. "We will continue to provide them because it helps us in the long run to reduce future health care costs. With an average minimum sentence in our prisons of over four years, and with more than 4,000 doing life terms, health care costs are a big concern."

Food, Marlan said, helps prison officials keep inmates in line.

"Inmates are not in control of the system but they significantly outnumber our prison staff member," he said. "So the best way for us to run safe and secure prisons is to understand what the inmates' desires, needs and wants are and to respect them as human beings. Food is, and always has been, a very important tool in behavior control -- just like mail and prison visits."

• The audit said the state could save money by cutting the number of calories from 2,900 to 2,500 a day for men and from 2,600 to 2,000 for women.

Marlan said the current level of caloric intake falls within the range of federal guidelines.

The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences says the number of calories needed depends on many factors including age, height, weight, body fat and physical activity.

"There is no one-size-fits-all number for caloric intake," said Christine Stencel, a spokeswoman for the academy. She said that depending on those factors, the level of calories needed by a 30-year-old man ranges from 1,848 to 3,720 a day.

• $882,000 in leftovers, which in most homes end up in a lunchbox or back on the dining room table a day or two later, were not accounted for by prison officials, auditors said.

Marlan said the leftovers were not discarded, stolen or lost. He said the prisons didn't fill out the forms to account for them, but is now.

• Auditors said inmates were apparently double-dipping in the food line and taking nearly $300,000 in extra meals.

While some inmates may occasionally grab a second meal, Marlan said that's not the reason the number of meals exceeds the prison headcount. "One of the reasons for the extra meals is that our food services directors have to predict how many of the 1,100inmates will choose between beef stew or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

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