Could Ohio's Plan to Privatize Prison Food Cause Deadly Riots to Erupt?

Governor John Kasich is planning to hire a private food vendor to feed the 50,179 inmates in the Ohio prison system in an effort to cut costs. The Kasich administration argues that outsourcing prison food will save the state as much as $16 million, but some suggest that it could come with another kind of cost and put the safety of its prison workers in jeopardy.

Switching to a private vendor to supply the state's prisons with food could make notoriously unappetizing prison food even more unappealing. Private vendors, unlike state-run cafeterias, are permitted to skip the federal nutrition guideliens for school lunches at the juvenile detention facilities that they serve. They're permitted to skimp on food quantity, quality, and staffing, all in the name of profit.

The Ohio Department of Youth Services currently has 469 youths at four detention facilities, and spends $6.18 million per year, or $27.60 per inmate per day, for food service. These costs are higher because the youth do not help with food prep or cooking, and the meals adhere to federal guidelines. Ohio also receives $5.51 per day per youth for reimbursement from the federal school lunch program. Switching to a private vendor would save the DYS $1.2 million per year.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, a union that represents some 10,000 prison workers in Ohio, has warned that a private vendor would pay lower wages, hire fewer people, and give out less food in order to make a profit. In turn, 450 state workers in both the DYS and DRC could end up losing their jobs.

Tim Shafer, the OCSEA operations director, said that complaints about prison food may come off as whining, but it contributes to the safety and security of a prison. He noted:

“As a former corrections officer, I can tell you one of the best things in the world is a full inmate. They want to sit down and chill out."

Currently, Ohio's inmates are fed a heart-healthy diet that includes a rotating menu of meals that include things like chicken and biscuits, fajitas, and sloppy joes.

Poor food quality and sanitation have been to blame for numerous deadly riots at private prisons run by the likes of CCA ad GEO Group. It's not out of the realm of possibility that if Ohio's prisons experience a significant decline in food quality through the outsourcing to private vendors that riots could erupt, endangering the safety and lives of the people who work in the prisons.