(Pittsburgh) July 28, 2020 The growing focus on the injustices caused by mass incarceration in the United States has also shed light on the significant profits made by private corporations providing services to prisons.
In a September 2019 letter to major investors in prison service companies, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and U.S. Representatives Marc Pocan (D-Wisc.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) wrote:
“These support companies, responsible for providing support medical, food, and phone services to prisons, jails, and detention facilities housing over two million incarcerated people across the country, often deliver low-quality services to incarcerated individuals and their families at exorbitant fees, collecting over $40 billion in tax-payer funds annually.”
Allegheny County has been a case study for some of the pitfalls of relying on private companies to provide essential services in our County Jail. A 2014 audit by County Controller Chelsa Wagner cited numerous deficiencies in Jail health care provided by the national contractor Corizon. The audit, along with numerous complaints and protests from inmates, their families, and prisoner advocates resulted in the dismissal of Corizon by the County in 2015.
Now, a new audit by Wagner shows one of the nation’s largest jail food service providers failing to respond to complaints about its service while charging inmates up to $20 for specialty menu items.
The County paid contractor Trinity Services Group, Inc. about $3.5 million over a one-year period ending June 27, 2019 to provide meals in the County Jail and Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.
The letter to investors in prison services companies including Trinity from Warren, Pocan and Ocasio-Cortez raised concerns that “private prison support companies… make billions of dollars by providing
low-quality services for inflated prices to prisoners and their loved ones who have no other options.”
While the County paid a maximum of $1.10 for each standard meal served in the Jail, a “reward” program enables Jail inmates to purchase additional menu items at prices ranging from $10.99 to $18.29, plus a $1.95 processing fee. Inmates paid about $98,500 for menu items from this program in the County Jail during the one-year audit period, with the County earning a commission of about $29,500 from these sales.
“The County earning a monetary commission from this questionable practice runs counter to encouraging steps which have been taken in recent months to reduce unnecessary incarceration in light of the COVID pandemic and pursuant to its receipt of the MacArthur Safety + Justice grant. When the County appears to have an incentive to keep the prison population high and the level of services provided low, it raises questions about the level of commitment to these principles,” Wagner said.
Meanwhile, more than 300 inmate complaints about food service were filed during the audit period. While Trinity’s contract requires it to take action on all complaints within 72 hours of receipt, 18 of 25 complaints sampled by auditors were not addressed in compliance with this requirement, while the other seven lacked sufficient documentation to determine if the resolution was satisfactory or timely.
“The inescapable conclusion of these findings is that Trinity profits from inmates being dissatisfied with the meals provided and charging them in excess of market prices for something more appealing. Extracting funds from often-vulnerable inmates and their families on the back end is what enables them to charge a pittance on the front end and secure these contracts. It might be a brilliant business model, but it’s no way to treat individuals for whom the County has a duty of care,” Wagner said.
“The findings of this audit, along with the recent reports of our government taking a share of charges for video visitation and similar services being provided to inmates by national contractor Global Tel Link, shows an urgency to make our actions match our rhetoric with regard to practices in the Jail.”
Wagner said conditioning the level of services inmates are able to receive on the monetary resources available to them contributes to a ‘two-tiered’ corrections system that delivers harsher punishment to inmates of lesser means.
“On a given day, there are already dozens of individuals in the County Jail who are there only because they are awaiting trial and can’t come up with the bail money, when someone of greater means accused of the same crime is able to gain their release. Now on top of that, they can’t access the quality of food or services that an inmate of greater means—even someone who has actually been convicted—can,” Wagner said. “It’s not a system that speaks to principles of fairness or compassion.”
Trinity, based in the Tampa Bay area, is one of the largest private food and commissary service providers in the country, with contracts in 44 states and 700 facilities. Reports indicate the company brings in over $500 million in revenue annually.
In the County Jail, just eight Trinity employees supervise up to 70 inmate workers per shift. Wagner said this raises the question of what value the County is truly getting from its contract with Trinity.
“With Trinity using primarily unpaid labor, what are we truly getting that the County could not manage in-house without putting the inmates, their families and our taxpayers on the hook for Trinity’s profits?,” Wagner asked.
The audit also determined that Trinity did not have its workers submit to semi-annual health examinations at its own expense as required.
“While this finding is extremely concerning even for the pre-COVID era, certainly today health policies must be strictly followed. It goes without saying what serious consequences a lack of attention to health precautions could have in an institutional food service setting,” Wagner said.
In the Shuman Center, the County paid Trinity $2.50 per meal served for a total of $205,231 during the audit period
While Trinity benefits from contributions of food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide meals at Shuman, the contractor did not reduce its invoices by the value of this food–$6,953 during the audit period–as required.
Additionally, state regulations require residents of juvenile detention be offered additional portions, but auditors found that additional portions were generally only offered to the last group of residents to eat. While Trinity maintained this was necessary to ensure that enough food was on hand to feed all residents, the failure to meet this regulation indicates, rather, that not enough food is being prepared, the audit concludes.
“Clearly, no contractor should be charging the County for supplies it never purchased, and I am pleased that this audit will result in the repayment of these funds to the County. Neither should a company
that brings in half a billion dollars annually be nickel-and-diming children seeking to overcome behavioral and academic problems,” Wagner said. “For so many children who end up in institutional settings,
food insecurity and inadequate nutrition is their reality. Part of our obligation to these youths is to address these underlying challenges, and if it costs Trinity a little more so be it.”
MEDIA CONTACT: Lou Takacs