TALLAHASSEE — Florida's prison system had already fined its food provider $241,000 this year over staffing and supply issues. And then 277 inmates said they became sick last month after eating chili.
The April 25 incident at a Panhandle prison has raised the latest question into the performance of Aramark Corp., which took over prison food service in 2001 as part of former Gov. Jeb Bush's privatization push.
"I think in the past we probably didn't manage the contract as closely as we should have," said Richard Prudom, chief of staff for the Florida Department of Corrections, on Monday. "I think they are just taking a little time catching up. But these fines mean we're serious."
The latest incident happened at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton. Prisoners complained of diarrhea and upset stomachs. The problems did not persist, and health officials have not determined whether the chili was the cause.
But the situation has added to ongoing trouble for Aramark, a powerful Philadelphia company that has been at the forefront of outsourcing efforts nationwide.
The corporation, which provided the food for the 2000 Republican National Convention and is a major GOP campaign contributor, has faced a wave of bad news recently, including a statewide probe in Connecticut about poor quality and service in public schools.
Already this year, Florida has fined Aramark $241,499 for slow meal delivery, insufficient staffing and other contract violations, according to records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.
The company is challenging some of the fines.
That is more fines than the state has collected from Aramark in the previous seven years combined.
Some of the heftiest fines were levied this month after quarterly audits showed Aramark was not keeping enough food on hand to serve 100 percent of the prison population.
In an environment with few luxuries or freedoms, the availability of food is a paramount concern, officials say.
"If you mess with someone's food, there's likely going to be inmate unrest," Prudom said, adding the state has increased its quality standards and is paying closer attention to the contract.
Aramark spokeswoman Sarah Jarvis said the company is cooperating with the investigation into the April 25 sickness.
"Over the course of the contract, these types of issues come up and we … immediately correct any that are found to be valid," Jarvis said.
Aramark landed the state contract in 2001 and is currently paid $2.67 per inmate for three meals a day. It serves about 60,000 inmates across Florida and contends it has saved the state $100-million in food costs.
The contract was put out to bid last year, and another company, Oldsmar's Trinity Services Group, won about a third of the state business. Under the new terms, Aramark was required to add new, costlier food items, including French toast and squash. It also had to increase its staff.