COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio is turning over the feeding of its approximately 50,000 prison inmates to a private company in an attempt to save $14 million annually in the face of looming budget deficits, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced Friday.
Philadelphia-based Aramark won the two-year contract with a bid to spend about $3.61 per day per inmate, the state said.
The announcement came almost exactly two years after Gov. John Kasich signed a bill into law meant to reduce the prison population to save millions. Instead, the state says the numbers are growing beyond its own estimates, one of several reasons it's looking for new savings.
The state could house as many as 52,100 inmates by the end of the next two year budget cycle in June 2015, JoEllen Smith, a Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman, said Friday. That's 1,200 above projections.
That's also several thousand inmates above figures estimated by the state in 2011 as the overhaul law was being debated. That estimate said Ohio would house as few as 47,000 by inmates by 2015 if the bill passed.
The prison system is trying to figure out why the population is growing in spite of the law and what can be done about it, Smith said.
The agency determined in February that the number of inmates returning to Ohio prisons upon release has hit a new low. But it also found the number of people serving time for drug and property offenses has risen despite efforts created in the 2011 sentencing law to reduce the numbers of low-level offenders behind bars.
Aramark's $110 million contract starts Sept. 8 and runs through June 30, 2015, with an option to extend that for two additional two-year budget cycles.
The savings in the contract will help the prison system deal with a $60 million shortfall, Smith said. Increases in workers comp rates, health insurance premiums, medical and drug expenses, the increase in inmate population and other issues are driving the budget gap.
More than 230 of the agency's 433 food service workers already have moved to other positions within the system, and the system is trying to find places for as many of the remaining workers as possible, Smith said.
Prisons director Gary Mohr "remains committed to meeting our budget without closing any housing units or laying off security staff," Smith said.
The union representing prison guards criticized the announcement, saying it had offered a competitive proposal to keep food service in-house while saving money.
Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky are among states that have already privatized their prison food service operations.
Messages were left with Aramark. It won the contract over Oldsmar, Fla.-based Trinity Services Group, which submitted a $3.74 per inmate per day bid.
In 2001, the state auditor determined that the prisons department paid Aramark $2.08 million more for meals served to inmates than the state's contract with the company required. The company provided meals at Belmont and Noble correctional institutions in eastern Ohio.
The state's written contract paid Aramark for the number of meals served to inmates. Under a verbal contract change agreed to in 1999, the state switched to paying the company based on the prison's average daily population, rather than the number of meals actually served.
Daily population figures generally run higher than meals served.
The state at the time defended changes it made to the contract but agreed the changes should have been put in writing.