By Matthew Kovac

Just days after news broke that food vendor Aramark fed rodent-eaten cake to Michigan prisoners, newly released emails offer further proof that the company’s health and safety violations are rampant in the state prison system.

Last October, Aramark staff at Saginaw Correctional Facility threw away food before realizing there were more inmates to feed. Their solution? They removed the food from the trash and rinsed and reheated it. When the Aramark staff ordered inmates to serve the food, they refused – so the Aramark employees did it themselves.

This latest revelation is not just an indictment of Aramark’s avaricious profits-before-people ethos. It also demonstrates how these cost-cutting measures have especially dire consequences when enacted on stigmatized groups like Michigan’s prison population, which was nearly 50 percent African American at the last census.

Aramark has a poor record in schools and hospitals, but its record in U.S. prisons is particularly abhorrent. Reading the internal emails from the Michigan Department of Corrections, it’s easy to see why. For too many Aramark employees, the prisoners under their control are not people with rights to observe, but simply problems to be managed.

How else to explain the notion that “put frosting on it” was an adequate response to the rodent-eaten cake, or that rinsing and reheating dirty food made it acceptable to serve? This callous indifference to the health of Michigan’s prison inmates speaks to a larger societal failure to acknowledge the full humanity – and attendant human rights – of incarcerated people.

There is another lesson here. While inmates have been dehumanized by decades of “tough on crime” political posturing and sensational media coverage, it was inmates – not their Aramark overseers  – who did the right thing in this case. Their show of solidarity with their fellow prisoners is even more impressive given that their refusal to serve unsafe food could have triggered retaliation from their supervisors.

This inversion of popular morality may be the most damning indictment of Aramark yet. If you’re looking for moral examples in Michigan prisons, Aramark’s latest scandal suggests you are more likely to find them among the prisoners than those hired to feed them.

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