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Prison Food Contractor Aramark wants a raise

Aramark Correctional Services, the prison food contractor that faced a barrage of complaints in its first year on the job, is now seeking a possible increase in its $145-million state contract, an official said Thursday.

So, the state has invited a competitor, Florida-based Trinity Services Group, in as part of a "benchmarking review," to look at food service costs.

Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which oversees the Aramark contract, confirmed that Trinity representatives have been touring kitchens in Michigan prisons.

Related: Former Aramark worker charged in attempted prison hit

Asked whether Aramark is asking for more money: Buhs said: "The discussion does include contract costs."

"As part of our obligation to continually monitor contract costs, DTMB has begun a benchmarking review," he said.

Buhs would give almost no other details of what types of changes in the contract Aramark wanted to discuss.

Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler declined comment.

"We respect our clients' privacy and do not discuss business matters publicly," Cutler said.

The three-year Aramark contract has been marked by controversy since it began in December 2013, when the company replaced about 370 state kitchen workers, based on projected cost savings of more than $14 million a year.

Related: New prisons director criticized Aramark food service

The state fined Aramark $98,000 in March 2014 for food shortages, unauthorized menu substitutions and over-familiarity between kitchen workers and inmates, and another $200,000 in August 2014 after problems persisted.

The state later confirmed it quietly waived the March fine soon after it was imposed, and Aramark never paid it.

There also have been incidents of Aramark employees arrested for trying to smuggle drugs into state prisons to supply inmates and several instances in which Aramark workers and inmates have been caught engaging in sex acts. Complaints have decreased in recent months.

So far, 166 stop orders have been issued to Aramark employees fired for various infractions, barring them from all Michigan prison properties, said Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz.

On Wednesday, a former Aramark supervisor was arraigned in Sault Ste. Marie on a felony charge related to allegations he tried to recruit an inmate at Kinross Correctional Facility to arrange for an assault on another inmate held at another Michigan prison.

Nick Ciaramitaro, legislative director for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers Council 25, which represented the state kitchen workers, said he predicted when the contract was awarded that Aramark would come back asking for more money.

"That's usually what happens," Ciaramitaro said. "We may end up paying more for services that are nowhere near as good as what the state employees are providing."

Buhs said: "Aramark is opening dialogue on a few areas that they would like to discuss," based on the data they've collected during about 18 months on the job.

"It would not be prudent to get into specifics before all due diligence has been completed," he said. "If any changes are agreed to they would need to be approved at a public meeting."

He said there is no set deadline to complete the review that is under way.

A representative of Trinity, which bid against Aramark on the original contract, did not return a phone call from the Free Press.

The incoming director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington, was an outspoken critic of Aramark's performance while warden at the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center near Jackson.