Prison food monopoly? Same supplier for meals and commissary packages

Prison food monopoly? Same supplier for meals and commissary packages
Published: Mar. 22, 2022 at 11:11 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -A report provided by the US Department of Justice reveals the main causes of prison disturbances. One of the first factors includes poor food.

Many correctional officers and inmates have shared their observations of the declining quality of meals. The food vendor is also the supplier of commissary packages, leading some to ask if the food quality is creating more sales of high price optional snacks.

A correctional officer says he chooses to stay on the job despite the fact he could make more money elsewhere because of one thing. The people he works with are like family.

“For all that’s wrong with it, for all its faults, I love working there. It’s great people to work with,” he said.

This Correctional Officer for the South Dakota Department of Corrections says he’s hopeful for better days on the job, but there is a growing tension about the food.

“The kitchen supervisor said I don’t care. Send it out. That’s all we got,” he said.

Sources describe how a picture of a sample tray is taken each day and put in the freezer for testing, in case anyone gets sick.

“A dead man’s tray is what they call it,” said the anonymous Correctional Officer. “And that’s they take a random tray off the line, send it off to the wardens.”

The DOC provided the following statement:

“An independent consultant conducts an annual review of the State’s food service program, including a review of all menus. The current price per meal is $1.50 at Mike Durfee State Prison, $1.51 at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, $1.77 at the South Dakota Women’s Prison, and $2.06 at the Rapid City Community Work Center.”

Some of the complaints include the high level of carbohydrates, presumably to meet the calorie requirements. Rice, potatoes, or pasta is the main portion of the meal. There’s little protein and no fresh vegetables. Specialty menus are available for various religious beliefs and there’s a heart-healthy meal lower in sodium.

Those who are still hungry turn to commissary packages. The supplier of the packages and the meals at all but the Yankton prison are the same: Summit Food services.

“It’s essentially a monopoly. It doesn’t give them any other option,” said the anonymous Correctional Officer. “I know guys that exclusively live on their commissary because they refuse to eat the food in the dining hall.”

An inmate says he has to rely on his wife and kids to buy extra food from the commissary. Six packages of ramen noodles, two pouches of flaked tuna, and six sausage sticks cost thirty dollars.

“We have a monopoly going on,” said the inmate. “The very minimal is what they are feeding us. They turn around and have us buy their commissary which they jack their prices. It shouldn’t be that way.”

There is an awkward tension while new Summit Food workers and Correctional Officers take the same first week of training together. The food workers often make more than the officers. All of this contributes to the lower morale of those working at the DOC, possibly contributing to a staff shortage at facilities like the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

“I don’t think the DOC is going to hang on much longer,” says the anonymous Correctional Officer. “That’s going to get to a point where the National Guard is going to have to get called in to run the prison. The last I checked, we’re still triple-digits short, like 103 officers I think,” he said. He estimates a full staff is approximately 250 people.

The US Department of Justice report also lists other factors fueling prison disturbances, including Political appointments of staff and a high turn-over rate in administrative officials.

We contacted a Representative of Summit Food Service, who asked us to send a list of questions. Here is what we asked.

  • We recognize there are many different types of meals provided, such as heart-healthy, and a variety of menus for religious reasons. Aside from the specialty menus, Inmates and Correctional Officers are telling us the meals are high in carbs with low protein. Is protein monitored and how is that done?
  • Can you describe the Dead man’s tray and its purpose?
  • Many sources have told us of the Summit employee who was walked off the job approximately 2 weeks ago for bringing in K2 and unauthorized cell phones. Could you describe the status of that employee and your response to the situation?
  • Are you aware that Summit employees are paid higher than starting Correctional Officers? Is this a concern for you?

This is the response we received from the Konnect Agency on behalf of Summit Food Services:

“Summit is committed to working with our clients to provide the quality of food and service that meets their facility needs. Through an agreed-upon contract, our services at Summit provide both food and commissary services, similar to most correctional food service providers. We work together with our correctional facility clients to ensure that all inmates receive three dietician-approved meals per day that align with state and national nutrition guidelines.”

Another Correctional Officer provided a statement on the food service in the South Dakota prison system:

“Summit bought out CBM a few years ago. Summit is a company that works in many states and I’ve been told operates in up to 350 facilities including hospitals prisons and jails. It is the only company that bids this contract for the state and so they pretty much set their own prices because they have no competitors in this area. I’m not personally involved very much in the food part of prison but yes I have seen that the quality of food slightly diminished after summit took over.

The new warden has taken this very seriously every meal is now documented with pictures but also a written report and he required the supervisors (sergeant lieutenants captains) actually eat the food before documenting the quality or like thereof the meal. The inmates do have the option of changing their meals to heart-healthy diets which include salad and fresh apples at lunch. But it seems most of the fruits and vegetables do come from cans I believe. With the documentation of the meals the warden said he is intended to go after Summit to at least provide the minimum nutritional standard for each meal with an emphasis on better-tasting ingredients.

My personal thoughts are the meals should be about the same quality k-12 public education system. Eating poor quality food on a day-to-day basis I suppose could feel like a punishment. The punishment of prison is being removed from society and the freedoms that go with it including the food that is served to you. There needs to be a balance of quality and price.

As a taxpayer and state employee who is already being paid what most of us feel is a low wage, I think it’s difficult for us to advocate for more spending so inmates could eat better-tasting food. At the same time, the quality of food should be not so poor inmates feel like they’re being more punished more than rehabilitated.”

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