LANSING—The Michigan Department of Corrections, which was at the center of a recent controversy over problems with its former prison food contractor, is setting up a 30-person unit to monitor the department’s private contracts for the supply of food, medical treatment and other services.

Though privatization is on the rise in state government, officials say the corrections department is the first state department to set up such a unit.

Critics say the full cost of contract monitoring, highlighted by MDOC’s new 30-person unit, does not always get factored in when the state opts to replace state employees with private contractors in a bid to save money.

Department Director Heidi Washington told a House appropriations subcommittee on Oct. 29 that the department has contracted out a number of services in addition to the highly publicized food services contract, which was initially awarded to Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services but after much controversy switched to Trinity Services Group of Florida. Those include certain health services, mental health services and pharmaceuticals, she said.

“We need to better coordinate our monitoring efforts” across all contracts, with uniform standards and training for staff who do the monitoring, Washington said. “We have some significant relationships with vendors.”

All told, the department spent about $250 million last year on about 185 service contracts, including about 70 substance abuse contracts, more than a dozen sex offender related contracts and about a dozen prisoner re-entry contracts with community service agencies, spokesman Chris Gautz said.

In addition to monitoring the contracts, the new unit will conduct required audits under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, Gautz said.

Original article in Detroit Free Press