Whistleblower says Fulton County jail food vendor misusing inmates

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Fulton County’s outgoing commission chairman is calling for an investigation into a whistleblower’s claims the county jail’s food vendor is misusing inmates to prepare meals, a violation of its multi-million dollar contract.

Lt. Tracey Cunningham contacted Channel 2's Mike Petchenik after she said her complaints to the county went nowhere.

“It’s not about me. It’s about what’s right,” she said.  “When you’re about what’s right, it will stand for something.”

Cunningham, a 16-year veteran of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, was assigned to oversee the jail’s kitchen operations for more than a year.

“My job was to ensure that the inmates' safety was ensured and making sure the Aramark staff was in compliance with the contract,” she said.

Starting in December 2016, Cunningham alleges the food vendor, Aramark, began using inmates to prepare meals when they were short-staffed.

“It was Aramark’s job to fix the food, prepare the food, and get ready for our officers to take it to the floor for the inmates,” she said.

The county’s contract expressly prohibits inmates from preparing and serving food unless they are a part of a special Culinary Arts Program.

Cunningham said last winter, the jail suspended the program temporarily while its teacher was out of the country, but she said Aramark continued to use inmate labor in lieu of hiring its own staff.

“We was to make it happen even though we were breaking our own policy,” she said. “It’s four inmates per officer and we might have three officers down there and 25 inmates.”

Cunningham said that created dangerous situations for deputies.

“I mean, we are constantly moving, not only to watch the inmates, but we also have to watch Aramark staff,” she said.

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Cunningham said when she raised the issue with her superiors, they banned her from entering the kitchen, but still required her to oversee its operation. She showed Petchenik an internal document outlining an incident that occurred after she was banned in which a knife went missing from the kitchen and was believed to be taken by an inmate due to a lack of supervision.

That was "another dangerous situation,” she said.

Cunningham also claims she witnessed Jewish inmates being served spoiled and expired kosher food on one occasion.

“She goes to the freezer, pulls out all this food and it’s dated Dec. 18, 2014, mildew on it, mold, everything,” she said.

County Commission Chairman John Eaves told Petchenik the allegations are very concerning to him and he’s going to ask the county manager to launch an independent investigation.

“Inmates serving time in a pre-detention facility should not be misused,” he said. “The food provider is supposed to provide the food for the inmates while they’re in the jail, not use them as cheap or free labor.”

Fulton County’s Sheriff spokesperson, Tracy Flanagan, sent Petchenik an e-mailed statement responding to Cunningham’s allegations:

“An employee on leave filed numerous complaints that were investigated and found to be unsubstantiated. It is not true that the food vendor is supplementing its workforce improperly with inmates. The investigation continues and thus far the claims by the employee have been proven false.

"The Fulton County Jail has an approved and highly regarded culinary arts program for inmates to learn basic kitchen skills to assist them in acquiring gainful employment after incarceration. There are strict policies and procedures are followed.

"An executive chef with 30 years of experience runs the Jail Kitchen with incredible attention to detail. Meticulous protocols are utilized to accommodate special dietary needs.  The Fulton County Jail provides 7,400 to 8000 meals a day, 365 days a year.

"The Jail kitchen routinely earns perfect scores on unannounced health inspections and the dedicated staff in that unit are to be commended for their hard work.

Jail supervisors, like the person filing the complaint, would have written an incident report for it to be reviewed and investigated.”

Flanagan told Petchenik the Culinary Arts program was never suspended, even during the chef’s absence, and that someone from Aramark continued to oversee inmates working in food preparation during that timeframe.  She said, via e-mail, that Cunningham was removed from her post for being a “disruptive employee.”

Aramark’s VP of communications, Karen Cutler, sent Petchenik an e-mailed statement:

“We are not aware of any allegations of this nature. I would refer you to the Sheriff for comment.

"I can tell you that we are proud to partner with Fulton County to serve nourishing meals to offenders every day. Any offenders who work in the kitchen do so under full authority of the facility. Many of them are participating in our vocational training program so they can learn valuable skills to help them re-enter society and find employment when they get out of the facility.

"Food safety is our top priority. All meals served meet our high quality standards.

"The correctional facility determines the nutritional specifications for the menus we create (calories, portions, religious meals.) All menus are designed by Registered Dietitians to meet the nutritional requirements specified by the facility, as well as the guidelines set by the American Correctional Association (ACA). ACA guidelines are based on the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) and Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI). Typical calories range between 2,500-3,500 per day.

"Over the past 15 years, we have helped reduce recidivism and rehabilitate millions of offenders through our IN2WORK vocational training program, which earned the National Governors Award for Public Private Partnerships in 2013. In some cases, the program has helped reduce recidivism by as much as 30 percent.

"At the direction of the facility, non-violent offenders have the opportunity to work in the kitchen in exchange for a reduction in their sentence and/or as a way to earn money for their trust accounts. This labor model is specified by the facility and is another way to help rehabilitate offenders and reduce recidivism.”