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Mississippi prisons end contract with controversial food provider

A company accused of serving rotten and spoiled meals to inmates in Mississippi is no longer providing food in the state's correctional facilities.

The state began a new, three-year deal with the company Merchants Foodservice on March 1 to provide meals to 15 prisons, youth centers and other facilities across the state, according to an agreement signed by Burl Cain, the state's prison commissioner. The deal ends the state's five-year, multimillion-dollar relationship with the company Aramark. 

An Aramark spokesperson told CBS News the contract "was not renewed after the terms concluded and the state chose to bring food service in-house at all locations." 

Marcy Croft, an attorney with Team Roc who is representing 230 inmates, said inmates had complained the food was often "spoiled, rotten, molded or uncooked" and that portion sizes were too small. "They aren't asking for five-star meals," Croft said. "They're just asking for food that's edible and that can keep them alive — it's a very basic request."

Last year, Croft filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections claiming inmates were denied adequate health care, fed both contaminated and spoiled food and were housed in unsafe living quarters  — a legal effort bankrolled by Yo Gotti and Jay-Z's Team Roc.

In the lawsuit, Croft and her legal team said inmates complained about receiving food that was undercooked or not defrosted and contained rat, bird, or insect feces. They claimed some suffered adverse side effects, with one inmate vomiting for days from "apparent food poisoning."

"In the correctional system, timely meals are a security issue. People don't want to feel like they need to fight over resources, and that's certainly what was happening at Parchman," Croft told CBS News.

She said some of her clients skipped meals and displayed a disturbing amount of weight loss: "We had a number of clients who have lost massive amounts of weight — anywhere from 30 to 60 pounds because the food was inedible."

An inmate living at Parchman described the food to CBS News last year: "The rice and potatoes be spoiled sometimes. The bologna and lunch meat they serve — instead of a pinkish color — is a gray or dark color, that's how you know it's spoiled. They usually give hard trays that have dried up food on the side. There were some trays with roaches and water inside."

Team Roc
These undated images purportedly show food served at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Team Roc

The conditions at state-run prisons came under national scrutiny last year after a spate of inmate deaths, triggering a Department of Justice investigation and widespread calls for reform. Last year, CBS News spoke to several inmates who complained of squalid conditions inside Parchman's infamous Unit 29, which Governor Tate Reeves vowed to close by the end of 2020. 

The coronavirus pandemic upended those plans, and more than 400 inmates still remain in Unit 29, according to Croft, who recently met with clients inside Parchman. Both inmates and state health officials have documented dire conditions in Unit 29, such as molding, flooding in cells, as well as rat and cockroach infestations. The cellblock, which has undergone some renovations, is also now being used to hold inmates who display symptoms of COVID-19, Croft said.

The Department of Corrections and Reeve's office did not immediately respond to questions about Unit 29. 

Earlier this week, Reeves signed legislation that gives more inmates the possibility of parole. The law, which goes into effect on July 1, was championed by criminal justice advocates. 

Jessica Jackson, the chief advocacy officer for Reform Alliance, called the signing a "significant effort" to create a pathway for thousands of people to be released from custody. 

"This is monumental for Mississippi. It's also the first piece of criminal justice reform legislation that Tate Reeves has signed," she said. "It shows that the issue of criminal justice reform continues to be a bipartisan issue even in the reddest of states."

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