Thank you for writing on the topic of prison privatization. It is a topic which deserves to be repeated again and again in addition to how the state and the companies employed by the state (Michigan) fund its services beyond the taxes it collects. .
With the same carelessness which brought about the Flint crisis, Governor Snyder embarked on a crusade to privatize the prison system not only with food service; but, he has included the phone service which prisoners use to call home. The rates were outrageous in the beginning and have since relaxed only due to a lawsuit and a Federal Government intervention. Some counties still charge outrageously for phone calls home. Incorporated into privatization are fees for the funding the prisoner as well. It can only be done through a deposit using their system whereas a money order with the prisoners name and number used to suffice. And you are correct that upon release the JPay system or other system rips off the parolee with each use of its debit card. One swipe should be made to move all of the money into a standard bank account.
The vending machines within the visitation rooms are used to fund prisoner activities such as the purchase of baseballs, basketballs, etc. There are also food drives where subs or pizzas may be brought in to raise money. Of course these are not cheap and the prison gets its cut too.
What has been documented about Aramark food service, I have also heard from prisoners. I have heard about the contraband brought in by the guards (from prisoners) which they will deny vigorously. It is near impossible for visitors to bring in contraband as you pass through a metal detector, as well as pat downs, examinations of the mouth and under the tongue, and a hand going through your hair. Each time you leave the visitation room for a bathroom break, you go through the same examination. The metal detector does detect your belt's metal buckle.
It does not stop in prisoner either. The tether they supply prisoners costs $13.00 per day which the prisoner pays to a private company. As reported to me, the company makes no bones about making regular calls to the prisoners and threatens them with parole revocation eve though they do not have the power to do such. with two years of parole the cost for the tether is $9500 (if you include a leap year). This cost chews up much of the minimum wage a prisoner would receive if working. The state also employs Catholics Charities which of course is also funded by the prisoners (so much for charity) for weekly group meetings with psychologists (mostly 1-2 years) . The parole agent also has his fee. Over all the parolee is forking over ~$11,000 over two years. Recidivism can be as little as a bad write-up from the psychologists. Paying the tether back is up to the prisoner.
If you really want to change the prison system as I told Nancy over at WM, then concentrate on the front end. Right now you are looking at symptoms and not treating the cause of everything you and others have pointed out. ~85% of all criminal trials are plea-bargained because most people in court lack the monetary funding to fight back. Public defender offices are under funded, under staffed, over worked, and often times will not fight as hard for their clients by seeking a reduced sentence (one example pointed out to me by a paid criminal attorney). If you fix the court system by having access to a proper defense, the prison system is seriously impinged upon due to a lack of state provided client-customers. Then too, the prison system is a business and prisons are typically located in far away places, with few job opportunities, and high unemployment.
One last comment and then I am done. Fix the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,which Bill Clinton signed into law claiming it was progressive. A provision of it severely restricts federal court habeas corpus review of state court decisions. Just by fixing the one provision would grant an easier review by the courts for defendants with regard to unreasonable application of clearly established federal law or an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding. Basically federal courts are very limited in over ruling state courts. As we all know SCOTUS takes about 85 cases a year (down significantly over the years) and few of those cases would have a similar impact as did Gideon vs. Wainwright. It is all about money and politics at SCOTUS.