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New procurement rules for prison stores scrapped

Published: Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 11:36 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – A chief state procurement officer has nixed changes in how Illinois purchases snacks, toiletries and other goods sold to prison inmates – apparently heeding criticism from small businesses that they gave supply giants an unfair advantage.

Matt Brown, who oversees contracts for major state agencies, issued an order scrapping the changes earlier this month on grounds a single company looked set to land the bulk of the business, the Springfield bureau of Lee Enterprises newspapers reported on Sunday.

Under rules fashioned by the Illinois Department of Corrections, virtually all other vendors could have been disqualified from the latest round of bidding, leaving a lone company with an up to $30 million contract to stock the prison shops.

“Just accepting the last man standing really was not in the best interest of the state,” Brown told the Herald & Review Springfield Bureau.

The canteens cater to nearly 50,000 people behind bars in Illinois, so millions of dollars are at stake.

As it is, each prison has taken the lead in picking vendors, meaning local firms got a share of the business. The proposed changes would have centralized the process.

“It was going to be a bad thing if this went forward,” Randy Hellman, who works in the canteen supply department at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center. “It really would have hurt Illinois businesses.”

Currently, Keefe Coffee and Supply Co. of St. Louis accounts for around 30 percent of the inmate-sales market, with about 180, often smaller companies making up the rest, one state study of commissaries found.

The push for changes came years ago, when state auditors expressed concern that some goods weren’t going through established bidding channels.

While halting the proposed changes, Brown indicated the status quo wasn’t acceptable either.

A corrections department spokesman, Tom Shaer, said there was no timetable yet for drawing up new rules that take Brown’s reservations in account. He added, “We will take the time necessary to get this right.”

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