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The State | Statehouse Notebook

For 14 Years, Inmates Have Been Fed for $2.45 a Day

One in an occasional series.

June 17, 2002|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The problems besetting California's massive prison system are many and grave: gang violence, overcrowding and rising health-care costs, to name a few. In recent weeks, however, lawmakers have been gnawing on a somewhat lighter topic:

What inmates eat.

It all started last month at a hearing to confirm Edward S. Alameida as director of the state Department of Corrections.

State Sen. John Burton, the San Francisco Democrat in charge of the hearing, asked Alameida a series of meaty questions--about prison dental care, drug abuse counseling and programs to prepare inmates for parole.

Then came the humdinger.

How, Burton wanted to know, can California feed its convicts on $2.30 a day?

Now, Alameida is a savvy corrections veteran, and he was well prepared to hold forth on a range of subjects. But this, it's safe to say, was as startling as finding a fly in his fettuccini.

Alameida began by telling Burton that the food budget is actually a bit more generous-- $2.45 a day. The senator was unimpressed.

"What the [heck] can you get for that?" Burton barked. "You could probably do Special K and milk three meals a day .... "

As the audience stifled giggles, Alameida regrouped, noting that when he was warden at the state prison in Tracy, he ate frequently in the inmate dining hall. His duties, he explained, included ensuring that meals were edible.

"And I can say, Senator, we do quite a bit with $2.45 a day," he said.

Burton looked unconvinced, but Alameida was confirmed on a unanimous vote that afternoon. The investigation into prison chow, however, had only just begun.

Chapter Two unfolded the following week, when three wardens traveled to Sacramento for their confirmation hearings. First up was Diana Butler from Folsom State Prison, an old, granite fortress about 30 miles east of the Capitol.

This time, it was state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) on the warpath, calling previous testimony about prison food "very disturbing."

"This $2.45 a day, that bothers me," she said. "I don't know how I could eat one meal for that, unless it was real skimpy."

Butler had clearly been briefed. She launched into a lively dissertation on prison nutrition, describing the state's goal of providing inmates with 2,500 daily calories and a new "heart-healthy" diet that cuts fat.

"Every meal is balanced," she said. There is even an inmate food committee that rates the quality of the fare.

Butler also used a prop to make her case that the cons are amply nourished--sample menus she passed out to the legislators. That roused Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), heretofore silent on the matter. Spotting the Sunday night cheeseburger meal, he asked: "What's this 'secret sauce?' "

Butler had a humorous, if unenlightening, reply: "It must be an old family recipe, sir."

Burton pronounced himself impressed with the menu, although he noted that "there's a lot of turkey--sliced turkey, turkey bologna, smoked turkey, turkey pastrami, turkey ham...."

Turkey, Butler explained, is low in fat and also acceptable to inmates whose religions forbid other meats.

Another menu item--"hot cornmeal mush"--prompted Burton to take a little jog down memory lane: "My mom used to serve that to me when I was a kid," the senator mused, drawing chuckles from his colleagues.

Joking aside, feeding 158,000 felons three times a day is a big, cumbersome business. It works out to almost half a million meals a day, or 172 million meals a year. The Department of Corrections' annual food budget is $145 million.

With that kind of buying power, the state can get some pretty good deals on the food market.

Sue Summerset, who oversees food supplied to the state's 33 prisons, said there has been no increase in the $2.45 daily meal rate for 14 years.

Relatives of inmates say the state simply buys low-quality products and skimps on fresh fruit and other more costly items.

Summerset acknowledged that some fruits are banned because they can be distilled into "pruno," a crude form of alcohol. But she denied that prison officials sacrifice quality to save money.

Tom Ayers, a lieutenant at Folsom, added that today's prison vittles look positively gourmet compared to what state lock-ups used to serve.

A menu from June 1925, on display in the Folsom prison museum, features beans twice a day, five days a week-- occasionally accompanied by a hunk of brown bread.

Why the legislative preoccupation with prison rations? Perhaps it's spring fever, or frustration with the inevitable partisan squabbling over the state budget. Perhaps it's merely an extension of the Capitol's love affair with food--from fund-raising suppers to charity breakfasts to "let's do" lunches.

Or perhaps the adequacy of convict cuisine just seems like a problem that is easily digestible, unlike so many other complex, heartburn-inducing dilemmas facing California's leaders.

Burton, a Sacramento veteran, says that for him, it's a case of this "inconceivable" notion that "they can really feed these guys on $2.45 a day."

"This menu doesn't look bad--kinda like the Army," he said. "But unless the portions are minuscule, like a half a cup of cornmeal mush, I don't think they can really do it."

And so, the senator said, he may just take Warden Butler up on her invitation to visit her institution and sit down for a meal with the cons.

But if he does, Burton said, he will show up unannounced.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Gray Bar Cafe Menu

Breakfast

Fresh pear

Hot wheat cereal

Waffles (3)

Maple syrup

Peanut butter

Whipped margarine

Toast (2 pieces)

Chilled milk

Hot coffee

Sugar (2 packets)

*

Lunch

Sliced turkey

Fresh bread (4 pieces)

Mustard/mayonnaise/relish

Cookie

Fresh apple

Beverage

*

Dinner

Fresh salad/dressing

Breaded salmon

Macaroni and cheese

Seasoned carrots

Tartar sauce

Fresh bread (2 pieces)

Fruit pie

Hot tea

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