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Jail Food Can Be a Hard Sell

Reforms have made prison chow tastier and more nutritious. But at mealtime, inmates' reviews often boil down to: 'It's basically slop.'

January 08, 2005|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

In the sour innards of Men's Central Jail, Alice Scott watched with pride as trays of her chicken casserole dinner were delivered like mail through slots in the cell doors. Prisoners began devouring the fare as soon as they had it in their grasp.

"The inmates like the food, and that makes me happy," said Scott, a sheriff's lieutenant who oversees meal preparations for the jail.

Then came the reviews.

"It stinks," said Bobby Love, 46, a Compton resident jailed for a probation violation. Like his five cellmates, he spooned up the casserole, carrots and green beans while standing in the elbow-bumping space between metal bunks. "The food's always cold and the milk is hot."

Similar comments sounded up and down the cell tiers, the critics shirtless and tattooed, creating a boiler-room din: "Garbage!" "Disgusting!" "Give us steak!"

Decent chow is considered as crucial as tall walls to the orderly management of jails and prisons. Churning it out is often an assembly-line, security-obsessed and penny-pinching task that depends on inmate workers who might prove better at stealing food than cooking it.

And the quality and quantity of grub can mean the difference between peace and violence in the cellblocks, where prisoners long for the sirloins and sundaes that vanished with their freedom.

But even food that isn't bad enough to trigger a revolt is routinely described as revolting.

At Men's Central, the shouted protests covered the range of the jail's cuisine, although the chicken patties got a few thumbs up.

"The burritos are pretty good too," said DeMarcus Smith, 19, of Los Angeles, another probation offender. "But I don't even know what it was, what we had yesterday."

Scott said it was a tamale casserole. She appeared only slightly annoyed by the carping from the pens, her weary expression suggesting that it came with the territory.

"Typical," she said.

It used to be worse, here and elsewhere. Over the decades, legal reforms have improved the nation's detention menus, doing away with daily rations of gruel-ish, artery-clogging concoctions. Many institutions, however, still spend less than $3 per inmate per day on meals.

Complaints about food have fueled numerous disturbances behind bars, minor and major. Spaghetti sparked a nonfatal uprising at the historic federal prison on San Francisco Bay's Alcatraz Island, which closed in 1963 and is now a National Park Service attraction.

Meals were also a factor in America's deadliest inmate riot, the 1971 rebellion that took 43 lives at New York's Attica prison.

Today, inmates are guaranteed a healthy allotment of calories and nutrients, as well as clean kitchens. Diets low in salt and fat have gained favor. More and more prisons are eliminating pork in deference to the religious tenets of Muslim prisoners.

Some cling to an old tactic of pumping up the calories -- serving 3,500 to 3,800 a day, instead of the standard 2,500 to 3,000 -- to keep inmates full-bellied and calm, said Dan Jameson, a senior vice president of Aramark Corp., a food vendor that provides meals for 425 prisons and jails.

"It's using food to manage the prison," Jameson said.

Inmate rights advocates condemn as dehumanizing what they say is the growing practice of requiring inmates to eat in their cells, a measure taken to prevent fights in dining halls.

Cost-cutting is another sore subject for the advocates, who say leaner budgets have led to fewer hot meals, smaller portions and more palate-numbing packaged food.

"Most of us would find prison meals bland, unappealing and monotonous," said Steve Fama, an attorney for the San Rafael-based Prison Law Office, which represents inmates. "Especially the bag lunch.... It has something that has similarities to what people would call lunch meat. I'm not sure it is lunch meat."

Corey Weinstein, a physician and investigator for California Prison Focus, an inmate rights group in San Francisco, said jails and prisons balk at accommodating the dietary needs of diabetic inmates or those with food allergies.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "That's why there are riots."

The nastiest of the nasty, Weinstein added, is the food in county jails. "Notoriously horrible," he said. "Lots of hot dogs and beans."

Not true, said Scott, who runs meal service for 17,500 inmates in the county's lockups, the largest single feeding ground in American corrections. She insists meal time can be the best time of doing time.

"We're using Army-Navy recipe cards," Scott said, walking through the sprawling, clanging kitchen at the Twin Towers Jail, across the street from Men's Central.

She said dietitians approve the low-fat and low-salt recipes, and the kitchen prepares 1,200 special meals on the average day for inmates with medical problems.

But it also doles out a "disciplinary loaf" to unruly prisoners: An entire meal is molded into a baked log that is nutritious but unpleasant.

"We only do about 10 a day," said Scott.

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