Gordon County inmates underfed, human rights group alleges

A human rights organization charged Tuesday that prisoners in a north Georgia jail are being underfed to the point that some are emaciated and many aren’t receiving anything close to proper nutrition.

Some Gordon County jail prisoners say they receive so little food that they ate toothpaste and toilet paper, according to a letter emailed Tuesday by the Southern Center for Human Rights to Sheriff Mitch Ralston.

The group is asking Ralston to investigate whether the vendor supplying Gordon County jail meals is violating the food contract. A nutritionist for Trinity Services Group said each inmate received an average of 2,818 calories a day over a four-week cycle. The company provides two meals a day about 12 hours apart. Inmates can also buy food in the commissary.

“People report that they are fed twice per day in such meager portions that they experience constant hunger, weakness, and discomfort,” SCHR’s Sarah Geraghty wrote in the letter.” While our office receives many complaints about food served in prisons and jails across the South, the reports from the Gordon County Jail stand out as abnormal and worthy of prompt attention.”

Chief Deputy Robert Paris told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that jail officials were waiting on a report from meal vendor Trinity to respond to the SCHR. Paris said the portions at meal time appeared adequate to him.

“I would say on its face this report to me appears to me to be baseless,” Paris said.

Ralston released a statement Tuesday that inmates receive two substantial and wholesome meals daily and that the medical provider has not treated anyone for malnutrition. He noted a grand jury inspects the jail quarterly and in August reported “the facility to be in excellent condition, staffed and run professionally and … all the prisoners are appropriately maintained.”

“I categorically reject the notion that inmates are denied basic nutritional needs,” Ralston said.

It is not the first set of allegations against Trinity for underfeeding. In Schuylkill County Pennsylvania, jail inmates filed a million-dollar lawsuit in May making similar allegations against the company.

“Plaintiffs allege that they are not receiving proper portions, that they are not receiving proper nutrition, and that they are served spoiled food,” according to the lawsuit. “Further, plaintiffs allege that the commissary items are marked up at two to three times the price indicated on the package and that the excessive prices are unconstitutional.”

Jim O’Connell, spokesman for the Florida-based Trinity, declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit and said he would have to research the allegations at the Gordon County jail in Calhoun. Asked how many lawsuits the company faced from inmates nationally, O’Connell said “very few” but declined to elaborate.

The SCHR discovered the hunger claims last week when staffers were interviewing inmates about imprisonment of misdemeanor probation violators and child-support violators; inmates, however, kept diverting the conversation to the meager meals, Geraghty said.

The organization interviewed 25 inmates in person whose accounts appeared similar enough to warrant strong suspicion Trinity was not providing the proper calories that it claimed to in reports to the sheriff, Geraghty said.

Several inmates talked of eating toothpaste to numb hunger, she said.

“I was concerned in particular about one man who had some significant underlying health problems,” Geraghty said. “He did appear gaunt and emaciated. Not everybody appeared that way.”

She said most inmates reported losing a significant amount of weight, while others reported chronic headaches, irritability and trouble sleeping from hunger.

“Some people describe trying to combat their hunger by licking syrup packets (saved from the breakfast meal) throughout the day,” Geraghty wrote to Ralston. “Others try to combat their hunger by drinking excessive amounts of water, which they call “water sandwiches.

“Our preliminary investigation indicates that the Gordon County jail has reduced food portions so drastically that it is out of compliance with state and federal law.”

The SCHR has successfully sued jails across Georgia, including the Fulton County jail, on a variety of issues. At this juncture, the organization wants a meeting with jail officials before deciding on any legal steps, Geraghty said.

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