One prisoner said he eased hunger pangs by eating toothpaste. One complained he got so little food that he trembled at night in his cell. Another filed grievance after grievance, each consisting of a single word: “Hungry.”
These complaints, all from the Gordon County Jail in Calhoun, highlight a growing debate involving correctional institutions nationwide. In an era of tight government budgets and little sympathy for the incarcerated, three square meals a day in jail are giving way to aggressive cost-cutting through outsourcing of food services.
For-profit companies control expenses by carefully measuring the portions in inmates’ meals and, in some cases, serving food just twice a day. They charge jails and prisons as little as 75 cents a meal and seldom more than $2.
In Georgia, where dozens of jails have privatized their food services, even small counties save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Some have cut their costs in half.
The result, prisoners’ advocates say, may be an unconstitutional denial of basic nutrition for inmates who have no other options for sustenance.
Courts have ruled that prisoners are entitled to “substantial and wholesome” meals, the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights recently said in a letter to Gordon County officials. If the county doesn’t improve its food service, the center may file a lawsuit that might also force other jails to change how they feed prisoners.
Gordon County officials say prisoners get plenty of food. The county relies on its contractor, Florida-based Trinity Services Group, to create healthy, satisfying meals.
Trinity, one of the largest players in the correctional food industry, says criticism from inmates is inevitable.
“They don’t have a choice,” Jim O’Connell, a company spokesman, said in an interview. “We could have a bigger discussion of why they’re there to begin with. But you’re served what you’re served.”
‘I’M SO HUNGRY’
One day in October, breakfast at the Gordon County Jail consisted of one-half cup of fruit juice, one-half cup of canned fruit or a piece of fresh fruit, one cup of cold cereal, 1 ½ cups of “country gravy,” a biscuit, three servings of margarine and one cup of 2 percent milk. Coffee was optional.
The dinner menu one night that week called for 1 ¼ cups of meat-fried rice, one cup of beans, two pieces of cornbread, two servings of margarine, a slice of cake and a one-cup serving of a “vitamin beverage.”
The jail, about 70 miles north of Atlanta, serves two meals a day, the minimum required by state law. Breakfast is at 7 a.m., dinner at 5 p.m. Any other food — even snacks — comes from the jail commissary, but that’s only for prisoners who follow the rules and who have money in personal accounts managed by the jail.
The two meals are supposed to provide about 2,800 calories a day, an amount that Trinity says is “nutritionally adequate” for sedentary, incarcerated men.
Menus, created by Trinity dieticians, typically feature starchy items, such as biscuits, potatoes and macaroni. Fresh fruit and vegetables appear occasionally. Most protein comes from meat or beans.
Earlier this year, prisoners began reporting to the Southern Center for Human Rights that they weren’t receiving even the modest portions the menus describe.
“We get complaints about treatment in county jails every day of the week,” said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney at the center. But she said the volume of reports from Gordon County stuck out. So she used the state Open Records Act to obtain written grievances prisoners had filed with the jail.
“We found complaint after complaint after complaint,” Geraghty said, some from prisoners “so uncomfortably hungry that they’re eating their own toothpaste.”
The jail, which over the past year housed an average of 278 inmates, received 85 prisoner grievances about food from July to November. Jail officers closed each grievance as “unfounded.”
In late July, prisoner Tammy Walraven went to a computer terminal in a common area of the jail to report that she was “starving.”
“I thought we got three meals a day,” she wrote. “I’m so hungry.”
“No,” an officer wrote back, “two.”
A day later, prisoner Demitrich Carey wrote: “Why are we barely getting food on our trays? This is not enough. I know I’m in jail but we should be fed better than what we are. Please and thank you.”
The response: “The food portions have not changed.”
Several inmates claimed they had lost weight — 20 or more pounds in a few months — and others said they were sick from not getting enough food.
“It’s hard for me to go to sleep because my stomach hurts,” Michael Johnson Jr. wrote in August.
“You get the same as everyone else,” a jail officer responded. “It is what is required daily.”
The Southern Center, however, is investigating whether Trinity employees have quietly reduced servings to save the company money.
“It does not appear,” Geraghty said, “that the county is getting what they’re paying for.”
SAVINGS AND GRIEVANCES
Gordon County hired Trinity to run the food services in its new jail in 2009. During the fiscal year that ended June 30, records show, the county spent $402,662 on jail food. Officials budgeted $375,000 for the current year.
Trinity charges the county $1.772 for each meal, among the highest rates in Georgia. Fulton County pays its food contractor, Aramark Correctional Services, $1.042 for each of the three meals it provides daily. The Georgia Department of Corrections pays the same Pennsylvania-based company $2.973 a day for meals at two state prisons — three a day Monday through Thursday, two a day Friday through Sunday.
The savings promised by food contractors have proved irresistible to jail and prison administrators across the nation.
After the Effingham County Jail in southeast Georgia contracted with Aramark in 2012, its food costs fell in one year from slightly more than $1 million to about $400,000.
Outsourcing of correctional services — not just food, but healthcare, facility maintenance, staffing, and more — has become common over the past two decades, according to the Association of State Correctional Administrators. Trinity alone has contracts with more than 400 jails and prisons in 45 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Across the country, however, persistent complaints have accompanied the privatization movement.
Prisoners at the Colquitt County Jail in south Georgia alleged in 2009 that Trinity employees served rotten meat. The prisoners also claimed they had been served sandwiches containing just half an ounce of meat, rather than the three ounces required in Trinity’s contract with the county. Trinity promised to resolve any problems and retained its contract.
Prisoners at a Pennsylvania jail filed a federal lawsuit against Trinity in May claiming the company served unhealthy, bad-tasting food in portions that were too small. The lawsuit alleged inmates had been served as little as 10 kernels of corn.
Complaints about food in correctional institutions rarely go far. Federal court records show that judges quickly dismiss many food-related lawsuits, often on technical grounds without considering the merits of the cases. A judge is weighing a recommendation to conclude the Pennsylvania case in a similar manner.
Another common reaction came from a North Carolina sheriff after prisoners went public with criticism of the jail’s outsourced food services. “We give them more than we should,” the sheriff told a local newspaper. “If the inmates don’t like it, I don’t care.”
Gordon County has done nothing to address prisoners’ food-related grievances, the Southern Center’s Geraghty said. “It does not appear the problem has been resolved.”
The county attorney, who is handling the Southern Center’s inquiries, did not respond to a request for an interview. The county’s only public statement has come from Sheriff Mitch Ralston, who released a spirited defense of his jail’s food services.
“I categorically reject the notion that inmates are denied basic nutritional needs, or indeed any basic human right,” Ralston said. The jail’s health care contractor has treated no prisoners for malnutrition, he said, and a routine grand jury inspection recently found that “all the prisoners are appropriately maintained.”
O’Connell, the Trinity spokesman, said the company works hard to meet nutritional standards while keeping costs low. The company’s dieticians, he said, make sure prisoners get “the right product in the right amount and served correctly.”
Allegations that company employees withhold food to boost profits are “not founded,” O’Connell said.
“It’s not a sustainable business model to go beyond efficiency and be cheap,” he said. “We want efficient, we want secure, and we want people to be satisfied.”
At the Gordon County Jail, satisfaction remains elusive. Prisoner Michael Green recently filed a grievance asking for a bologna and cheese sandwich, chips and a Coca-Cola.
“Food,” Green wrote, “that’s what (we) need is food.”
Editor's note: The AJC removed the photo that appeared with this article online because it was not from a county jail food service.