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Serving time: At the Allegheny County Jail, inmates bemoan the healthful, Spartan meals - and want seconds

Thursday, December 16, 1999

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

The setting is spectacular, a pricey piece of land overlooking the Monongahela River. What the 16-level high-rise lacks in shiny new exercise machines, it makes up for in three well-balanced meals a day, cooked to be low-fat, low-sodium and high-fiber, with all the essential nutrients. And these eats are cheap.

  Are jail inmates eating better than we are?


So if the holiday regimen of fine food in excess is puffing your body up and getting you down, think about this. Do not pass Go, do not pay $200 for a trendy diet program, go directly to Jail. Warden Calvin A. Lightfoot has praise, not apologies, for the three squares served each day to about 2,000 inmates who are in and out of the Allegheny County Jail. "They come here to get healthy," he says of the prisoners, the majority with drug and alcohol problems.

Easily, 90 percent of the people in jail have a drug or alcohol addiciton, says assistant deputy warden Eugene Garcia. "If they come here underweight, they average an increase of 20 to 25 pounds over a six-month period," he says. "If they come in grossly overweight, they average a 20-pound decrease -- because they're eating more nutritious meals."

For them, eating three meals a day can be a dramatic change of lifestyle.

"If someone asked, 'What did you have to eat today?' you would know," says Garcia. "Most of them wouldn't. They're thinking, where can I get my next fix, my next drink? A lot don't eat but once a day."

For their next meal -- in jail -- the county pays 85 cents.

When the jail opened in May 1995, food was cooked in the central kitchen and taken to the pantries in the 35 self-contained, two-story housing units, called "pods." The 75 or so inmates went through a line where the food was ladled out, explains deputy warden Greg Grogan.

Two years ago, the jail changed from bulk feeding to individual trays -- with no seconds. The warden says the switch to tray service by a private contractor, Aramark, has saved the taxpayers more than $1.4 million a year. Today, most inmates -- man or woman, large or small, active or lethargic -- receive an identical tan tray that's dished up in the kitchen. There's much less waste, says the warden, though the prisoners complain of being hungry.

"I've lost six pounds in one month," says Jennifer Wagner, claiming she had better meals in the military.

"The food gives you a lot of gas," says Sharon Jackson of the high-starch diet, which also includes beans.

"It's not all you can eat," says the chaplain, the Rev. Ulli Klemm. In the old system, "if you knew the person behind the counter serving the mashed potatoes, you might get two scoops."

Says Lightfoot: "It's less food but more appropriate food. What medical [staff] has found is that people who need to gain weight do gain, and people who need to lose weight lose."

Restricted diets

Despite its picturesque location, the county jail will never be mistaken for a spa, though it has the same sort of restrictive regimen. While fat farm patrons choose their exercise and the degree of dietary deprivation in a toney atmosphere of massages, aerobics classes and hot tubs, the inmate's choice is limited to what's on the insulated trays that arrive in the pod at 7 a.m., 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The food will not send them into spice overload. It is unsalted, baked, not fried, and by most accounts bland -- something we confirmed at two jail meals. The prisoners "invent" their exercise -- push-ups, sit-ups, walks around the periphery of the pod -- or play basketball.

The cliché of the girlfriend's cake with the saw inside isn't much of a possibility. Everything that prisoners might ingest -- and that includes cigarettes -- is considered contraband. The rules go for the staff, too, who can't carry in a sandwich or a soda. Their meals are also provided by Aramark, though employees have more choices, including a salad bar and the occasional fried food. Contract workers, including the medical staff and the chaplain, pay $1.50 for their meals.

The heart patient complains about tasteless hospital food, college kids gripe unmercifully about the "caf," and Navy yeomen trade tawdry tales of rot-gut meals at sea with Marine grunts who eat Meals Ready To Eat in the trenches.

"It's institutional food," says Theresa Ceoffe, a 21-year Aramark veteran who is the jail's food service director.

That doesn't mean she doesn't want to do the best she can with what she has. Except for beans, she eats what the inmates eat. "I'm always tasting the food." Describing herself as a "hands-on manager," she is out in the kitchen talking with the 24 Aramark supervisors and the 80 inmates who prepare and plate the meals. On our visits to the pods, she listens intently to each complaint. Maybe it stings a little when the inmates call the ham salad "cat food," the entrée "Gravy Train" and the turkey meatloaf "murder burgers."

But she asks as if she means it: "Did you write it down and put it in the complaint box?" When everybody gave thumbs down to pimento loaf, she switched to bologna, but reviews are often mixed. One loves spaghetti, another spurns it. "The murder burgers yesterday were good," says Miriam Colon, who misses corn on the cob, steak and baked potatoes the most.

Later, Ceoffe admits, "When I first came here I didn't know you couldn't believe what the inmates tell you." She smiles, saying her job isn't all that different from managing food services at Chatham College. "The rich girls there were paying a lot of money, and they thought they were entitled to any kind of food thay wanted."

In any institution, customers want their preferences, the others be damned. In jail, vegetarians are advised to simply skip the meat dishes. "We had a lot of vegetarian dishes at Chatham, and the meat eaters thought we were catering to the vegetarians," says Ceoffe, who says even her two sons, 15 and 10, can't agree on entrées.

Spare fare

The inmates are not just Ceoffe's customers, but her cooks as well. Some of her workers -- "they are respectful," she says -- are in a vocational training program, but none is paid. Here the irony comes in. In one breath, a big, burly guy will complain about the food, then say he works in the kitchen so he can get double portions, sharing the philosophy of the apocryphal grandmother who complained about a restaurant meal: "It was awful, and the portions were small, too."

Aramark doesn't require double servings for kitchen staff, but "we strongly recommend it -- it's a good work incentive," says Dorothy Zimmer, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based Aramark dietitian who plans the jail menus on a monthly basis. Average stay at the jail, which in 1998 received an average of 63 prisoners each day, was 28.5 days, although inmates sentenced to jail time typically serve about 90 days. (Nearly all the inmates we talked with on our four visits since June have been released.)

Ceoffe says she feels funny saying it, but she hates to see the good workers leave. "But pretty soon, many of them are back," she says with a shrug.

It's not easy to provide low-cost meals that are "acceptable to inmates," Zimmer says. "Generally, they are street food eaters. Instead of eating at home at a scheduled breakfast, lunch and dinner, they roam the streets and pick up hamburgers or beer or pizza, whatever they can find."

She says corrections has "helped" eating patterns throughout the United States. "When corrections started using turkey products, we didn't see them in grocery stores. We helped manufacturers formulate a lot of the products. We had two reasons: the health benefits, as well as the cost benefit."

The jail menus include fresh fruits, frozen vegetables (except for the potatoes, which are dehydrated), salads and milk, but "they're just used to pizza and hamburgers, or hot dogs," Zimmer says. "We work in those popular items, but there's not enough food that they're used to eating."

In jail, a "ham" is not made from pork and a burger is always turkey rather than beef. Although there is baked chicken once a month, pork is not used at all. "The first time I made something with ground turkey instead of beef, it tasted different," Ceoffe says.

Inmates often complain first, look later. Today, the object of their derision is the two turkey hot dogs. "Look at this! Would you eat a dry hot dog with nothing on it?" A second woman lifts the wieners to find a packet of mustard. "Well, there's no ketchup or relish."

Another sore spot is cabbage. "I'm tired of cole slaw every day," says Rose Freeman.

Says Ceoffe: "I do listen to their complaints. But someone will complain about the hot dogs and beans, and someone else tells me it's his favorite meal."

As for the "cole slaw every day" complaint, she says they did have cabbage several times, but it's prepared in different ways: slaw one day, a slice of cooked cabbage another. Cabbage is a healthful cruciferous vegetable loaded with nutrients and fiber.

Like gourmets on tour, inmates will tell you the food is much better over at Western Pen or Westmoreland County or the Jubilee Kitchen.

The inmates do have one choice: Eat it or not.

At lunch, Stacy Harris is going from table to table complaining about the crumbly spice cake. She has traded her wieners for five pieces of the cake. "It's a new recipe," Ceoffe says. "They probably cut it when it was too warm. If I had been in the kitchen, I would have exchanged the dinner dessert for this one so it could cool."

Medical adjustments

Exceptions are made to the one-size-fits-all diet. Pregnant women get more milk and an evening snack, usually juice or crackers. Teens get an evening snack. There are also medical "soft diets," for example, for gunshot victims.

On one day we visited, 50 special diet trays, as specified by medical staff, were prepared.

One prisoner on the pod points out an inmate with a diabetic meal. On her tray are two hot dogs. She has traded her fish to a tablemate. She doesn't like baked fish.

The prisoner with heart problems on a low-sodium diet may be advised not to use the salt packets that come with his meals, but nobody slaps his hand if he uses his, then reaches for his neighbor's, too.

The approach at the jail often differs from state or federal prisons, says Jenny Roper, co-chair for the American Dietetic Association's corrections subunit of Consultant Dietitians in Health Care Facilities. The Denver-based dietitian says on the outside, people eat snacks or fast food on the run, but "in prison food is No. 1. Meals are one thing the inmates look forward to. You don't mess with their foods, their visits, their commissary.

"A warden's worst nightmare is having a disturbance over the food."

With time on their hands, some prisoners become intensely interested in what goes into their bodies. This presents a challenge to the nutritionist.

"Those inmates are reading the paper and reading the textbooks," says Roper. "They question sports nutrition, know fad diets. If I'm not educated, I'm sunk. The name of the game in prison is to get something somebody else doesn't have."

She has a "concern" about the feeding of inmates by for-profit companies. "They have a different goal -- theirs is to make a profit. They will probably save the county some money. They do have to feed the minimum amount of food. But a hungry inmate is an angry inmate."

One way nutritionists try to stretch the budgets is to keep track of "group buys" in which a commodity becomes available at a low cost. On the other hand, Roper says, the public probably believes the prisoners "get more than they deserve."

"Say I could get lobster for 3 cents a pound -- I still wouldn't buy it. It's the perception that why should an inmate have lobster when I can't afford it. Even if it was going to be thrown away, I wouldn't buy it."

The federal prison system spends anywhere from $2.35 to $2.90 per meal, as compared to the jail, which specifically pays 85.49 cents a meal, including labor. Calories served per day at federal facilities are 2,900 for men, 2,200 for women, more for juveniles.

At Allegheny County Jail, both male and female prisoners get 2,900 calories.

Prisoners often don't make the best choices. Roper says the prison may offer heart-healthy baked chicken, but 95 percent would choose fried chicken. "We have done our part by offering the baked, and they can't say, 'You caused my heart disease.' "

She hopes most corrections facilities have stopped using food as punishment. "In some states, if an inmate is throwing his trays, they'll take a whole day's meals, put them in a blender, mold it together into a 'nutra-loaf' and bake it in an oven. Nutritionally it's fine; aesthetically it's a nightmare."

Colorado federal prisons, she says, don't make nutra-loaves when prisoners misbehave. "In the federal system, we give them a bag lunch. I believe Pennsylvania doesn't do it either." (They don't do it at the Allegheny County Jail, either, says Ceoffe.)

The food service trainer believes in nutrition education so the inmate will choose food wisely.

It doesn't always work. "One prison had three regular lines and one diet line," Roper recalls. "Prisoners were going through that diet line, then going back for seconds through the regular line. They'd see somebody eating ribs and they wanted that, too. That was a farce."

Like the Allegheny County Jail, she says most federal prisons don't offer pork, but within a few miles two prisons may have quite different menus, depending on prisoners' ethnic food preferences.

Still, there's no way it's going to taste like home. Inmates seemed overcome with emotion when they talked of the foods they missed most: fried chicken, grandma's grits, hot pepperoni pizza, Mountain Dew.

Sure, there's "apple pie," but it's baked in a big rectangular pan and cut into squares, not the triangles of Gram's pies.

"Sweets are my weakness," says Ceoffe, handing out a taste test of bread pudding.

Nicely flavored, but not even that pleases many prisoners, who have heard stories of inmate-cooks picking up bread off the floor and dropping it into the pudding. Most are convinced that the leftover hot dogs and the turkey loaf end up in the gravy. "Not true" on either count, says Ceoffe.

Other stories circulating are gross, but endemic to the institution. Inmates like to horrify each other with stories of penises stirring the pot and urine added to the soup.

"Yes, I've heard them, too," Ceoffe says with a sigh. But the prisoners do not work in isolation and are always supervised by Aramark employees.

Added sugar

If Allegheny County Jail inmates don't like the day's menu, the ones with money turn to the commissary.

The commissary is a beehive of activity, as inmates package bags of snacks for individual prisoners. Each prisoner may spend no more than $150 a week, and some spend the limit, buying candy bars, soup mixes, shampoo, chips, even underwear. They can buy athletic shoes, too, to replace the slipper-like shoes the jail provides. It's not uncommon to go the limit, and corrections officers say sweets can be the currency of exchange and a payment for favors.

Some food service people wonder if inmates coming off alcohol or other drugs have a particularly intense taste for sugar, or perhaps they just reflect the active sweet tooth of the American society as a whole. "Candy bars are the No. 1 seller in the commissary," says Ceoffe.

"Heavy users of alcohol tend not to eat," says Denise Pyle of Nutrition Inc. The Conneaut Lake-based dietitian has worked on menus for Gateway Rehabilitaton Center, a drug and alcohol rehab center, for three years.

Scientists are "not really sure why they crave the sweets. They have suggested that it may be a substitute for the alcohol."

If this is true, it may explain why so many inmates seem desperate to get commissary money so they can buy sweets.

The inmates complain bitterly about commissary prices -- Aramark says they're comparable to prices at a convenience store -- but they buy anyway. A percentage of sales -- 21 percent -- goes to the Inmate Welfare Fund, which provides sports equipment, library books and drug and alcohol therapy.

Warden Lightfoot, who puts the recidivism rate among jail inmates at 75 percent to 80 percent, says greater emphasis on educational programs and drug rehabilitation can help the revolving-door nature of the jail. "I tell them, if you don't like the food, get your GED and don't come back."

Something different

Medical needs are one of the first issues addressed when a prisoner arrives in the intake pod, a heart-stopping spot where prisoners pace as they wait to use the phone to call their lawyers. Some lie sleeping on the floor. It's a shock to see people inside who look just like a businessman, homemaker, secretary.

The jail's 1998 annual report paints a diverse profile of 22,881 offenders who had been processed at the jail: from A for actors (86) to U for unemployed (9,733). Among them were nine doctors, 206 nurses, 198 accountants, 69 bakers, 3,879 laborers, 16 teachers and 33 mailmen. The prisoners are assigned pods according to their crime -- the higher up in the high-rise, the more serious the crime. Assault was the dominant charge at 4,638, followed by robbery, 2,024, with disorderly conduct, 1,186. Ninety-five were arrested for murder.

" 'Processed' means you're unable to raise sufficient bail as determined by the magistrate, so you get a red jumpsuit and go upstairs," says Garcia.

Why is that nice-looking, well-dressed, soccer mom type here? Others better fit the stereotypes. The emaciated, tattooed woman in the revealing short skirt appears to have come out of Central Casting for "Streetwalker." The burly man in a neck brace being whisked on a gurney to the medical department looks like a street brawler.

"These are people you know, who work with you in your office, who you see in your neighborhood," says Rose Wienhoff, the certified nurse practitioner in charge of Correctional Healthcare Solutions Inc., the medical services contractor.

She's the one who decides if a prisoner needs to be placed on a special diet.

Some prisoners want her to prescribe diets not medically indicated, just for a little variety. That doesn't wash with her. "We're most worried about diabetics getting the right diets, people with kidney failure the right diets."

She is not impressed with requests to eliminate red sauce. "They don't want to have spaghetti -- that's a food preference. There's no medical need to avoid red sauces. With 2,900 calories a day, they can just skip the dish and still have enough food."

Vegetarians don't get a special diet, either. "There's no general medical need at all to be prescribed a vegetarian diet. If their preference is for vegetarian, I tell them to trade their meat for vegetables with someone in their pod."

Alcohol and drug addicts often come in very malnourished, Wienhoff says. "If they were continuously injecting into their leg, they don't have building blocks to heal that open wound."

Still, "they gain weight and health on the basic diet. Heart-risk people trim down and have their cholesterol drop."

When inmates complain that they're losing weight, she says maybe they're closer to where they should be. She doesn't intervene if they're "not losing weight in a dangerous fashion. The food is not what they would have chosen, the way Mom would have cooked it, or the wife. They're used to snacking or raiding the refrigerator."

If a person needs a low-fat, low-sodium diet, she advises him not to use the salt or margarine on the tray. And the beans are low-fat and high in fiber. "It imposes a healthy diet on them -- it's not their own food preference. If they are a high cardiac risk, we watch what they order from the commissary."

When it comes to detox, she says alcoholics are at the most severe risk and may experience delirium tremens, including confusion, hallucinations, shaking, agitation and insomnia. "They hear and see things like bugs on the wall," she says. "In some cases, they can die."

They receive medication, but others typically do not. People coming off opiates are uncomfortable, but it's not life-threatening. "When you come off cocaine, you sleep a lot," she says. For the nicotine addict, it's cold turkey, too. No nicotine gum or patches distributed here.

The new prisoners have an eight-page health assessment. This is not a random questioning, but a pointed review of health issues. Do they always tell the truth? "Right!" She laughs. "They're angry, they don't want to be here, they think they're going to get out right away. They don't do a lot of things in their best interest. They often have all three risk factors: drugs and alcohol, and they do not have safe sex."

Foods and faiths

The buck for special food doesn't necessarily stop in medical; it may end up with the chaplain.

As director of chaplaincy services, Klemm shares duties with an Orthodox rabbi, an Orthodox Muslim imam, and ocasionally an American Indian resource person.

"If they do not like jail food and feel they're going to get something special or extra, they might inquire about a kosher diet," says Klemm, a Mennonite pastor.

With probing questions -- Are you circumcised? Do you believe in Jesus? -- the rabbi decides whether the prisoner requires kosher food, a TV dinner-like tray that meets religious specifications.

Kosher tray quantity, Klemm says, is "probably less than what inmates are given on their regular tray -- they're not going to bulk up on kosher."

Faith groups including Jewish and Muslim are prohibited from eating pork, and the jail has eliminated it since 1994. Although pork might be cheaper, it would be logistically prohibitive to send non-pork trays to the 150 currently registered Muslims, he says.

For Catholics observing Lent, this year the jail had meatless Fridays. A Muslim inmate complained that the jail was forcing a religion on him because he was not receiving meat for six days out of the year. "I informed the Muslims that they are forcing their faith on Christians 365 days a year, out of consideration to their religious belief, and not serving pork," Klemm says. "I may love pork chops, I may love sausage, but I have to wait until I'm out of jail."

Many Muslim inmates fast during daylight hours during Ramadan, which began Dec. 9. Aramark provides them a "sahur" bag, a lunch they eat prior to sunrise. During the fast (94 inmates are participating), Klemm explains, these inmates do not come out for breakfast or lunch. Since the sun sets around 5 p.m., they are able to join in the regular dinner meal.

On the Jewish holiday of Passover, people donate matzoh, which confirmed Jewish inmates were permitted to keep in their cells. Two inmates are now on kosher meals.

"The No. 1 goal is to treat all faiths the same -- it's tricky," Klemm admits.

"We have had an inmate who has told me me, 'For religious reasons, I only eat fish.' " The chaplain laughs. "It's not going to fly."

Inmates claiming vegetarianism as their "religion" are usually out of luck. The exception is practitioners of the Hindu faith, which prohibits meat. "We've had one Hindu since I've been here," says Klemm, who worked in the old Allegheny County Jail in his seven-year tenure.

Requests can border on the bizarre. "I had a man claim he was a black Native American Jew," says the pastor. He didn't get his kosher request through.

Klemm, who typically pulls a bagel from his pocket to eat after he runs or bikes to work from Swissvale, praises the Aramark food. "They do a good job for a population that is never happy about anything. In cynical moments, we might say, 'Well, it's jail,' but that's human nature to get as much as you can, at whatever little cost to you. You find someone who's going to cut the corner for you -- that's human nature, not inmate's nature."

In the end, perhaps it's the indignity of it all that hurts most. You can eat, but the ambience of the outside is seldom found.

Nor are knives and forks.

"We have to eat with a spoon," says Melissa Shimonovich, one of the inmates who work in the staff lounge, where meals are served. "Would it hurt to give us a fork? We have razors and nail clippers. How can you eat spaghetti with a spoon?"

"Well," says tablemate Denise Hunter in a resigned voice, "it is jail."

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