Small meals have inmates grumbling
Akron lawyers who monitor county jail conditions just gave the facility good marks.
By PATRICIA MEADE
and BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS
YOUNGSTOWN -- Grown men can eat more than two hot dogs.
Grown men in the Mahoning County jail can't have more than two hot dogs.
Therein lies the problem some inmates have with jail food -- there's not enough of it. Although they're not crazy about the variety, the idea of "no seconds" seems to top the complaint list.
"We're not trying to make trouble," said Leroy Gore Jr., 28, of Campbell. "Some of us here aren't convicted, just accused. We're still human and need to eat."
Gore has been in jail since August 1999, awaiting trial on a murder charge.
Gore wrote to The Vindicator with his food concerns and had 31 inmates housed in P-pod sign the letter. Warden Alki Santamas said the pod holds those accused of violent crimes.
Sheriff Randall A. Wellington issued an invitation when The Vindicator asked if reporters could eat with the inmates.
Early breakfast: Last Tuesday, insulated breakfast trays arrived in P-pod about 6:30 a.m. Deputy Mike Taylor, with a touch to his computer screen, unlocked the cell doors.
Inmates wandered out and lined up, gave Taylor their cell numbers and he checked them off on a clipboard. The two-floor 36-man pod is self-contained with meals eaten in a center common area that has tables and benches and a TV suspended near the second level.
Breakfast consisted of grits (1 cup, lukewarm but good); apple sauce (1/2 cup, sufficiently chilled and tasty); 2 percent milk (8 ounces); coffee (weak); cinnamon roll (tiny but delicious); two pieces of white bread (not toasted but air-dried stiff); and a pat of margarine (1/2 ounce). Wellington said he'd check into the idea of putting toasters in the pods.
"We're not asking for much," Gore said, touching his grits with a plastic fork-spoon. "We'd like bigger portions, less milk, more juice. Even ice water would be better than all this milk. Why is there so much milk? Do they have a cow here?"
For lunch, the inmates were served a 3-ounce beef patty (dry, but good flavor) on a bun (what can you do to a bun?) with one packet of ketchup; ranch beans (3/4 cup, dry and pasty); coleslaw (1/2 cup, good flavor); pineapple chunks (1/2 cup, chilled and juicy); and an 8-ounce glass of fruit juice.
Weight loss: Christopher Love, 25, of Youngstown, another of the inmates who signed the letter, said he's dropped from 285 pounds to 215 pounds during his 28-month incarceration. He is awaiting trial on a murder charge.
The county contracts with Canteen Service of Steel Valley on Market Street for jail food service. Canteen offers a better variety of meals than its predecessor, Aramark, but the portions are too small, Love said.
"We're grown men. We need more than this," he said.
Love poked at his beef patty with his fork and complained about its dry texture.
"A burger ain't supposed to be so hard," he said. "It should have some juiciness to it."
Gore and Love said the portions served to inmates Tuesday were slightly larger than normal. They chalked that up to the fact that jail officials knew reporters would be eating with the inmates, but jail officials said that's not true.
"We went right off the menu, the same as any other day," Santamas said.
Caloric mandate: He said inmates' daily caloric intake ranges from 2,700 to 2,900 calories to meet state standards. No "outside" food is permitted to be brought inside the jail.
"Calories don't matter if you're not filled," Gore said. "How much does a pack of hot dogs cost?"
Jack Russell, Canteen owner, said the company follows state guidelines in planning its menus for jail inmates. The company serves jails in other areas and has received no complaints, he said.
To supplement their meals, inmates can purchase a variety of items from the commissary. Profits pay for inmates' recreational and educational needs.
Commissary foods include candy, cookies, crackers, cake, noodles, rice, pretzels, potato chips, popcorn, peanuts, salami, sausage, tuna, granola bars and much more.
Prices appear comparable or slightly higher than if the items were purchased in a grocery store, though Gore said it's gotten more expensive since a new food service provider took over.
And besides charging higher prices, the new provider charges inmates sales tax on items such as snack cakes, something that wasn't done before, Gore said.
But Russell said the tax was charged before; it just wasn't reflected on their receipt.
"I account for it so the inmates know exactly what they're paying," he said.
Indigent inmates: Gore said there's no provision for indigent inmates who can't afford to buy commissary food. There's no church group, for example, that provides money to indigent inmates to spend at the commissary, he said.
Indigent inmates do receive deodorant, soap, toothpaste, paper and stamps, as required by state law. P-pod has a washer and dryer.
Gore said sometimes he spends $60 a week for commissary food. He often combines certain items -- noodle soup, chips and beef salami -- and makes what the inmates call "breaks," a casserole of sorts, in the pod's microwave.
Gore said the commissary stopped selling cheese, one of his casserole's main ingredients.
Special considerations: Wellington said a dietitian puts the menus together and takes into consideration inmates with special concerns. Food is available for vegetarians and those with religious restrictions or health needs. Gore, for example, gets low-sodium meals.
Wellington said Canteen was included in an Oct. 16 overall review by Armbruster and Kelley, Akron lawyers who monitor jail conditions as part of a federal consent decree.
During the inspection, the lawyers checked the quality and quantity of luncheon items. They noted that inmates received more than the allotted turkey bologna and green beans that day.
Depending on the number of meals served each day, Canteen charges from $1.72 per meal (for 700 meals) to $1.15 (for 1,500 meals), records show. If the jail is full at just under 500, that's about 1,500 meals per day.