Two old ladies were vacationing at a Catskills resort. "The food here is horrible," one said. "I know," said the other, "and such small portions."
Lisa Luna is in no mood for classic food jokes, not with the recent cuts to the meal budget of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Her six-foot-two husband was a relatively lanky 175 pounds before last spring, when TDCJ started serving him and other inmates several hundred fewer calories per day. Luna says he is now down to 155 pounds. "If it were not for the money I [send him], he would weigh less."
The Texas legislature has ordered TDCJ to trim about $3 million per year from meals that weren't very good to start with, for a reduction of about $25 per inmate per year. In raw food costs, that translates to a daily cost of about $2.03 to feed a prisoner. About 50 cents of that is for food grown by the prisoners themselves.
Luna herself knew the taste of prison food. She spent three years at a maximum-security unit while working for the Texas Tech Health Science Center, which supplies medical services to about one-third of Texas prisoners.
She taught a life skills class until TDCJ found out she had sent one of the inmate students a Thanksgiving card. The department fired her for that breach of policy, although the teacher-convict relationship eventually led to a marriage in 1999.
Luna's pay as a prison worker wasn't great (she says a salary grievance was the real reason she was fired), but it included free meals. Most Texas prisons are miles from any restaurant and have restricted access. Domino's doesn't deliver.
Meals that Luna had as an employee were very different from those for inmates. "You could eat breakfast, eggs to order, pancakes hot off the griddle, bacon, sausage, biscuits," she says. "I ate mostly lunch. It was all you could eat, and some of it was pretty good."
Prison officers recall the staff dining rooms that featured several entrées and desserts, along with soft-serve ice cream, salads and condiments. Reliable inmate cooks who knew their way around a spice rack prepared the officers' food.
It wasn't exactly Luby's, but "you used to be able to get a decent meal," says Brian Olsen, head of the state's correctional officers' union. Prisoners tell of knowing when payday was nearing by the number of off-duty guards who showed up at chow time.
Now, that perk has been relegated to prison history. In addition to the legislation-mandated reduction in food costs, TDCJ has instituted a policy that guards and inmates must be served the same meals.
"Most officers now bring food from home," Olsen says.
Texas legislators, faced with nearly $10 billion in state deficits, ordered TDCJ to reduce spending by 5 percent (see "Prison Break," July 17). That totaled about $230 million in cutbacks, even in a prison system with an increasing number of convicts. But there were no reductions in security expenses, which make up about 75 percent of the total budget. In fact, more guards work for TDCJ now than did last year. The cuts were in rehabilitation programs and supplies such as toilet paper. Food costs were slashed by about $3 million yearly.
Prisoners responded by sending mountains of mail to the Texas Inmate Family Association (TIFA), complaining about inferior food quality.
Among the typical gripes: "The hot dogs are green," or "a glob of gravy is included on the tray. There are no mashed potatoes or anything else to go with the gravy." More criticism comes over the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, and that relatively expensive fibrous carbohydrates like spinach and green beans have been replaced with cheaper starchy carbs like corn and, as one inmate wrote, "lots and lots of noodles."
In July, more than 600 inmates got food poisoning at the Darrington Unit from salmonella-infested pea salad. Luna says her husband couldn't eat for three days after he was made ill by bad bologna in August. "He lives off commissary," she says, of the place where inmates with money can buy food similar to that found at a convenience store.
However, most inmates don't have money. "Offenders are not being fed enough to sustain healthy adults," Luna says. The Austin woman now works as a victims' advocate and serves on TIFA's board of directors. "I do not believe offenders need to be coddled, my husband included," she explains. "However, I absolutely believe that they should be treated humanely."
Meals are adequate, says Janie Thomas, who oversees food operations as TDCJ's assistant director of operational support. She met with TIFA representatives last month to discuss the complaints.
She concedes that she had to get creative to serve 2,700 calories a day (the standard recommended by the USDA for young healthy males) with less money.
Thomas says a recent audit determined that the system had been overfeeding convicts. "There were days when there were 3,200 and 3,300 calories. I had a small coronary when I heard that." She says that by making food substitutions, such as replacing tuna with chicken, and by eliminating the overfeeding, TDCJ is still able to serve nutritious meals that run about 2,700 calories daily.
The last time food costs were a big issue in TDCJ was in the mid-'90s, when TDCJ's former head, Andy Collins, ordered twice-a-day servings of VitaPro, soy-based "meat extender" pellets. The unhealthy quantities caused rashes and intestinal problems for tens of thousands of Texas prisoners.
Luna says the meals served to officers had the correct balance, about 10 percent, of the meat substitute. But she says the inmates got meals where VitaPro was 50 percent of the supposed meat serving. "It didn't look like a hamburger. It wouldn't stay together. In casseroles, it would make it real watery."
The product "made them very gassy," says Luna. "I would walk on a run and it would just smell so horrendous. It would be like a brick wall, like walking into a Porta-Potty in 100-degree weather, except that would smell better."
Prison budgets and nutrition, as it turned out, weren't the underlying factors for the interest in VitaPro. Collins was convicted in Houston federal court in 2001 for accepting bribes in return for VitaPro contracts valued at $33 million. He remains free on bond, awaiting sentencing. About $3.3 million worth of VitaPro was purchased by the state -- some 59 million pounds were left over, some of it reportedly used as feed for the prison system's hogs.
Few would deny that Texas correctional officers are underpaid and overstressed, but there are unique benefits. Guards still get free haircuts, shoe shines and discount dry cleaning (five bucks a month for everything), all courtesy of inmate labor.
Olsen, the guards' association leader, is most concerned about cuts in employee health benefits and the move toward privatizing the prison system. But he argues that the agency would be better served by providing employees with good meals.
The once-vibrant officer dining rooms formed a valuable intelligence function, Olsen says. "It used to be you could eat, relax and gather information." He also points out that in emergency situations officers often have to work double shifts without notice. He says correctional officers are "disgusted" with the meal changes, "but they see the big picture -- they don't blame the agency. TDCJ is scrambling to survive."
Governor Rick Perry is the real culprit, Olsen says. He believes the cuts are designed to make TDCJ cost- competitive with private prisons, which Perry favors. A common conspiracy theory among correctional officers is that the more problems encountered by TDCJ, the easier it will be to set up the agency for a private takeover. Many prisoners, their families and even some guards fear that riots over food are just around the corner.
However, reports from dozens of prisoners indicate that many TDCJ kitchen captains are simply ignoring the new rule about meal equality. Several letters received by TIFA members report that the ice cream is still flowing in the officers' dining room at the Ellis Unit near Huntsville. They say that, for example, officers receive regular fried chicken while inmates are served "canned chicken, balled-up and fried."
In response to TIFA's complaints, one member says Thomas told her she inspected the Ellis Unit kitchen and was "appalled." She says Thomas told her that the kitchen captain "did not understand the meaning of the word same."
Inmates report that after the spot inspection, the food improved somewhat, but that lasted only a few days.
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Thomas acknowledges that it's impossible to ensure daily compliance at each of the over 100 state prisons. She says, "It's no different than when the law says 55, and you drive 65 until you get a ticket."
TIFA members believe Thomas has good intentions but faces an enforcement nightmare. Joan Covici, a TIFA member and president of the Dallas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, asks, "How is she going to get these rogue wardens and kitchen captains to comply?"
Thomas encouraged TIFA to continue forwarding the complaints to her. "I told them I had no problem with them being my eyes and ears," she says. "I take my job very seriously."
But one question Thomas couldn't answer for Covici is why a prison system strapped with budget problems is still giving away food. Last year, TDCJ provided food banks with more than 250,000 pounds of food farmed by Texas prisoners. Brenda Kirk, executive director of the Houston Food Bank, says TDCJ officials have told her to expect a similar amount this year. "If they have a surplus," she says, "they make it available to us." She says the food bank pays "a couple of cents per pound" to cover the cost of seed and fertilizer for such items as cabbage, watermelons, onions and potatoes. As part of the program, the food banks hire parolees to do warehouse work. Luna finds the giveaways appalling and believes that, since TDCJ owns hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland, "There is no reason that offenders should go hungry."