Three hots and a cot

If all goes as expected, I’ll have spent more than a couple of hours at the LaPlata County jail last week.

I’m not as curious about the cot as I am about the three hots. That’s the lingo for what you can expect if you go to jail or prison in the United States.

For many, three hots and a cot is more than they might get on the street. We’re all familiar with stories of folks who commit petty (or not-so-petty) crimes so they can return to a clean, reasonably safe place with adequate food.

I have to admit that I must have been nuts when I pushed to write a food feature about what inmates in jail are cooking and eating. What was I thinking?

For as long as I can remember, I’d heard the food at the La Plata County jail is pretty darned good and that the honor inmates were learning culinary skills, actually getting trained and receiving “credits” for the hours they worked in the kitchen.

That intrigued me and made sense to me. Here’s what I had pictured:

A couple of hours before meal time, a dozen uniformed workers showed up in the kitchen to sauté fresh vegetables or make stew, coffee cake, whatever. I knew the cook wasn’t going to be sipping red wine while deglazing the pan, but certainly he’d have a mug of black coffee on the counter.

The next scene would be a crew setting up a buffet line. Inmates, guards, deputies – the whole jail – might file past servers and fill school-lunch-type trays, then take a bench seat and eat in a mess hall, “family style.” Later the bell rings, trays get cleared and all go back to their cells or out for exercise.

My imaginary scene looks like parochial school lunch hour, my husband would later say. It’s jail, not grade school, he said.

Institutional meals are impacted by budgetary constraints, practicality of serving, labor resources, the challenges associated with special dietary needs, etc. Inmates at our jail are fed “hospital” style, with trays delivered to their cell pods through slots in the door. They have their own cups issued upon arrival. Milk for breakfast. Fruit punch dispensed from industrial-sized thermos jugs for lunch and dinner. If they want hot coffee, they buy instant from the commissary and make it with the hot tap water in their cells.

There are other differences, too. The big one has to do with choices. There are two when you are an inmate: take it or leave it.

The 8th amendment of our constitution talks about cruel and unusual punishment of convicted prisoners. Nothing I saw at the jail constituted anything cruel or unusual. But just go online and read the number of prison food “cases” that have gone to the Supreme Court and you’ll see what a challenge it is to feed inmates.

The upshot – prisoners are not entitled to luxury or “comfort” in prison and jails. Yet meals must be nutritious and meet caloric standards. They need to be “compatible with the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” [Rhodes vs. Chapman 452 U.S. 337 (1981)]

All I have done since leaving the jail is think about what I saw and how clueless I was about jail kitchens and what happens in them.

Yes, honor inmates cook. And they load sandwiches on trays and stir spaghetti sauce in big kettles, but it’s not family-style or even mess-hall-style dining.

These are not hotels, my husband said. What did you expect? It’s a county jail.

Two years ago, I had a hip replacement that forced me to stay indoors for three weeks. I was on one level of my comfortable house, with books, a laptop and access to the fridge 24/7. I had music, a view of the La Platas, three furry canines to comfort me and a telephone. At the end of three weeks, I still wanted to jump off the roof.

At the suggestion of my editor, I’m going to write a chronology, a timeline of what happens in the kitchen when honor inmates prepare daily meals.

I have no idea what to expect, but it won’t be what I’d imagined. Look for it in Wednesday’s Food and Nutrition section.

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