3 hots and a cot

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Gabriel Peabody, an inmate at the La Plata County Detention Facility, spoons cream of mushroom soup onto lunch trays in the kitchen of the facility.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

Jail food “is nothing fancy,” La Plata County jail kitchen Manager Susan Logue will say.

It’s “family-style dinners” of chili, spaghetti and stew, for example, meals made “from scratch” and delivered to cell blocks three times a day, 365 days a year.

For some of the 150 to 200 inmates, it’s better than what they can count on when they’re on the street, said Administrative Sgt. Holley Ezzell. And if the food is good, typically there are fewer complaints, which can lead to better overall inmate behavior.

For inmates who are doing time, eating on time matters. Thanks to 13 well-trained kitchen trustees, 450 to 500 meals each day make their way from the jail kitchen to the cell block, usually without a hitch.

The food is good enough that inmates know the difference between serving a sentence in La Plata County and serving it somewhere else, Ezzell said.

“When they’re off to another county, they (repeat offenders) are so happy to come back here because of the food,” Ezzell said. More than one inmate has needed a bigger pair of pants when he was released, Ezzell said.

Much of the credit goes to the trustees who have the meal-preparation routine down pat. Logue tailors the training to the trustee, but uses simple safety and hygiene- conscious systems that work, regardless of an inmate’s culinary skill level when he walks into the kitchen the first time. She’s been on the job for a little over a year, but she brings with her 20 years of institutional cooking experience in an alcohol-rehabilitation facility.

While some inmates have no food-service industry training, others have worked as prep cooks on the outside. All who work in the kitchen are there because they want the job, Logue said.

To be chosen, an inmate must have no violent criminal history and must demonstrate current good behavior. Work in the kitchen or laundry can earn credit toward an inmate’s sentence, thus reducing the number of days he must spend in the jail.

Head cook and lead inmate for the kitchen crew Michael Esper cooked in the commercial kitchen of a San Diego race track before landing in jail for the distribution of a controlled substance. He already knew how to season and roast a side of beef, his favorite meal to prepare for his fellow inmates.

Does he get feedback when the food is good? “All the time,” Esper said.

The challenge is having the meals leave the kitchen like clockwork.

“You just got to get it done on time,” he said.

Esper’s day starts at 5 a.m., when breakfast prep begins. Trustees assemble and load trays according to the prisoner count in each cell block.

Guards accompany the trustees as they roll food carts to the cell blocks at 6:20 a.m., 11:20 a.m. and 4:20 p.m. There’s no mess hall with long dining tables, but up to four inmates can be seated together at all-in-one seating and table units within some cell blocks.

Meal trays slide through narrow door slots. Each prisoner has a cup issued at intake, which can be filled with fruit punch from a large canteen on the meal cart. Trays come with a plastic “spork,” a combination spoon and fork with shallow prongs. Sporks are counted when they leave the kitchen and again upon return. If an inmate does not take a tray, that, too, is recorded.

Knives are boxed under glass in a locked display case in Logue’s kitchen office. Kitchen trustees sign the utensils in and out. Lieutenant Rhoda Simplicio says in the 28 years she’s been with the jail she’s never seen a serious incident.

“I’m thankful we have good cooks under good supervision and glad it works out well,” Simplicio said.

Milk is served at breakfast. Hot or cold cereals, fruit and toast, bagels or English muffins are typical breakfasts. Scrambled eggs, sausage or breakfast burritos may be served once or twice a week. Budget constraints keep coffee off the menu, but inmates can purchase instant coffee from the commissary and make their own using hot tap water from their cells, Ezzell said.

Jams, jelly, peanut butter, cream cheese and condiments are available to inmates, but never sugar packets.

“That’s because of jail house hootch,” Ezzell said. “All it takes is a yeast source, fruit and sugar to make it.”

Instead of sugar, sugar substitute is available.

Logue does the meal planning, selection and bulk ordering. Inmates eat what they get, but those with a medical need for a special diet are accommodated. Logue said some recipes are from Mary Molt’s Food for Fifty, a classic cookbook for food-service managers doing large scale food preparation.

A typical lunch could be a hot dog, sloppy joe or a hamburger with all the trimmings, or a hot soup and cold sandwich combination. State mandates for nutrition include recommendations for caloric intake. Menus rotate and are approved by a nutritionist, Logue said.

Typical desserts, served at lunch and dinner, include cake, cookies, pudding or Jell-O.

There is room for some creative freedom in the jail kitchen, depending on the skill level of the cook, Logue said. Trustees personally benefit by gaining additional culinary skills. Some even earn their GEDs while in the program, she said.

“Even if they do not get jobs, they can take these skills to their homes and use them. It gives them confidence,” Logue said.

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