Hungry inmates in Island County jail don’t stand in line to get a tray full of unknowable slop or molar-busting hardtack from a chef in a filthy apron.
Unlike the movie cliches, the meals at the county jail are very well-liked by inmates, some of whom enthusiastically help prepare it, according to Jail Chief Jose Briones. A recent meal was a beef patty with gravy, white rice, peas, a fresh baked dinner roll and a nice piece of sheet cake.
But like seemingly everything these days, the price of feeding people in the county hoosegow is increasing. County officials, however, said it’s still a surprisingly good deal at about $4.35 a meal.
At a recent commissioner workshop meeting, Briones explained that the jail has long contracted with Summit food services. A new contract from the company included an 11% hike in food costs, which is the first time the company has asked for an increase since at least 2015. Briones said he talked to his corrections colleagues across the state and was told that many were facing as much as 25% growth in food service costs.
“An 11% increase is very reasonable,” he said, adding that the jail might take such cost-cutting measures as occasionally trading out eggs — which have doubled in price — for a soy-protein-based food.
This sparked a discussion about the importance of serving quality food in the county lockup.
Commissioner Jill Johnson asked about what “lens” Briones was using when making decisions about the food service. Given the “shockingly low” increase in food costs over the years, she said she wanted to make sure the county wasn’t cutting back on quality to the detriment of inmates.
Many of the people in jail, she said, are coming from a lifestyle of poverty, poor diet and substance abuse. She said it’s part of the jail’s charge to help people to be healthy.
“If people feel better, they can make better life choices,” she said.
Likewise, Commissioner Janet St. Clair said people have less disruptive behavior when they have healthy food.
“By treating them with the appropriate diet, we’re also reducing medical expenses in the jail, we’re improving behavior because diet and behavior has a direct tie,” she said.
Briones told the commissioners that the jail’s food program is phenomenal and will continue to be phenomenal.
“The inmates will tell you that,” he said. “You go to other jails and they are typically serving two sack lunches which consists of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a bologna and cheese sandwich, maybe a piece of fruit and a bag of chips.”
The Island County jail still serves three hot meals a day, Briones said, while 90% of facilities in the state do not.
Briones said the jail often sees inmates whose health improves while they are there due, at least in part, to a steady and healthy diet. People who come in on blood-pressure medication have been able to come off of it after time behind metaphorical bars and away from McDonalds.