The Correct Way to Serve Correctional Foodservice

My first job in corrections was at a prison where we served the inmates cafeteria style using four lines. My second day on the job I was watching the food lines, standing with my back to the inmates entering the dining hall. From behind me a very deep and menacing (at least he thought he was) voice asked the question "What's this f$%@#%g s#@t?!" Not quite sure how to respond, I thought for a few seconds, straightened my shoulders and turned around to find myself staring up into the face of a very large inmate. With a smile on my face I responded, "Lunch."

Critics! They're not just on Yelp! Since the beginning of time, or at least shortly after Cain and Able, correctional foodservice professionals have had to deal with them on a daily basis.

All kidding aside, foodservice plays a critical role in the safety, security and good order of a correctional institution. Poor foodservice and poor medical care represent the two major causes of large-scale incidents in corrections facilities. None of us involved in foodservice want to be the cause of a major security event. When a critical piece of equipment breaks or needs replacing, regardless of the current budget status, the funding will become available. Of course, in order to work better with correctional foodservice, it's important to understand it.

A Brief History of Correctional Foodservice

While not the world's oldest profession — we all know which occupation lays claim to that title — correctional foodservice may be the second oldest profession known to man. One of the most renowned correctional facilities in history is the Tower of London, founded in 1066. In 1570 the Spaniards built the first substantial prison in North America in St. Augustine, Fla. The British used the early colonies in the Americas as a place to send their less violent criminals and vagrant children. By 1650 the majority of British emigrants to colonial North America were prisoners of one sort or another — whether as indentured servants, convict laborers or slaves.

Jails were among the first public structures built in colonial British North America. The 1629 colonial charter granted to the Massachusetts Bay Colony gave the shareholders that underwrote the venture the right to establish laws for their settlement, as long as the laws were not in conflict with current British statutes, and to administer "lawful correction" to violators. By 1635 Massachusetts had established a house of correction for punishing criminals. In 1682 Colonial Pennsylvania began building two houses of correction. By the beginning of the 18th century, every county in the North American colonies had a jail.

Starting in the 1820s the penitentiary became the focal point of criminal justice in the United States. The penitentiary was a building/program whose outward appearance, internal arrangements and daily routine would counteract the disorder and immorality thought to be breeding crime in American society. By the end of the 1830s the penitentiary had become an established institution in the United States.

Today, the United States has approximately 1,800 federal and state prisons and 400 privately operated prisons. Almost every county has a jail and many have detention facilities, more affectionately known as work houses, which are short term, post-sentencing facilities. Almost 1 percent of the population of the United States (3 million people) is incarcerated.

Feeding: No More Bread and Water

Correctional foodservice operations must stay within the confines of the budget — a budget in which they often have no say.

The two major methods of food production used are cooking "to the line" and cook-chill. "Cooking to the line" is exactly as it sounds: the food is prepared to be served on a cafeteria line shortly after it is cooked. In some cases this product is transported hot to remote facilities as well.

With cook-chill food product is produced, packaged hot, cooled rapidly and stored under refrigeration for future use. This method is used primarily in commissary kitchen facilities that are producing meal product for more than one institution in the area. Normally the product is sent chilled to the satellite locations and reheated for service.

There are three primary methods for service: on trays to the individual living units — there are several different styles of trays that can be used — or cafeteria style in a main dining hall or from portable steam tables in the housing units.

I Can't Eat That

Special diets represent one major area of concern for correctional foodservice operations. We are asked to prepare special diets for any number of medical conditions, food allergies and for religious reasons. Those institutions with cafeteria service will normally have a special diet line in the dining hall. Those that serve on trays must prepare each special diet tray individually.

Religious diets are becoming more of an issue as the courts continue to rule in favor of incarcerated individuals when interpreting RLUIPA — Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act. RLUIPA states that the individual must show a "sincerely held belief" to qualify for the Act's provisions.

Allergy diets are an issue of a totally different type. Allergy diet orders are written by medical staff that typically have little or no training in allergies or allergy management. Also, there is no verification of the allergy, so we must take the inmate's word. In many cases a stated allergy is nothing more than a food preference.

Build It and They Will Break It

As most are aware, correctional kitchen facilities use inmate labor due to its low cost. Correctional operators can choose from a large pool of potential workers and many of them have kitchen experience. Although most inmate workers are thankful to have the job and perform admirably, some will use their free time to try to mess up the system. They have quite a bit of free time on their hands and, in many cases, try to find new uses for existing equipment, new ways to have fun with a piece of equipment or to make it into a weapon.

This presents a unique problem to the equipment and smallwares manufacturer. They are constantly being asked to provide efficient equipment with a minimum of "tinker" points that are sturdy enough to handle the corrections environment. Smallwares manufacturers have an even more difficult task; their product must be durable, have a minimum of removable parts, be difficult to disassemble and, for equipment and smallwares alike, be easy to clean and sanitize.

There are several attributes that a piece of foodservice equipment should have in a correctional kitchen.

Cover up or protect anything that sticks out. We constantly move carts in the corrections kitchen. I have seen parts broken off at eye level and at ankle level because they were not protected. I don't care how hard we try, it is virtually impossible to make someone be careful that doesn't want to.

Reinforce all hinges. In many cases inmate workers are like children, when they get bored they look for something to do. Kids love to swing. Get my point?

Attach the covers. If the equipment has a cover that needs to be removed as part of the cleaning process, figure out a way to complete the task without completely detaching the lid. Can it be tethered to the equipment? Many pieces of equipment need to have small parts, like a drain cap, removed for part of the operating time. Tether these to the equipment. Seemingly little things like this can make a corrections kitchen, and potentially the institution as a whole, a much safer place.

When it comes to smallwares, it's not about making a better mouse trap but about making the mouse trap better. Ask a friendly corrections kitchen manager to test a new item. Frequently kitchen staff will use smallwares items for purposes other than those they are designed for — sometimes on purpose, most times not. If your new scoop or ladle or tong can make it in our kitchens, it can make it anywhere.

I learned a long time ago — shortly after I started looking at my pay stubs — that governments don't make money, they take money. All of us in corrections foodservice realize where the money in our budget comes from — people like you — and we do the best we possibly can to use it well and wisely. We have our nose to the grindstone and our eyes on the pennies.

But don't sell us more than we need. Don't allow us to purchase something we don't need. We don't need equipment with all the "bells and whistles." In corrections kitchens bells stop ringing and whistles stop whistling very rapidly. We rely on the advice and expertise of our equipment suppliers, consultants and manufacturers. And please, don't be afraid to tell us no.

 

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