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El Paso County inmates say new jail contractor serves inadequate food

Gruel and unusual


Dinner at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center consists of a pasta dish, biscuit, mixed vegetables and a cake-type dessert. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Dinner at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center consists of a pasta dish, biscuit, mixed vegetables and a cake-type dessert.

If you're looking to lose weight fast, you might try spending a couple of months at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center.

The food, apparently, is so bad — and servings so skimpy — that many inmates report losing 10, 20 and even 30 pounds in a matter of weeks or months. Inmates call the food "slop" and filed at least 400 complaints in just a few months after the jail's new food contractor, Trinity Services Group of Oldsmar, Florida, took over.

"Meals are a joke," one inmate wrote. "The portions are insufficient. Can someone please see that we get [fed] properly? We still are human beings, grown adults at that."

While the previous contractor also received hundreds of complaints, since Trinity took over in September, even jail staffers have advocated on the inmates' behalf. According to emails obtained by the Independent through a Colorado Open Records Act request, a lieutenant notified a commander that a sack lunch delivered to an inmate in September contained "a small little roll and four carrots. That's it!"

Though gripes about jail food might sound petty, meals can trigger security issues or even pose a legal liability.

Back in September and October, deputies cautioned their superiors that inmates' frustration over food was giving rise to a "sketchy" atmosphere for jail staff and that poor supervision of inmate workers in the kitchen led to theft of several items that could be crafted into weapons, posing "huge security risks."

Those warnings turned out to be prescient. A riot over food broke out on Nov. 19 involving at least nine inmates, a situation that "created grave danger for staff" and required a special response team to quell the violence, according to an arrest affidavit.

Sheriff's officials largely blame the inmates themselves for exaggerating the problem and the former contractor, Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services LLC, for a "nonexistent" transition to Trinity.

Aramark disputes that, saying it worked with both the county and the new contractor to assure a smooth transition.

Despite chronic problems in feeding the jail population, the Sheriff's Office hasn't levied any penalties against Trinity, whose contract spans five years with automatic pricing escalators and a higher price in its first year than the county paid the former contractor. It has praised the company for food it provides in the Officer Dining Room, however.

Meantime, inmates and their families still complain about small servings and watered-down food, which they say forces inmates, if they have the money, to buy snacks at inflated prices from the commissary operation — also run by Trinity.

Trinity District Manager Mark Yearout didn't respond to emails seeking comment.

Inmates' complaints run the gamut, but largely focus on portion size and a lack of provision for special diets, records show. A sampling from September, October and November:

• "I continually receive meals with less and less items or portions."

• "I had received slightly rotted lettuce. And for the past week we haven't received any tuna, a fish product or cottage cheese, a dairy product. Why?"

• "I want to grieve food services for stopping giving us condiments and trying to force us to buy salt, pepper, mustard and mayo."

• Complaining that a lunch consisted of one roll, one slice of bologna, a carrot, a fruity drink mix, and two Oreo-type cookies, an inmate wrote, "That does not constitute a meal. There are people in here who are 6'5", over 250 pounds."

• Another said his complaint to Trinity was referred to a deputy who referred it back to Trinity, adding, "A vicious circle while I sit and starve."

A practicing Muslim filed a complaint in December threatening to sue over not being given a halal diet, which bars certain meats, from late September to early November. This violates the American Correctional Association standard, which states, "Special diets are provided for inmates whose religious beliefs require the adherence to religious dietary laws when approved by the facility chaplain."

Ashley Peterson, an inmate who spoke to the Independent via video at the jail visitation center, says Trinity failed to provide her with a gluten-free diet for a month after she entered the jail in October. Eating foods with gluten, she says, caused internal bleeding, for which she says she was not given medical treatment. "Food allergies are not something you want to play with," she says.

So she complained repeatedly but was scolded for it, she says. "I had a sergeant pull me out at 3 in the morning and tell me I needed to stop grieving [to Trinity] and that the Cream of Wheat is gluten-free," she says. "There for a while, I had dark circles under my eyes. I wasn't healthy," Peterson, 29, says, adding she guesses she's lost about 20 pounds, or 12 percent of her body weight.

The National Commission on Correctional Health Care requires that medical diets be provided that enhance a patient's health, and are modified when necessary to meet requirements related to clinical conditions.

Peterson eventually was provided gluten-free meals, but still says of the food, "Oh my God, it's terrible. It looks like slop and it's disgusting."

It's worth noting that Aramark received about the same number of inmate complaints about food in its final three months at the jail as Trinity did in its first three months. But complaints of extreme weight loss appear to be new.

Parents, too, report their children don't get enough to eat. One mother, who spoke to the Independent by phone, says her 25-year-old son, who's 6 feet tall, has lost "a lot of weight" and reports hearing other parents say the same. For instance, she says, one couple told her their grandson had lost 40 pounds.

Not willing to be identified by name due to fear of retaliation against her son, the mother says that the contractor has provided inmates with pats of butter in efforts to increase calories. The jail's contract requires inmates be provided 3,000 calories a day, officials say.

"One day," she says in a late November interview, "the deputies had literally sent the trays back up [to the kitchen] and said they're not giving these inmates enough food. When deputies start complaining, you know there's a problem.

"My son said to me, these are his words, 'Mom, I don't know what to do about this. I would write someone a letter, but being a prisoner, nobody takes me seriously,'" she says. "This is absolutely ridiculous. It's hard enough to have your kid in jail, but to sit there and worry about him not being able to have any food is ridiculous."

Not all inmates lose weight. Jared Smith, 30, tells the Indy in an interview, that he's actually put on 10 pounds since he was admitted last summer, but he says that's because his prior heavy drug use had driven his weight down.

Regardless, Smith says the food is bad. In fact, he thinks he was poisoned, because he became violently ill and went into anaphylactic shock after eating several stalks of celery that smelled funny and tasted bitter. He wonders if they were tainted with pesticide.

"They rushed me to the hospital," he says. "I broke out in hives. My eyes swelled shut. My blood pressure was 40 over 30. I literally almost died." After treatment, he was prescribed pills and returned to the jail.

Smith likens the meals to cat food, oily and watery with only a few chunks of meat. "It's nasty," he says. "It's disgusting. It's almost unedible." He also says that stew gets more watered down as the week goes by, suggesting the kitchen crews add water to make it serve more people. Smith also reports that inmates get fresh fruit only once or twice a week.

The bad food, he says, occupies a lot of conversations in his cell block. "Everyone's trying to give it away, but they eat it because they don't have anything else to eat," he says.

The Sheriff's Office notes that an increase in food complaints was expected with a new vendor, and that it's impossible to compare Aramark's first six months with Trinity's, because "too many variables have changed," including the jail population.

There's no shortage of headlines across the country about jail and prison food, a business that's largely controlled by a few large companies. One of those is the county's previous contractor, Aramark, which has drawn heavy criticism over the years. For example, in 2015, an ABC news affiliate in Michigan reported that an Aramark employee, later fired, threw away food before all prisoners had reported to chow. Realizing more meals were needed, the employee retrieved and rinsed off the food, reheated it and served it to inmates at the Saginaw County Correctional Facility.

In another instance, The Columbus Dispatch reported in 2014 that Aramark's food and serving equipment were contaminated with live maggots at two Ohio prisons. In 2009, prisoners rioted over Aramark's food at a Kentucky prison, leaving several buildings burned and heavily damaged, media reported.

Trinity, another big player, also has drawn bad press. In March 2016, 1,000 convicts at a prison in Lansing, Michigan, refused to eat in protest of poor food quality by Trinity, especially watered down or "soupy" food, The Detroit Free Press reported. One guard told the newspaper she was glad the protest, unusual because of its size, was a peaceful one.

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that explores criminal justice issues, reported in 2015 that inmates in Gordon County jail in Georgia said they fought hunger by licking syrup packets and drinking lots of water. A media account said one inmate ate toothpaste to combat hunger. Some inmates said they lost a substantial amount of weight, according to the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which noted in a letter to Gordon County officials that courts have ruled prisoners are entitled to "substantial and wholesome" meals.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for ACLU-Colorado, says bad food "could be" construed as a civil rights violation. "Certainly the jail has a constitutional obligation to provide for prisoners' basic human needs," he says, "and adequate nutrition is a basic human need."

But if the reason El Paso County decided to competitively bid the jail's food contract in early 2016 stemmed from quality of food provided by Aramark, it didn't share that information. "We were not provided with a specific reason for the contract not being renewed," Aramark spokesperson Karen Cutler says.

The reason for the rebid appears to be more of a policy call.

According to a Dec. 3 email from jail Commander Rob King to other staff, department administrator Larry Borland had previously made a unilateral decision to rebid all contracts that expired after Sheriff Bill Elder took office in late 2014. The Aramark jail food contract, in place for 18 years under a series of negotiated deals, was one of those.

"The prior administration [led by former Sheriff Terry Maketa] preferred to negotiate contract extensions without ever opening the process up for competitive bid," King wrote in the email. "The new administration (Larry Borland) made it clear from the start that when a contract was up, we would go out for bid using the County Procurement Office to facilitate the RFP Process."

Trinity was chosen as the one to feed about 1,630 inmates based on an assessment of services. The county then negotiated a cost, which is 5 percent higher in 2017, at $1,985,529, than Aramark's 2015 and 2016 amounts of $1,890,980. According to a Trinity invoice, the county is billed at a cost-per-meal, which varies depending on the number served but ranges from $1.01 to $1.26 per meal. Kosher meals cost $3.50.

Trinity's deal will last five years, renewable annually, with built-in price hikes. "The County has the right to decide if they wish to go out for new proposals on a yearly basis, but to avoid the costs and time associated with that process, the contract allows for a 3 percent increase each year, with the accepted vendor (in this case, Trinity)," the Sheriff's Office said in an email in response to questions.

Trinity got off to a rough start. Almost immediately, the contractor had problems delivering enough meals; personnel were late to work, causing backups throughout the day, and supervision of inmate trusties who work in the kitchen was scant. All those problems were reported to jail administrators by lower-level officers.

By November, they were still waving red flags.

"I find it hard to believe that this far into their contract Trinity is still struggling to deliver their services effectively and efficiently," Lt. Shane Mitchell wrote on Nov. 6 to Detentions Bureau Chief Mitch Lincoln and jail Commander Tom DeLuca. "When I speak with their supervisors and Leland [Smith, a Trinity employee], they act like they are on completely different pages."

Two weeks later, on Nov. 19, things came to a head when one cell block of inmates mounted a demonstration that began about 5:42 p.m. They yelled and threatened to flood their cells over dissatisfaction with small portions, according to an arrest affidavit. Inmates kicked the food traps and their cell doors, covered cell windows to obstruct deputies' view and "threatened to assault staff members if they came into their cell to remove the coverings."

Wards consist of cells arranged around open, common areas, which can hold up to 94 inmates at a time, with one deputy assigned, though additional staff can be assigned if needed.

The melee continued for several hours and required a special response team to regain control. In the fracas, one deputy was punched in the chest. Nine inmates were charged with "riot in a detention facility." (The county refused to release a video of the disturbance, noting that "disclosure would be contrary to the public interest and the public release of the record would impact the security procedures and responses at CJC.")

Inmates not convicted or accused of violent crimes can apply to be trusties, who help in the kitchen. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Inmates not convicted or accused of violent crimes can apply to be trusties, who help in the kitchen.

Through it all, King didn't seem to have a grasp on what was required of the jail's food contractor, based on his emails to staff and Trinity.

"I don't know what we contracted for and I don't know how it compares to other large adult detention facilities or the state prison system," King says in a Dec. 2 message to Trinity. "If you have that information I would be interested. I have no doubt Leland and his team are providing what we contracted for, I just wish I had asked the questions regarding portion size and how it compares to other facilities during the contract negotiation phase instead of now. A fat and fed inmate causes much less trouble."

Only three days later, on Dec. 5, King asked Trinity for a nutritional statement to verify meals' caloric content. "I would like the letter to explain whether or not our menu meets the required or recommended daily amounts of whatever the industry norm is for how we establish a menu for adult detention facilities," he wrote. "It would be nice if it also indicated how many calories per day each inmate is receiving if they adhere to the three meals served."

Trinity then provided a statement saying the daily average calorie count for the jail menu is 3,000 calories, based on an average over seven days. (King insists in comments to the Indy that the contract requires 3,000 calories be provided per day.)

It's impossible to analyze Trinity's menus with accuracy, because not all items are expressed in measurable terms, such as ounces or cups. But using online guidance for calorie counts, the Indy found that one day's menu, selected at random, totaled 2,481 calories: 744 for breakfast, 876 for lunch and 861 for dinner. Those counts don't include calories for three beverages, which were identified only as beverages. King says inmates are given a fruity drink.

The American Correctional Association, which accredits El Paso County's jail, doesn't specify a number of calories required. But it does state, "Three meals, including at least two hot meals, are provided at regular times during each 24 hour period, with no more than 14 hours between the evening meal and breakfast."

Email messages indicate inmates were given cold sack lunches for both breakfast and lunch at times.

King lays the blame for many of Trinity's problems at the feet of Aramark, calling the transition between the two contractors "horrible" and "nonexistent."

"We had the same complaints with the previous vendor and from my perspective, there have been fewer complaints overall regarding Trinity once they were able to settle in," King wrote on Dec. 3 to staff. "It took a good month or two for them to work out their systems and processes because Aramark refused to participate in a peaceful transition after they lost the contract. It was a horrible start but I believe they have overcome the initial problems and are doing fine..."

In another email that day to Trinity, King says, "I think that if they [Aramark] had been more willing to work with you, we could have taken a week or more off the time it took for us to get the timing down and avoid the late deliveries."

Asked to elaborate, the Sheriff's Office responded to written questions, saying the county's previous contract, with Aramark, contained "vague" language and "lacked specific requirements to allow access for the incoming vendor to observe and evaluate the current time lines and processes regarding meal prep times, delivery routes and start times."

In fact, the Sheriff's Office continues, Aramark refused to allow Trinity to accept deliveries of supplies "until just days" before Trinity took over. "Trinity had very little access to the kitchen before taking over on the first day of their contract," the Sheriff's Office said, noting that Trinity's contract, however, contains provisions for a smooth transition in the future, if one is ever necessary.

Aramark sharply disputes that version of events.

"We worked with the County and the new provider to transition food service in order to maintain the same safe, stable environment on our last day as we did every day for the 18 years prior," Aramark's Cutler says via email. "The new provider was on site in the kitchen for a full week during the last week of our contract. Both the new provider and the County did a walk-through and inspection on our last day and no issues or concerns were raised. The kitchen was cleaned and we completed all responsibilities through the last meal we were contracted to provide on August 31."

Reached by phone, Cutler questions how Aramark could be blamed for Trinity's subsequent issues. "I don't know how there could be any connection between the transition and something happening months later," she says.

For inmates like Smith, and others who are declared indigent for criminal defense purposes, Trinity's commissary isn't really a viable alternative. Although it provides a variety of snacks, such as candy bars, chips and ramen noodles, as well as personal care items, such as combs and hand lotion, he simply can't afford the prices.

Smith says a chicken sandwich from a convenience store might cost $2, but the commissary charges about $6. "You're getting ripped off," he says, adding his mom can't afford to put much money on his account.

Peterson complains that not much at the commissary is gluten-free and also gripes about inflated prices. "My family is out of state, so they only provide me with $20 a week for phone [usage] and food," she says. (Phone calls cost inmates 44 cents per minute.)

Parents also told the Indy they found funding commissary credit a hardship. One mother observed, "It's beneficial for them [Trinity] to create awful food."

The commissary system, though, is a long-standing model used by jail food contractors, including Aramark.

The Sheriff's Office says the prospect that it represents a conflict or self-dealing is a non-issue, because similar complaints have arisen about various contractors, including Aramark.

Moreover, the Sheriff's Office stresses that commissary sales are not mandatory. Because Aramark and Trinity offered different choices, it's impossible to compare pricing between the two, the office says, but Trinity's pricing is within "the normal range" compared to other facilities.

"If they overprice an item, the inmates stop buying it, so it is a self-correcting issue," the Sheriff's Office said.

According to data provided by the Sheriff's Office, however, Aramark's commissary yielded more for the county via a percentage of revenues paid by the contractor, (about $165,700 from June 1 to Nov. 3) than have Trinity's payments ($35,277 during its first four months on the job).

The money must be used for "the educational, recreational and social benefit of the inmates and to supplement direct inmate needs." This can include games, equipment for the inmate visitation system, pens and paper, recreational sports equipment, books, magazines and alcohol and drug treatment programs. It cannot be used for general jail operating expenses, Sheriff's spokeswoman Natalie Sosa says.

There is one area in which Trinity appears to be excelling, according to King, and that's the Officer Dining Room, which serves deputies.

It's a priority, the Sheriff's Office explains via email, because staffers aren't allowed to leave the jail to go to lunch. "The ODR affords them an opportunity to have a hot meal which they can take back to their assigned work stations and consume as they perform their required duties," the Sheriff's Office said. Aramark, the office adds, provided "little if anything" in the dining room, so when the county bid the food contract, the request for proposal specifically asked how the dining room would be handled.

The second day Trinity was on the job, Sept. 2, deputies gave their preferences, listing fruit, yogurt, cold cuts, pastries, pasta with sauce, bagels, cream cheese, soups and hot chili. Trinity has stocked the dining room with fruit and pasta with sauce, but not other items, like bagels and cream cheese, the Sheriff's Office reports. One meal provided during a recent visit to the jail by the Indy included fries and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, along with cookies and cake.

King praised Trinity for its dining room operations several times last fall, even as he dealt with shortcomings in the inmate program.

And by early December, King seemed satisfied that Trinity's problems stemmed only from "growing pains" and the "less than pleasant transition." He told Trinity the department wants to evaluate portion size, and added, "I believe everything else is fine."

But it's not fine, by other indications. The Sheriff's Office tells the Indy that while Trinity is improving, officials continue to address problems, and the overall menu is under evaluation to determine which meals cause delays in preparation and delivery to inmates, "spillage" from the trays and complaints.

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