Inmates Can Buy Special Meals

Daily News Article   —   Posted on April 27, 2010

(by Stephanie Simon, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) – In a bid to raise cash and keep the peace in crowded jails, wardens nationwide are offering inmates the chance to order meatball subs, cheeseburgers, chicken parmesan-even a “Pizza and Wings Party Pack,” complete with celery, blue cheese and a Pepsi.

The program goes beyond the old-fashioned prison commissary, with its cup-a-soups and bags of chips, and it can be quite lucrative for corrections departments.

“We have to be creative in tough fiscal times,” said Edwin G. Buss, commissioner of Indiana’s Department of Correction.

But critics worry the service will trigger jealousies, promote unhealthy diets and coddle prisoners.

The service, launched in 2006 by food-service giant Aramark Corp., took off in the past two years amid the recession. Inmates-or, more often, their relatives-place orders on Aramark’s “iCare” Web site. The company tailors its menus to each jail’s rules.

Prices generally run $7 to $12 for a hot meal and $20 to $100 for a junk-food box filled with beef jerky, iced cookies, vanilla cappuccino or other goodies not available in the commissary.

The Indiana state prison system is on track to make more than $2 million this year on sales from the service. In San Antonio, Texas, the Bexar County jail, which makes 45 cents on every dollar in sales, projects its revenue could hit $500,000.

Advocates say the deliveries give guards a potent disciplinary tool: Be good or you won’t get your jalapeno poppers.

Revenue from the meals has saved prison programs, such as parenting classes, wardens say. And in some institutions, inmates get job-training credit for preparing the hot meals in the jail kitchen and packaging the junk-food boxes.

Plus, said Deputy Chief Debra Jordan, who runs detention programs in Bexar County, given the “very humble” quality of prison food, letting an offender’s mom buy him a club sandwich now and then “is an act of kindness.”

Critics, however, fear the deliveries will inspire envy, violence and extortion. “It’s like with kids-you don’t bring cookies to school unless you’ve got enough for everyone,” said Gordon Crews, a criminal-justice professor at Marshall University.

Wardens who have tried the program say that hasn’t been a problem. Many prisons have long let well-behaved inmates order goods such as CD players, sneakers and mini-TVs. “Jails are always run better when your inmates are happy,” said Capt. Richard Fisher, the jail administrator in Rock Island County, Ill.

Another concern: the most-popular special-order foods tend to be high in salt, fat or both. Overindulgence could lead to health problems and potentially raise taxpayer costs for inmate medical care. But wardens say they have been trying to make regular meals healthier so they don’t see the harm in letting inmates order treats.

The program is only available where Aramark also supplies the regular, taxpayer-funded cafeteria fare, a fact that concerns Brent Yonts, a Democratic state legislator in Kentucky.

Mr. Yonts said hundreds of inmates and guards have complained to him about Aramark’s food, citing spoiled milk and meals contaminated with mouse droppings. While he is not opposed in theory to selling inmates treats, he worries that those without money will go hungry.

“I’ve had mothers, grandmothers, aunts tell me ‘Johnnie’s been in there 24 days and he’s lost 50 pounds,’ ” Mr. Yonts said.

Aramark said its Kentucky operation has passed all health inspections with high marks. Its staff follows nutritional menus designed by state officials and does not cut corners to spur demand for snacks, the company said.

Still, the special-order corn dogs are “100 times better” than Aramark’s “chow-hall food,” said John Ash, an inmate at the Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Ind., who buys extra meals with his $130-a-month pay from his clerical prison job. Mr. Ash says the program also helps him feel connected to his nine-year-old daughter, who likes to send him the “chocolate lovers” snack pack. Mr. Ash sees just one downside: He’s eating so many snacks that he has gained 10 pounds in recent months.

Such stories make some wardens cringe-chief among them, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., whose get-tough tactics include disciplining inmates by serving them only “nutra-loaf,” a brick-hard concoction made from blending together dry milk, vegetables and bread dough. Pepperoni pizza is not his idea of prison food. “Instead of calling it a jail, let’s call it the Hilton,” he said.

“Prison is meant to be a punishment,” agreed Jo Ann Phillips, an advocate for crime victims in Kentucky.

At the Sebastian County Jail in Fort Smith, Ark., inmate Juan Carlos Kennedy says he knows the special food is a privilege. In four months, his sister has spent close to $1,000 ordering him junk food. His favorite: The Meaty Big n Beefy box, loaded with cheese and spicy sausage.

“Sometimes it feels like it’s not even jail,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Jail’s supposed to be water and bread.”

Write to Stephanie Simon at stephanie.simon@wsj.com.

Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com.

Questions

1. Why are wardens nationwide offering inmates the chance to purchase junk food?

2. a) For what reasons are critics opposed to the practice of permitting inmates to purchase junk food?
b) How have wardens who support the plan responded to these criticisms?

3. a) Proponent and advocate are synonyms. What is the definition of proponent/advocate?
b) How do proponents/advocates of the junk food plan say it helps with discipline in prisons?

4. How has the money raised through the food purchase programs been used?

5. Inmate John Ash at the Miami Correctional Facility in Indiana sees a downside to the junk food plan: he has gained 10 pounds in recent months. Inmate Juan Kennedy at the Sebastian County Jail in Arkansas enjoys the junk food his sister has been buying him so much that he said “Sometimes it feels like it’s not even jail.” What do you think of these inmates’ observations of the junk food program? Explain your answer.

6. Read the following comments made by Wall Street Journal readers. With which reader do you most agree? – or write your own opinion. Explain your answer:

  • “My favorite quote was by the warden (from para. 12) ‘…the prison is better when INMATES ARE HAPPY’. Um why are people being punished happy?” (by Christ S.)
  • “Having the option of a greasy burger certainly doesn’t diminish the sting of punishment spent in isolation and behind bars. I’m not saying the inmates “deserve” this. Rather, if there’s an economic and social benefit, why not?” (Holly M.)
  • “I think that if ordering junk food helps people feel more like a human being so be it. Especially if it encourages the inmates to behave better in order to maintain their junk food privileges. As to jail being a punishment, I think that being locked up and unable to do the normal things that everyone does is punishment enough.” (Louis C.)
  • “One meal a day and only water. This will save money and they will be too weak to fight or cause problems.” (Joshua S.)
  • “prisons are always run better when inmates are happy” – that made me cringe. Put them in the fields to pick crops, you know – the jobs that Americans won’t do. I would bet that being outside all day working, these prisoners will have less time and energy to get into more shenanigans.” (Joseph G.)
  • “What is wrong with a bologna sandwich on white bread and a cold glass of water after a hard day’s work out in the fields or repairing roads?
    Since when are prison guards guarantors of justice and fairness?  Everybody should get the same food at the same time.
    Incarceration should not be a for profit business.
    Mental disorders should be addressed.
    Educational needs should be addressed.
    Once these people are in, we need to rehabilitate them, then get them out, not coddle them and expect nothing from them.” (James S.)

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Resources

Go to wsj.com for photos from the article.