Bellies of the Beast

Two old ladies were vacationing at a Catskills resort. "The food here is horrible," one said. "I know," said the other, "and such small portions."

Lisa Luna is in no mood for classic food jokes, not with the recent cuts to the meal budget of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Her 6-foot-2 husband was a relatively lanky 175 pounds before last spring, when TDCJ started serving him and other inmates several hundred fewer calories per day. Luna says he is now down to 155 pounds. "If it were not for the money I [send him], he would weigh less."

The Texas Legislature has ordered TDCJ to trim about $3 million per year from meals that weren't very good to start with, for a reduction of about $25 per inmate per year. In raw food costs, that translates to a daily cost of about $2.03 to feed a prisoner. About 50 cents of that is for food grown by the prisoners themselves.

Luna herself knew the taste of prison food. She spent three years at a maximum-security unit while working for the Texas Tech Health Science Center, which supplies medical services to about one-third of Texas prisoners.

She taught a life skills class until TDCJ found out she had sent one of the inmate students a Thanksgiving card. The department fired her for that breach of policy, and the teacher-convict relationship eventually led to a marriage in 1999.

Luna's pay as a prison worker wasn't great (she says a salary grievance was the real reason she was fired), but it included free meals. Most Texas prisons are miles from any restaurant and have restricted access. Domino's doesn't deliver.

Meals that Luna had as an employee were very different from those for inmates. "You could eat breakfast, eggs to order, pancakes hot off the griddle, bacon, sausage, biscuits," she says. "I ate mostly lunch. It was all you could eat, and some of it was pretty good."

Prison officers recall the staff dining rooms that featured several entrées and desserts, along with soft-serve ice cream, salads and condiments. Reliable inmate cooks who knew their way around a spice rack prepared the officers' food.

It wasn't exactly Luby's, but "you used to be able to get a decent meal," says Brian Olsen, head of the state's correctional officers' union. Prisoners tell of knowing when payday was nearing by the number of off-duty guards who showed up at chow time.

Now, that perk has been relegated to prison history. In addition to the legislation-mandated reduction in food costs, TDCJ has instituted a policy that guards and inmates must be served the same meals.

"Most officers now bring food from home," Olsen says.

Texas legislators, faced with nearly $10 billion in state deficits, ordered TDCJ to reduce spending by 5 percent. That totaled about $230 million in cutbacks, even in a prison system with an increasing number of convicts. But there were no reductions in security expenses, which make up about 75 percent of the total budget. In fact, more guards work for TDCJ now than did last year. The cuts were in rehabilitation programs and supplies such as toilet paper. Food costs were slashed by about $3 million yearly.

Prisoners responded by sending mountains of mail to the Texas Inmate Family Association (TIFA), complaining about inferior food quality.

Among the typical gripes: "The hot dogs are green," or "a glob of gravy is included on the tray. There are no mashed potatoes or anything else to go with the gravy." More criticism comes over the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, and that relatively expensive fibrous carbohydrates like spinach and green beans have been replaced with cheaper starchy carbs like corn and, as one inmate wrote, "lots and lots of noodles."

In July, more than 600 inmates got food poisoning at the Darrington Unit from salmonella-infested pea salad. Luna says her husband couldn't eat for three days after he was made ill by bad bologna in August. "He lives off commissary," she says, referring to the place where inmates with money can buy food similar to that found at a convenience store.

But most inmates don't have money. "Offenders are not being fed enough to sustain healthy adults," Luna says. The Austin woman now works as a victims advocate and serves on TIFA's board of directors. "I do not believe offenders need to be coddled, my husband included," she explains. "However, I absolutely believe that they should be treated humanely."

Meals are adequate, says Janie Thomas, who oversees food operations as TDCJ's assistant director of operational support. She met with TIFA representatives last month to discuss the complaints.

She concedes that she had to get creative to serve 2,700 calories a day (the standard recommended by the USDA for young healthy males) with less money.

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Scott Nowell

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