This story has been updated to provide an accurate cost per inmate meal, and the location of Airway Heights Corrections Center.
Beginning Easter Sunday, more than 1,000 inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary participated in a hunger strike, refusing to take meals for more than 10 days.
State Department of Corrections officials did not identify a motive for the ongoing strike for several days, until a spokeswoman on April 4 said food quality — more specifically, how long food was heated before served — was the chief complaint.
Interviews and documents reviewed by the Union-Bulletin, however, suggest food-quality concerns at the Penitentiary go well beyond warming practices. Recent food-system changes could be costing taxpayers more money and might even jeopardize inmates’ health and reintegration.
Over the last few decades, the Department of Corrections has centralized and vertically integrated its meal program at prisons statewide through Correctional Industries, the state’s own business division, as a measure intended to streamline and tighten nutrition and cost of food.
But, according to retired officials, former inmates and outside researchers, such structural and managerial changes led to a gradual but significant decline in the quality and, some argue, the nutrition of food served to inmates, all in the absence of ample evidence that these changes save taxpayers money.
‘Good and plentiful’
For many, the “breakfast boat” — instituted to trim personnel costs — embodies the decline of food quality at the Penitentiary. The rollout happened gradually among prisons statewide in roughly the last 10 years. The Department of Corrections said they began serving it at the Walla Walla prison in 2015.
“Breakfast boats,” often given to inmates in the evening for consumption the following morning, consist of a paper food container wrapped in plastic, containing a small muffin, a breakfast bar, bread slices, a small cereal baggie, a powdered-milk packet, a packet of peanut butter, a packet of jelly and a fortified-drink mix.
The boat varies little — sometimes the plastic-wrapped muffin has a slightly different flavor.
In October 2016, Prison Voice Washington, a prison advocacy group, released a report detailing problems with the state’s food program. It found that this boat is mostly sugar, starch and fat, and all of it is processed.
“Hardly anybody ever eats their boats,” said Jeffrey Owen Dorman, a former inmate who spent roughly 30 years in the state system, including substantial time at the Washington State Penitentiary.
“If you were to stand in a prison chow hall and you watched the food that got thrown away, it’s crazy,” he said.
The “breakfast boat,” according to the Prison Voice Washington report, is “perhaps the most striking change implemented in recent years.”
With it, “CI replaced what had been one of the healthier meals served in prisons,” which “usually included fresh fruit, low-fat milk, oatmeal and eggs,” according to the advocacy group’s report.
Washington State Penitentiary once scratch-cooked much of its own food, most of which was raised on-site or sourced locally, said Brian Maguire, a retired Penitentiary program manager.
According to the Prison Voice Washington report, that trend was not limited to Walla Walla. “Thirty years ago,” the report stated, “Washington state’s Department of Corrections could legitimately take pride in its food-services menu. While prison food was never gourmet, it was not fundamentally different from ordinary household food.”
Maguire was a program manager at the Walla Walla prison for 14 years, after well over a decade in uniform.
He oversaw many of the facility’s food managers beginning around 1999 when, as he put it, “the food was good and plentiful.”
Food managers were ever on the prowl for “opportunity-buys” from companies with excess or superficially imperfect products, he said. If J.R. Simplot had more potatoes than McDonald’s could take one month, the food managers would snatch massive quantities for cheap, he said.
One time, a manager came to Maguire with an order for thousands of éclairs. A cruise ship had run aground.
But between the mid-1990s and the today, Correctional Industries has crept gradually deeper into the infrastructure of the Department of Corrections’ food system, said former officials.
According to the state, its food-manufacturing program began operating at Airway Heights Corrections Center, near Spokane, in 1993. Today, it manufactures frozen meals, breakfast boats and baked goods.
Correctional Industries’ second food-processing center at Coyote Ridge Correctional Center, in Franklin County, began operating in 2009. It manufactures soups, sauces, main dishes, lunch meat and handheld foods such as wraps.
Dick Morgan, a retired superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary and former state Secretary of Corrections, told the Union-Bulletin that while food-manager autonomy was efficient at the local level, state officials wanted more centralization and control.
This came in the form of mandates to source more products from Correctional Industries.
Penitentiary food operations such as the bakery closed down, said Maguire. The farm property now focuses on wheat, which state Department of Corrections Communications Director Jeremy Barclay said is used in prison food products across the state.
The Penitentiary continues to grow fresh vegetables in its garden to supplement its meals, the excess of which, according to the state, goes to other Department of Corrections facilities as well as local food banks.
Motives for Correctional Industries’ takeover were primarily economic, said Morgan.
But local prison officials, accustomed to making money-saving surplus-buys, would bristle at contracts mandated from Olympia which required them to purchase, say, French fries they thought they could have gotten for free.
Maguire said food sourced from Correctional Industries was pricier than under the old, more autonomous system. Food managers would contend they could feed an inmate well for under $1 per meal, prices they said the state could not match.
But contracts, whether with private food companies or with state food-processing facilities, often stipulate that prisons have to buy certain products from a certain vendor unless they can’t provide it, Morgan said. This makes ad hoc or local sourcing difficult.
Brent Carney, a former dietary services manager at the Department of Corrections who transferred last year to the state Department of Health and Social Services, said centralizing the food production to enact an “economy of sale did help with the budget.”
But research indicates the structure of the old system, by which, according to retired officials, significantly more food was cooked from scratch, can be just as cost-effective as mass-produced, processed meals.
A 2014 study of school meals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found no significant statistical price correlation between serving food cooked from scratch and serving pre-processed meals, concluding that “scratch-cooking can be a cost-effective way to expand the variety of healthy school lunches.”
In 2000, the raw cost of a single meal at the Penitentiary was 92 cents, according to Barclay, the Department of Corrections spokesman.
Currently, a meal costs $1.64, Barclay said, noting that costs have increased with inflation (92 cents in January 2000 had the same buying power nationally as $1.36 in March 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Loretta Rafay, a Prison Voice Washington activist who spearheaded the 2016 report on prison food, said the Department of Corrections and Correctional Industries are on separate accounting systems, and since the prison system’s includes health care costs, it is difficult to assess the true cost to the taxpayer of unhealthy food.
Carney said he contended that if the Department of Corrections would spend more money on the food budget, it “could actually reduce health care costs” in the long-term.
According to the former dietary services manager, Correctional Industries officials said they need more funding if they are going to improve the quality of their institutional food.
In addition to quality concerns, prison food-program critics are also worried that under Correctional Industries, kitchen work, once a valuable opportunity for inmates to develop highly-marketable cooking skills, has become little more than glorified reheating.
In 2015, Correctional Industries began managing food preparation at the Washington State Penitentiary, according to Barclay, the state spokesman.
He wrote in an email to the U-B that the Penitentiary’s food-preparation operation resembles “other large food-delivery systems, in which food is frozen at a source location and then shipped.”
Barclay said food workers prepare complimentary side-dishes as well, which includes meals prepared from scratch.
But critics see Correctional Industries’ food-preparation jobs as missed opportunities to provide inmates with skills in a common profession for ex-convicts.
“Job skills is not boiling 20-pound bags of something already cooked in a kettle and trying to use that as a teachable skill for the private industry,” said John Holeman, a retired, award-winning food manager at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
Walla Walla Community College operated a culinary program at Walla Walla’s prison in the 1990s that prepared inmates to enter the trade after being released, according to WWCC officials.
A 2017 report by Correctional Industries states its program offers certificates to inmates who have “demonstrated proficiency in their jobs.”
According to the 2016 Prison Voice Washington report: “As CI took over food services around the state, it gradually eliminated all freshly prepared, natural food. Without exception, every single main course is now a reheated, highly processed CI product with high amounts of sodium.”
Highly processed food is not necessarily unhealthy, but they do tend to have higher rates of saturated fat, higher sugar content, less fiber and fewer vitamins, said Amy Ellings, a program manager at the state Department of Health, who has worked with the Department of Corrections to improve the nutritional value of its commissary options.
But “processed,” she said, can also technically describe spinach that was washed before going in a bag.
Carney, the former state prisons’ dietitian, said unified food sourcing and cooking practices under Correctional Industries made his sense of the nutritional quality of what prisoners were eating “a little more reliable.” But he also acknowledged that under CI, “freshness in the diet is gone.”
Department of Health guidelines emphasize fruits, vegetables and whole grains, minimizing the use of processed foods that contain added sugar and sodium. Guidelines also recommend healthy cooking techniques and say state agencies should “avoid processed products whenever possible.”
The Prison Voice Washington report argues that Department of Corrections inmates “live in state-sponsored food deserts, where they are literally coerced by the state into eating unhealthy food.”
The state agency has acknowledged it was not in compliance with state nutrition guidelines by the deadline of December 31, 2016, as mandated by Executive Order 13-06, which was intended to improve access to healthy foods in state facilities.
Barclay, the Department of Corrections spokesman, said that since reviewing the order’s language in October 2016, “the agency began its work toward compliance with the executive order standards,” and that its current menu is “nearly in complete compliance.”
As recently as July 27, 2017, the Department of Corrections Ombudsmen Carlos Lugo confirmed in a letter to Atif Rafay — an inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex and the spouse of Loretta Rafay — that the state prison system was not in compliance with the executive order.
Lugo wrote that the state “failed to understand that it was obligated to apply the order to meals for incarcerated individuals.”
Barclay told the U-B that the delay stemmed from an exemption in the Executive Order being “originally interpreted in an overly broad manner.”
Exemptions from the guidelines included “food served to special populations with particular health or religious dietary needs identified by … the Department of Corrections.”
Barclay wrote that the department reviewed the order’s language in October 2016 and determined that the exemption was in fact limited to “special populations with particular health or religious dietary needs.”
But some within the agency had believed all along that the order pertained to inmates in general.
“I obviously never agreed with their take on it,” said Carney, who represented the Department of Corrections on the working group to design the Healthy Nutritional Guidelines. “But again, he said, I was only one person.”
To make nutritional improvement, the state agency has added new frozen meals that increase and offer a wider array of vegetables, according to the spokesman.
And the prison system has added vitamin-D fortified powdered milk and oatmeal packets and introduced salad dressing with reduced sodium.
In the fall, the department added more whole-grain options to its menu, and, according to the spokesman, was striving to increase “variety and portions of produce offerings for the incarcerated population.”
The Prison Voice Washington report recommends taking responsibility for the prison menu from Correctional Industries, so food can return the “healthier and cheaper alternative of cooking fresh, nutritious, locally grown food from scratch at each institution” and empowering the Department of Health to better and more proactively evaluate the prison system’s compliance with its Healthy Nutrition Guidelines.
Holeman, the retired food manager at the Monroe Correctional Complex, recommends routine consultation with staff and inmates.
Loretta Rafay, who served on a working group with state health officials and the corrections agency in the last year to improve the nutritional quality of commissary items for sale to inmates, said she found the prison system’s attitude regarding improving food quality to be “one of apathy and resistance.”
“They’re pretty much only willing to help when they get pressured to do it in a way that’s going to cause them problems,” she said. “Otherwise, they seem totally uninterested.”
Carney, the former Department of Corrections dietary services manager, left the agency in September. The state posted job openings for that position in February but found “there was little interest and few applicants,” according to the spokesman.
The agency reposted the job on April 9, he said, and has received one qualified applicant. The interview is in the process of being scheduled.