Inmates at the Walla Walla County Jail will have something to be thankful for Thursday — a traditional turkey dinner they’ve had a hand in making.
Every year the kitchen staff at the jail creates a full holiday meal with pies, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans and, of course, turkey, said Carol Guay, the jail’s kitchen manager.
The jail provides Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners because the holidays can be a depressing time of year for inmates and the meals can help take the edge off jailhouse tensions, Guay said.
“Being in jail, you’re away from your family you may get visits you may not get visits,” she said.
“Your life is not normal. So if we can, we make it a little less traumatic on these days.”
Five inmates work on the kitchen crew with Guay: Terry Diaz, Joseph Saucier, Robert DeLeon, Chris Crump and Brandon Wayne Fisher.
Fisher said his favorite thing about the Thanksgiving dinner they prepare is that it has “weight to it.”
“Our goal is to give everyone the ‘itis’,” Saucier said, referring to the sedating effect of a big meal. “When you fill up and (you) go to sleep.”
Before Thanksgiving the kitchen crew participates in its own tradition, Guay said.
The inmates sit down together and say one thing that they are thankful for.
“In a world that is pretty black most of the time, one little thing can make the difference,” she said.
DeLeon said he was thankful for supervised visits with his baby daughter. Once a week the jail allows him to hold her in his arms.
Crump said he doesn’t have a family to enjoy Thanksgiving with outside jail. Thanksgiving in jail is more of a celebration than he’s ever experience out of custody.
“I don’t have family out there,” Crump said. “But I’ve known (these guys) for a long time. I’ve known Carol for a while. For me I’d like to be out there, but being in here is not half bad.”
On Thanksgiving the inmates eat, play cards and watch TV, Saucier said. They couldn’t ask for much more from the holiday.
“Down here we are the Thanksgiving parade,” Fisher said.
Fisher said he appreciates the opportunity to work on the kitchen crew.
It’s embarrassing to be in jail, but through cooking for the other inmates he said he feels like he’s doing something productive with his time.
“Not only do we get good time here, but it also kind of doesn’t feel like I’m in jail,” he said. “It makes you feel like a person instead of just a number.”
Jail Commander Mike West said he hopes to turn the kitchen program into a class through the Walla Walla Community College so inmates can walk out of jail with a certificate in hand.
West is also working with the Walla Walla Star Project to assist inmates with finding jobs after they leave.
It is important to help inmates reintegrate into society because they’re members of the community, West said.
Unlike the Washington State Penitentiary, inmates at the jail stay for a short period of time, generally up to a year at most.
“So the more we can do to help them be successful here in this short time, hopefully it will help them in the community to make better choices and be better citizens out there,” he said.
The jail chooses inmates who work in the kitchen based on a risk assessment, West said.
Those who obey the rules are rewarded by being given kitchen duty. They receive “extra good time credit” while working in the kitchen, which can reduce the time of their incarceration.
The crew working the kitchen right now is one of the most cooperative he’s ever seen, West said. When the kitchen runs smoothly it improves conditions in the rest of the jail.
The kitchen crew works seven days a week making every meal, West said.
Guay tries to keep meals between $1.80 to $2 per prisoner.
Inmates cook everything from scratch, rolling out dough for pizzas and baking cookies. The jail’s 28-day menu consists of things such as pizza, lasagna, cheeseburgers and last week their own riff on McDonald’s McRibs.
It isn’t easy work and sometimes inmates request to be taken off kitchen duty for a while to rest, West said.
The jail’s menu is assessed by a state dietitian, Guay said. Washington state requires calories be kept at a minimum of 2,200 a day. Guay aims for between 2,400 to 4,500.
But during Thanksgiving the calorie count goes out the window.