Behind bars, the attitude can start with the food

An inmate carries his lunch of Spanish rice, cornbread, cucumbers and onions, broccoli and a banana past a guard who marks his number off at Polk County Correctional Institute.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

An inmate carries his lunch of Spanish rice, cornbread, cucumbers and onions, broccoli and a banana past a guard who marks his number off at Polk County Correctional Institute.

POLK CITY

He hopes the prisoners don't notice the missing hamburger. He had the guys spice up the ground turkey, trying to hide the loss.

He couldn't control the sugar ration. Or the cornbread.

State mandates.

But try telling that to 1,200 hungry inmates.

"We've had to change some of the recipes, trying to cut back on costs but not on portions," says Jack Myers, who oversees the industrial kitchen at Polk Correctional Institution in Polk City. "We're having to feed everyone more cheaply now. So this month, we switched from half-hamburger, half-turkey to just turkey in most of our casserole dishes."

Inmates still get ground beef in their meatloaf, and 3-ounce hamburgers five times a month. But the chili, Spanish rice and meat macaroni is now all turkey.

Try feeding a grown man 3,000 calories on $2.12 a day.

• • •

Last spring, the Legislature chopped $9.25 million from the prison food budget. Contractors who had cooked the inmates' food since 2001 decided they couldn't turn a profit. When they pulled out in January, the state had five days to take over the prison food service.

Myers ran state prison kitchens for Trinity Services Group of Oldsmar for four years. The state hired him back to take over food service at the Polk City facility. There, he makes the meals the state makes him make, overseeing six paid staffers and 100 inmates dressed in blue scrubs. Every week, they cook 50,000 pounds of potatoes, 1,200 pounds of beans and a ton of turkey.

"We've had our budget cut at the same time costs are rising," Myers says. "In the last year, rice went from $13 a bag to $28."

Inmates line up in the cafeteria along a white concrete block wall, push through a turnstile and reach into a 2-foot-square window. The inmates dishing food on the other side can't see their faces. So they can't dole their buddies an extra scoop of Spanish rice.

On this February Friday, everyone is also getting a stalk of yellowed broccoli, a banana and, of course, cornbread. "We had to cut back on the sliced bread," Myers says. "Cornbread is cheaper." Who cares if it takes more time to make? Inmates do the labor.

Prisoners haven't complained much, Myers says. This spring, he hopes to help the prisoners plant a garden, start growing cabbage, squash and green, green broccoli. They could all have fresher produce, he says, while saving money.

His supervisor, assistant warden Eduardo Rivero, just hopes the state doesn't slice any more meat from his budget. "I'm praying," he says.

The men here are murderers and thieves, sentenced from one year to life. The only thing a lot of them have to look forward to is meals. "Food," he says, "makes a big difference in their attitude."

And because state budget cuts also mean the maximum-security prison is down 18 guards, the last thing the warden wants is inmates with a beef.

Behind bars, the attitude can start with the food 02/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 3:22pm]

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