Lunch on lockdown: What’s on the jail menu


There’s a practical reason to feed inmates well.

If a meal isn’t filling or doesn’t look appealing, the officers on the floor will catch grief over it.

“We try to make it to where we have a pretty robust diet,” Guilford County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Chuck Williamson explained. “Our philosophy has always been… when you’re in custody, there’s not a lot that you have to look forward to.”

So, the logic goes, if the food is good enough, things will run more smoothly.

Adult inmates in Guilford County are served an average of 3,000 calories a day — well above the state-mandated figure but not a budget-busting amount, Williamson said. The meal plan must be designed by a registered dietician and include a certain amount from each food group, and the jail caters to different dietary needs for inmates who are diabetic, pregnant, kosher or who have high blood pressure, he said.

Food service provider Aramark, a company that can also be found on college campuses, has provided three daily meals in the county for the last five years, and while the county is undertaking an RFP process for bids, Williamson said his office is “very satisfied” with Aramark’s service.

“They’ve done an excellent job for us,” He said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Guilford County staffers approve a rotating menu submitted by Aramark, and a good portion of it sounds about as appealing as you’d expect; for the last four dinners during the second week on the schedule, inmates receive a tangy BBQ turkey sandwich, a bologna sandwich, a salami sandwich and a ham sandwich. All come with fruit and a vitamin-rich fruit drink.

There’s variety in the meals, to be sure, though not exactly much. Items are swapped around, meaning that the sloppy Joes come with a garden salad, Cajun potatoes and a fudge brownie one Thursday and then with au gratin potatoes, carrots and fruit the following Monday. On the second Wednesdays and Fridays, inmates receive ham for lunch, the first time with rice, pinto beans and coleslaw and the second time with scalloped potatoes and cabbage. Two days later, the ham comes as a sandwich with mustard and cheese.

The following week, turkey acts as the main fare in four dishes, spread out on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Breakfast offerings fluctuate. The skimpiest appears to be the first Wednesday in the rotation, where inmates are given creamy whole-grain oatmeal (1.5 cups) and a muffin — though the taco lunch that day sounds like one of the more appetizing. And the arguably the best breakfast comes on the third Friday, as the oatmeal this time comes with ham, hashbrown potatoes and a biscuit.

Sounds alright to me.

But then I think about my friend who spent almost a year in Forsyth County lockup, only to be found not guilty on all charges. These meals indeed would be only of the rare things to look forward to, save for visits. I don’t know what the meal plan looks like in Forsyth — I didn’t hear back immediately as I did in Guilford — but at least there inmates receive face-to-face visitation rather than seeing loved ones via video conferencing.

Many of the 750 to 800 prisoners who are behind bars in Guilford County, like their counterparts in Forsyth, are in for more than just a few days — we’re talking about people denied bond or who are unable to pay, sitting in their units with minimal space to exercise and no yard for months on end.

These are folks who, generally speaking, are awaiting trial. Some will be found not guilty — almost everyone else will plea regardless of the specifics of their case so that they’ll be released sooner.

If, while they’re there, they grow tired of the three meals provided a day, inmates can supplement their meals with commissary purchases. Not that the list is overflowing with options; there are 21 kinds of candy available and 75 snacks, which sounds like a lot until you realize that many of the choices are chips, cookies and crackers. If you’re genuinely hungry, your best bet is some overpriced ramen, a $1.55 granola bar, or slightly more expensive beef summer sausage ($2.45).

Considering that Williamson said the jail doesn’t provide inmates with access to a microwave though, it’s difficult to imagine the ramen being particularly appealing.

Maybe instead inmates opt for the Snyder’s jalapeño chops (93 cents), a Honey Bun ($1.49) or pepperoni sticks ($4.95).

Guilford County outsources its commissary system to a company called Kimbles Commissary, which provides everything from du-rags to Bibles to toothpaste to radios. Inmates are allowed to place orders weekly, with a cap at $50 for food items and $25 for other goods, Williamson said. And the state regulates pricing, requiring that it be comparable to stores nearby.

“Every week inmates can order most of the things that you could walk into a convenience store and buy,” Williamson said.

And that’s a good comparison — the pricing is more akin to a gas station mini-mart than a grocery store.

Williamson said one of the perks of the (relatively) new jail in downtown Greensboro is that correctional officers are actually in the units with inmates rather than patrolling the perimeter of a floor, which makes it nearly impossible for inmates to do things like making wine with aged fruit or Kool Aid. Other facilities may have that problem, he said, but not this one.

I guess, even if the officers on the floor catch grief for it, that sacrifice just isn’t worth it.