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Thanksgiving in jail: Turkey dinner a nod to holidays

POSTED: December 4, 2008 5:00 a.m.

It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without turkey and dressing — even at the Hall County jail.

The big, 1,026-bed building on Barber Road has more meals served inside it daily than anywhere else in the county, and Thursday, that meal was as traditional as stripes on an inmate’s uniform: turkey, dressing, rice, greens and cranberry sauce.

Jail commander Capt. Danny Woods can’t imagine any lockup in Georgia — local or state — that wouldn’t serve turkey to its detainees at least one day out of the year.

"We recognize holidays are a stressful time for everybody here," Woods said. "They can’t be with their family. The least we can do is give them a good, typical Thanksgiving meal."

The meal, prepared by a shift of 28 inmate laborers in orange- and white-striped uniforms, isn’t costing the county any more than the others at 84 cents per inmate, according to Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland.

Since the sheriff’s office hired private contractor Trinity Food Services to oversee kitchen operations at the new jail last year, food prices have dropped from $1.48 per meal to 84 cents. Over a year’s time, the change to a contracted meal provider accounted for more than $840,000 in savings, Strickland said.

Food services at the jail are rivaled in size only by some of Hall County’s largest high schools and Northeast Georgia Medical Center. And with an estimated 3,600 meals prepared daily, including those for the sheriff’s work-release inmates, the jail has them all beat.

"It’s pretty much the biggest restaurant in Hall County," Woods said.

In the sprawling, 5,000-square-foot kitchen in the heart of the jail, inmates work in two shifts under the direction of food service manager Eva Childs, referred to by all as "Miss Childs."

Childs has overseen jail kitchens in Fulton and DeKalb counties, and said the quality of work she gets from the inmates has been unmatched in Hall. All are well-trained and eager to work.

Jail supervisors, Childs said, "Make sure we have what we need to run the shift."

The kitchen is outfitted with the latest in institutional food service equipment, most of it big and in one color: stainless steel. In vast walk-in refrigerators bigger than a jail cell are stored bread, milk and other perishables, while bag after 50-pound bag of cake and cornbread mix are stacked in dry storage, along with 10-gallon jugs of cooking oil.

In a kitchen bustling with activity, one inmate cuts cabbage on a slicer while another stirs a huge vat of boiling cabbage with a spoon the size of an oar. Along with cabbage, Tuesday’s menu included spicy chicken patties, rice, cornbread and cake.

"All the (kitchen workers) are volunteers," Woods noted. "Most are pretrial," meaning their criminal cases have not been adjudicated. "To them it’s a privilege to come out and work. It beats staying in the cell block and sitting around. It makes the days go by quicker."

The earliest shift arrives at 3:30 in the morning to prepare for breakfast, and later, lunch. The second shift prepares dinner and cleans up the kitchen, closing it down by about 7 p.m. most nights. It takes the meals’ "runners," inmates pushing racks of insulated hard plastic meal trays escorted by detention officers, about an hour to get all the meals served to the dozens of cell blocks. Dinner service begins at about 4:15 p.m.

"It took two hours until we got it figured out." Woods said. "It’s a daunting task. It takes a while to feed this place."

Inmates are issued their own hard plastic "spork" eating utensils and cups for re-use with each meal.

The jail’s 28-day menu is prepared by a dietician with an aim of providing 2,800 calories a day. Under guidelines followed by the jail, an inmate cannot go more than 14 hours without a meal, and at least two of the three meals served daily must be hot.

Woods acknowledged that inmate morale is key to a secure and efficient jail, and the quality of the food is "a large part of" maintaining good morale.

"If you go bad on the food, it wouldn’t take long and you’d have lots of issues," Woods said. "Since Miss Childs took over, I can’t remember the last grievance we’ve had on food."

Woods says he keeps an eye on what remains popular with the inmates and what isn’t so popular.

"I like to see what’s not eaten," and make changes if needed, he said. "I don’t want to pay for what’s not being eaten."

One thing’s for sure — with all the turkeys being cooked today, the jail is likely to have its share of turkey sandwiches in coming days.

"I’m sure we will," Woods said.


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