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Cash-strapped states cut back on prison food

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- From putting less meat in the goulash to eliminating dessert, financially strapped states are trying to save money behind bars by cutting back on the food served to inmates.

Texas prisons, for example, have been ordered to reduce inmates' daily calories from 2,700 to 2,500.

"He says he's served hot dogs, hot dogs, hot dogs," said Helga Dill, whose husband, Charles, is serving a 20-year sex-crime sentence at a prison near Huntsville, Texas.

Elsewhere, Minnesota is considering following Virginia's lead in serving only two meals per day on weekends and calling one of them "brunch."

Nevada lawmakers considered cutting the food budget for prisons -- a move opposed by Gov. Kenny Guinn, who said the state already pays more to feed wild horses than to feed its prisoners.

At Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility, inmates get only one dessert now instead of two, and they drink a vitamin-enhanced orange-flavored liquid instead of real orange juice. Other prisons in the state are putting more macaroni and less meat in the goulash.

The belt-tightening is part of a larger effort to look for savings behind bars. Around the country, states trying to close deficits have left new prison buildings unopened, double-bunked inmates and laid off employees.

For many state lawmakers, complaints about prison food do not elicit much sympathy when they are considering cuts that could leave people without health insurance or mean fewer police and firefighters.

"We have to make sure the rapists and murderers sacrifice like everyone else," said Minnesota state Rep. Marty Seifert, author of the brunch bill.

He first proposed cutting desserts for prisoners, only to be thwarted when the Corrections Department said it would cost a half-million dollars more per year to withhold the dessert. Turns out Jell-O is a cheaper way to give prisoners the calories called for under voluntary national dietary standards than, for example, fruit.

Charles Sullivan of the Washington-based prisoner advocacy group Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants said states could quickly find themselves with major medical bills if prisoners get sicker because of poor nutrition.

But state correction officials contend that prison meals are nutritious if not always delicious, and that limiting second helpings is likely to make prisoners more healthy, not less.


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