Special meals for inmates burdening budgets

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PORTLAND (WGME) - A CBS 13 investigation finds hundreds of special meals are being prepared for inmates in jails and prisons across the state for medical and religious reasons, and that's adding up and putting a burden on budgets.

Greg Vatulas and his team make about 1500 meals a day for the inmates at the Cumberland County Jail. Our review of the data given to us by the sheriff's office found about 10% of those meals are for inmates with special diets.

"We've had people on kidney dialysis, celiac disease, allergies, it's just constant and getting more popular than in the past," Vatulas said.

There are now vegetarian meals, liquid diets, no red meat, onions, peanuts, or fish.

"I think the biggest thing is just not knowing what we're going to get for another special diet the next time around," Vatulas told us.

These are just the special meals, doctor ordered, for medical reasons. There's also been a recent spike in inmates asking for off-menu meals for religious reasons, like food that's kosher.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce has to balance inmates religious and medical needs with his already tight budget. These pricier prisoners are a concern for sheriffs across the country. The National Sheriffs' Association reports just three years ago only 1% of the country's inmate population requested a religious diet. Now the organization estimates almost 11% of inmates are asking for a special religious meal.

"That is a challenge for these guys and trying to keep the price down as well," Sheriff Joyce said.

The jail reports, the standard fare inmate meal $1.08. Compare that to just 1 meal, catering to a religious request.

"The kosher meals originally 11 or 12 dollars a meal," Vatulas explained.

After shopping around, Vatulas has been able to get that down to less than $3.00 a meal, but that's still almost three times as much. Other states have been fighting the special meal offering saying many inmates just want them because they think they're safer or fresher. The Florida Department of Corrections says it can't afford these special meals in the name of religion, but a judge has ordered them to start serving them up anyway.

"Just because they come to jail doesn't mean they give up their constitutional rights to be healthy and recognizing religion as well," Joyce said.

Sheriff Joyce says his jail is a melting pot of many different backgrounds, and he'll make reasonable accommodations to meet medical and religious needs. But they also keep an eye on the inmates to make sure requests are necessary and sincere. If they see an inmate buying something from the commissary that doesn't fit with the diet, or trading food with other inmates, the special meals will stop.

"They want a special diet just because they want a special diet. You want a special meal then this is not the Marriott; this is jail," he said.

The state's Department of Corrections, which oversees the state's prisons, is dealing with the same thing. Associate Commissioner Jody Breton told me they're now serving 22 special diet meals for medical and religious reasons. But corrections budgets have been flat funded, so they're getting creative.

For example, we've learned at the Cumberland County Jail they've cut out the morning coffee, which is saving about $24,000 a year. Twice a day milk was replaced with punch fortified with calcium and Vitamin D, a move that's saving almost $50,000 a year.Special meals for inmates burdening budgets
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