DALLAS — The men in hairnets and gray striped jumpsuits file into the Dallas County Jail’s windowless, industrial kitchen and get to work, hosing down dishes and scooping neon-green gelatin onto yellow trays.

“It’s showtime,” said Sgt. David Peal, who watches to make sure no fights break out. Every day, this kitchen pumps out three meals for 5,300 inmates. The detainees get around 3,000 unappetizing calories a day. The price to the taxpayer: about 97 cents a tray.

The Dallas Morning News reports Dallas County officials say that’s lower than other lockups, where the cost can be more than $2 a meal, to meet federal and state nutrition requirements.

It takes 900 inmates to cook, clean and do laundry for the jail every day. They’re not paid, but they agree to do it for the slightly better food and a break from sitting in a cell.

One of Sheriff Lupe Valdez’s biggest concerns over the next year, however, is what could happen to this small army of unpaid labor. The county is starting to reform its bail system to allow nonviolent defendants deemed low-risk to await trial at home, instead of in the jail, where each costs the county $70 a day.

Problem is, those low-level inmates — called trusties — are the ones who do all the work.

“If this program goes into effect, where all the minor offenses get put out on bond or monitored, we’re not gonna have any trusties,” Valdez recently said. y. Asked what she can do about that, Valdez replied, “Other than cry?”

She is looking at broadening the standards for who’s allowed to be a trusty to include those accused of more serious offenses. Or, she may hire low-wage workers. That might bump the cost up, from 97 cents per meal to $1.20, she said, but it’ll still be “a great deal.”

For now, though, sheriff’s officials are proud to show off their well-run machine that manages to accommodate 800 inmates’ dietary restrictions, mostly associated with illnesses. The jail has drawn officials from Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle who want to learn its money-saving ways, said Commissioner John Wiley Price.

“It’s really a crown for us,” Price said.

Each meal starts its journey 5 miles away from the jail, at a Costco-sized warehouse where prisoners unload shipping containers of canned food and prepare it using kitchen equipment that looks like something out of Willy Wonka.

The trusties stand in a line and take chicken bologna slices out of their packaging, then slap groups of four slices together into a tub. These will make up the most hated daily meal at the jail — lunch.

“I don’t even know what kind of meat that is,” said one trusty, Abel Mendez, 44, who’s been locked up for three months on a DWI charge. “Not only your body, but your mind has to get used to the food here.”

The mastermind behind the jail’s food system is Diane Skipworth, a tall 47-year-old whose drapey blouse and high heels stand out in a sea of striped jail scrubs and navy blue sheriff’s uniforms.

Skipworth, a registered dietitian, was a few years out of college when she started at the Sheriff’s Department in 1994. Back then, there were roughly 10,000 inmates, and she had to calculate nutritional values of recipes by hand. Now, she uses software to determine her monthly menus.

Some jails use food as a punishment by mashing up leftovers and baking it into a “nutraloaf,” or disciplinary loaf, to force misbehaving inmates to change their ways.

But Skipworth doesn’t subscribe to that idea. She actually wants the inmates to like the food.

“If they don’t eat it, there’s no nutrition in it,” Skipworth said. “The way I see it is, everyone in jail is a person — they’re someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s brother or sister. I’m not really concerned with why they’re here. I’m just concerned with my role, which is making sure they have three safe meals.”

The most popular items, she said, are pinto beans, green beans, corn and potatoes. Dessert is usually an off-brand Jell-O, but she includes special sweet treats for holidays.

So how does the Dallas County Jail stack up? According to one inmate, Phil Roebuck, 54, it’s not too shabby. He said he’s been locked up in the Hunt, Tarrant and Grayson county jails — and he’d rate Dallas County second-best, after Grayson, where he said as a trusty he had access to a salad bar. “At least here, a lot of the meat resembles meat,” he said.

A few months ago, the county’s juvenile detention head met with Skipworth over concerns that youths in custody hated certain foods. Skipworth said she had already stopped serving the juveniles one of the disliked items — the bologna sandwiches — because of the nutritional content, not the complaints. Instead of the bologna, she started serving chicken patties.

Price was annoyed by the conversation over whether the kids liked the food. He said the only consideration should be whether the lockup is in compliance with regulations.

“It ain’t Burger King,” Price said. “You don’t get a chance to have it your way.”

Inmates are happy to let you know how bad the food is. There’s a mushy texture to just about everything. Fresh is not the flavor, as food is typically prepared a week in advance and then refrigerated.

At least one inmate tries to trick himself into thinking it’s the kind of fast food most of us take for granted.

“We’ve got to pretend we’re on the outside, at Burger King or McDonald’s,” said Steve Herrera, 42, who’s been locked up for three months on a drunken driving charge. “Close your eyes, and pretend. That’s what you’ve got to do.”

Another trusty, John Calhoun, 47, who’s accused of violating parole, had advice for those who want to avoid jail food.

“Make the right choices, not to come to a place like this,” Calhoun said. “It’s our choices that got us here.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News