On a recent Friday at around 2 p.m., a handful of inmates — cloaked in aprons, hair nets and gloves — are bustling around the industrial kitchen in Chino’s men’s-only prison, prepping dinner for 3,400 of their fellow prisoners. Using what looks like a canoe paddle, one man stirs rice while a team of two uses a stepstool to dump mountains of grated cheddar cheese into a neighboring vat.
There are eight 150-gallon steam kettles lining the industrial kitchen, many of them in use as the team preps the Friday night menu: tamale pie served with coleslaw, pinto beans, Spanish rice and pound cake. A familiar scent of tomato sauce rises in the steam, painting an olfactory picture that varies drastically from the bleak visual one.
Neutral colors, steel and barbed wire dominate the landscape, and the industrial kitchen is constructed entirely for function, in a varied array of plastic and steel. Dry goods, such as brownie mix and milled wheat, are stored in large trash bins set on top of plastic rolling pallets. Refrigerator and freezer space is scattered in and around the dining area, including outside, in two large storage units that look like shipping containers (they were purchased last year when the prison ran out of space). Inside the main kitchen, the floor is wet, as if it's constantly being hosed down, and supervising prison guards are posted around the room, pacing the floor.
Overseeing this whole operation is Correctional Food Manager II Willie Harris, who has worked for the California Institution for Men (aka Chino prison) for 28 years. He's climbed the ranks to his current role, where he's tasked with feeding prisoners for a little more than $1 per meal tray.
“One thing I learned in the military is that bad food and bad morale go hand-in-hand,” Harris says. “They’re already locked up. You’re not supposed to be having sex but … you definitely don’t want to mess with their food.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spends more than $140 million each year to feed 124,000 inmates across 34 prisons and 43 fire camps. For each general-population inmate with no specific diet requirements, the prison is allocated $3.32 total per day for meals (or $1.10 per meal), which must cover a hot breakfast and dinner and a cold sack lunch. California spends two to three times more on inmate food than do some states, but to put it in perspective, the average cost of a meal at the Los Angeles Unified School District is $1.70, according to the L.A. School Report. For local charter schools, that estimate is closer to $3.20.
The U.S. prison and jail population is now the highest per capita in the world with 2.2 million inmates, which means institutions across the country are trying to cut costs wherever they can: It often ends up being the kitchen that suffers the deepest cuts, the Guardian reported last year. Some institutions have simply slashed three meals a day to two; others are relying on sugary canned fruits and “vitamin drinks” to fulfill health requirements, margarine to help boost calorie counts, and foods such as bread, beans and hot dogs to complete a tray.
At Gordon County Jail in Georgia, where only breakfast and dinner are served, inmates have resorted to eating toothpaste and toilet paper to fill the void, the Marshall Project reported in 2015. Two years earlier, in Maricopa County, Arizona, the sheriff bragged about saving $100,000 by turning the entire incarceration system vegetarian, replacing meat with soy product.
In California, Harris says, many of the newer prisons are built as “cook-chill” facilities, which are supposed to be safer in preventing foodborne illness. But they're also cheaper, as there's no need to build, outfit and staff a full kitchen at each prison location. At cook-chill prisons, the meals are delivered from a central location, stored at a temperature just above freezing, and then reheated when it’s time to eat: Think TV dinners for every meal.
Perhaps one of the largest attempts at incarceration cost-cutting across the country is the privatization of prisons, an effort of particular importance under the Trump presidency. Throughout his campaign he skewered the existing prison system and praised the potential for privatization, and just a few months into his presidency, the country’s largest operator of private prisons, CoreCivic, saw its stock price climb 120 percent, The New York Times reported.
The costs of kosher
In the context of all this belt-tightening, prisoners at Chino are faring better than some. They at least still have on-site cooks, two hot meals a day (and a third that’s cold) and access to the occasional piece of fresh fruit, like oranges, and vegetables, such as a small green salad.
While the California prison system doesn’t recognize veganism — it’s too difficult and expensive — it does accommodate vegetarian, kosher, halal and other medically necessary diets. All of these options are costlier than general-population meals, said Harris, with kosher diets being the most expensive — about three times the cost of the standard meal.
This is why California is so hesitant to grant kosher meals to inmates.
In 2009, a prisoner who was also a Messianic Jew (a religion that combines aspects of Judaism and Christianity), was denied access to the prison’s kosher program. The inmate filed a suit against the California prison system, and the California Court of Appeal ultimately ruled in the inmate’s favor. As a result, the floodgates opened for kosher food access, Harris says.
The decision in the lawsuit, coupled with Chino’s loss of its on-staff rabbi who helped determine kosher eligibility, led to a rush that’s been difficult to stem, Harris says. As a result, the Chino food budget has ballooned from $52,000 last year to $143,000 this year. And the financial fallout is not just limited to Chino prison.
“The state [overall] has spent an additional $2 million to $3 million feeding kosher because of that mistake,” Harris says. “But it’s being corrected.”
The kosher meals are pricier in large part because they require higher-quality meats that not only have been certified by a rabbi but contain no cheap fillers, including pork. Gentile inmates pursue kosher meals because they’re thought to taste better, can be used to barter with and are simply something different from the monotonous standard jail fare. The lore of the kosher food is so widely acknowledged that it even served as a central storyline in an Orange Is the New Black episode.
In order to avoid paying for more kosher meals than necessary, California prisons have a series of checks and balances in place. For one, inmates receiving kosher meals must consistently practice the kosher way of eating, Harris says, which means they can’t buy conflicting products, such as pork rinds, from the canteen. If this rule is violated, they get two warnings before their kosher meal privileges are revoked. Harris says that after checking the religious list for Chino earlier this year, he discovered “80 percent of the inmates that were on that kosher list have purchased some type of pork product from the canteen.”
Snack foods such as cookies, pretzels and chips are also in high demand by inmates; individually packaged and perfect for bartering, these are some of the most commonly stolen food items, according to Harris. He tries to keep the theft “down to a respectable minimum,” he says, but some of the sticky fingers are downright creative. One inmate was so efficient at stealing peanut butter, Harris managed only to catch him through sheer luck.
“He was taking a mop bucket full of dirty water, and he had two No. 10 cans [bulk cans of peanut butter] in there, in the water,” Harris recalls.
Although Harris jokes about his department receiving inmates with little work experience, he actually takes pride in the improvements he's helped make since he took the kitchen helm. There have been some missteps, he admits, including introducing grapefruit for breakfast and debuting a barbecue soy chicken sandwich (which he knew was a dud because he found them in a discarded pile), but overall Harris says he's pleased with the progress, as evidenced by a dip in inmate heckling in the food line and less uneaten food.
Harris is in his element in this system of mass production, prioritizing function over form, and comfortable working with a hard bottom line. A kitchen lifer, he started flipping burgers in high school at a fast food restaurant at 105th and Western. He then moved on to cook for the military, the L.A. County fire camps and, finally, the Chino prison. But cooking for some of the largest swaths of humanity wasn’t necessarily his first choice; he landed there by way of default, and it was initially a bit of a disappointment.
“I applied to work at a restaurant before, and the guy was so discouraging I decided to try the institutional route,” Harris says. “He kind of gave me the impression that military cooks wouldn’t make it on that side of the industry.”
So Harris started at Chino as a correctional supervisor — a hands-on floor position overseeing inmates in the kitchen — and worked his way up to the position he holds today, which operates largely from an office in the prison’s administration building. It's his responsibility to keep Chino's food costs down and ensure that the meals are safe for the prison's diverse population. Food can’t be too high in fat, salt or spice; essentially, all the things that give food flavor.
Instead, the kitchen relies heavily on a common cooking hack: garlic powder.
“To me, a prison should never run out of garlic,” Harris says.
There are many spices Harris doesn't buy for the kitchen because they may have a dual, illicit purpose. For instance, raw yeast can be used to make Pruno, the infamous prison wine fermented in cells, he says, and nutmeg is not allowed either, because inmates can smoke it to get high.
“I saw that on Malcolm X,” says Harris with a smile.
Harris is fine with staff doing some “creative cooking” — riffing off recipes and adding ingredients like mushrooms or olives — but most of the recipes are formulated at the statewide level and include institutional dishes like “chicken cheese supreme,” beef stroganoff and turkey tetrazzini.
At its peak production, Harris’ kitchen hosts about 60 inmates prepping breakfasts and lunches, working in the butcher shop and washing dishes. The cooks for the morning shift start at 4 a.m., and many in the kitchen work eight-hour days. Some kitchen workers make just 9 cents an hour, which increases incrementally to the “semi-skilled” rate of about 22 cents per hour, Harris says.
“We get inmates in here that do know how to cook,” he says. “Whether it’s cooking or cutting grass, you just got some guys that got this pride thing, and the money doesn’t matter, because they don’t make much money.”
Those inmates include 58-year-old Luchiano Olivera, who, prior to his incarceration, worked at various restaurants and developed a deft hand for cooking Thai and Cuban-style dishes. The ingredients and spices of those cuisines are a far cry from what he has access to now, but he's worked in the Chino kitchen for about two years nonetheless. Up until recently, when he cut back on his time as a cook to make room for educational courses, Olivera had been working about eight hours a day prepping and producing meals.
From each of these meals, a sample tray is stored in a designated lockbox for 72 hours after it’s served. If inmates show signs of food poisoning, the meal can be tested for contamination. There have been a few false alarms in Harris’ decades at the prison, he says; these ailments have all turned out to be norovirus or other illnesses.
“I take a lot of pride in what I do,” Harris says. “To put out a good product and to make sure they’re not getting sick off anything that we put out there — a food-borne illness, outbreak or anything like that — that's what I really key in on.”