DALLAS (AP) — 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.
Most Read Stories
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.