An ‘inside’ look at food: Industrial-scale production in Washington’s prison system
Hundreds of loaves of bread move along a spiral conveyor belt as high as a warehouse ceiling. Gravy churns in a vat the size of a small sedan. A persistent drumbeat of rice balls hits soon-to-be-frozen cardboard trays.
This is the scale of operations underway for the 85-inmate teams working eight-hour shifts inside Washington’s largest prisoner-employed food production facility. In a kitchen inside Airway Heights Corrections Center, inmates churn out 50,000 to 60,000 meals a week to be gathered, packaged and sent to prisons across the state.
It’s a large-scale operation in a space about as big as the H&M store at NorthTown mall. It has relatively low labor costs, as the incarcerated staff make around $1 an hour. As a result, the Washington Department of Corrections can feed some 17,000 state prisoners at a price of about $1.50 per meal.
Yet the operation and its savings, some inmates and their advocates say, have led to dissatisfaction with the food itself.
On Easter Sunday this year, more than 1,000 inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla went on an 11-day hunger strike that ended only after officials caved and replaced cold prepackaged breakfast meals with hot oatmeal and ham, egg and cheese sandwiches.
According to officials at Correctional Industries – the DOC’s business division that employs inmates to make furniture, stamp license plates and make food among other ventures – a primary concern was the temperature of the meals when they were served and how often they were reheated, not necessarily the quality of the ingredients going in.
But former and current inmates, advocates and former prison staff see it differently. In interviews and through letters, they describe an industry that for years has shifted from local ingredients and meals made in-house, to a mode of mass-production akin to a fast food franchise.
Correctional Industries, meanwhile, has repeatedly told journalists and elected officials that any perceived problem surrounding the nutritional value and quality of their food is a chief concern among the division’s staff. Despite this, the DOC and CI are still not in compliance with an executive order signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2013 requiring that all state food facilities – including kitchens that serve prisoners – meet minimum health standards.
“There’s a significant nutritional issue that goes on,” said John Holeman, a former food manager at Monroe Correctional Complex who retired in 2015. “They want their breakfast. They want their scrambled eggs back. Getting guys up out of bed and making them wash their face and have them come down and get their cup of coffee and eat their eggs – it’s all a good thing. There’s no negative.”
The cost of automation
Correctional Industries began in 1983 as a nonprofit arm of the DOC with the mission of putting Washington’s inmates to work. Since then, the division has expanded to employ about 2,400 prisoners, who make boxes, assemble furniture, wash laundry, produce prescription eye glasses and make an array of other goods.
It wasn’t until 2013 that they became involved with full-scale food service, first at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, explained Jeannie Miller, interim director at CI. Since then, the division has expanded to manage food service operations at five prisons. In all other prisons across the state, CI has a hand in setting the menu and providing at least part of the meal.
Today, two facilities – one at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, the other in Airway Heights – produce all of the CI food prisoners eat in Washington. They also produce food for Meals on Wheels – sliced bread, muffins, cookies, packets of peanut butter and jelly, frozen meals of Turkey a la King and Sloppy Joes.
Holeman, who has received multiple state awards for his work in food management, said he was approached in 2015 at Monroe by CI officials who said they were taking over food production at his prison, full-stop. On the table, he said, was an ultimatum: agree to serve their food and their menu, or retire early. He took the latter.
“I’m done,” he recalled telling them. “I can’t work under your guys’ organization.”
Holeman said he’s worked for 32 years in food production. Early in his career, he worked the line at the SkyCity rotating restaurant in Seattle’s Space Needle before helping expand a chain of SeaGalley Restaurants statewide, before finally settling into his role at Monroe.
In the decades he spent there, he said he took pride in buying and serving locally sourced food, at one point even serving fresh milk from a nearby dairy farm.
For the inmates, it also meant learning how to cook from start to finish, including thawing, cutting and slicing, heating and serving.
“They were learning more. They were making mistakes,” he said. “But one thing that you have to think about is, I’m trying to teach offenders how to make beef stew and they’re messing up. But they’re still making homemade beef stew. The value in that is tremendous. But to boil a bag and make sure it’s 160 degrees, there’s no value in that. Everybody can see that.”
The nutritional value of the food is also of concern to some inmates. In a letter sent to to the Department of Health and Inslee’s office in March, inmate Grant McAdams at Coyote Ridge urged officials to take action.
“We should all have healthy sugar-free, non-processed food options so that we can enjoy (a) longer (and) healthy life,” he wrote.
Loretta Rafay, an activist at Prison Voice Washington – an advocacy group that’s pushing to reform Washington’s prison food system – said CI had formed a symbiotic relationship with the DOC, and in doing so had robbed it of its autonomy. According to her group, as much as 91 percent of prison meals are served with CI food.
“They started out just involved with minor things,” she said. “They were making furniture and things like that. And they just kinda want to get their grubby hands on every aspect of the Department of Corrections. Their goal is to kind of make themselves too big to fail.”
In 2016, her group published a scathing report that criticized many facets of CI’s food production, calling it “unhealthier than it has ever been,” a claim CI officials have routinely denied.
Jamie Dolan, a food services administrator at CI, said since the 1990s, nutritional value in their food has skyrocketed, especially when it comes to sodium and fat levels.
“Our menus are designed in collaboration with health services, in addition to a registered dietitian,” she said. “That’s why we also offer specific medical diets to address specific medical needs.”
Respect the process, not the processed
Inside the tall chain-link fences wrapped tightly with shiny coils of razor-sharp wire, there’s a sense of order at Washington’s fourth-largest prison in Spokane’s backyard.
Sitting on the northern edge of Airway Heights on the West Plains, with rolling brown hills and a casino visible on the skyline, the prison is home to about 2,100 men in minimum, medium and close-security lockups.
Laughter can be heard from the kitchen on the southwest corner of the facility, where inmates talk, including with the armed guards keeping watch over them.
On a recent tour through the facility organized by Airway Heights Superintendent James Key and a handful of CI officials, inmates seemed to take pride in their work.
When it came time to make large batches of batter that would be beaten, pounded, molded and shaped into loaves of bread, the responsibility for getting the measurements just right fell to a handful of them.
Staff said inmates do everything from ordering material to planning ahead.
The scene isn’t a far cry from 1993, when the kitchen first opened alongside the then-state-of-art prison. A Spokesman-Review reporter was invited to tour the facility at the time, where they noted 200 gallon kettles of spaghetti sauce 5 feet tall, the ladles full of creamed ground beef, and areas labeled “out of bounds.”
Back then, it managed to assemble just 8,000 meals, though manager Jim Register said it could feed the entire prison population, if warranted.
“We’re fixing volume food here,” he told the reporter at that time.
Today, much of the food CI produces goes into what inmates call “breakfast boats” – essentially boxed meals – that are handed out in the evening to be eaten in the morning. Most often, they contain cereal, powdered milk, a muffin and breakfast bar. Sometimes two slices of bread and peanut butter and jelly.
Clarence Jay Faulkner, an inmate who’s done long stretches of time at Walla Walla, Coyote Ridge and Airway Heights, said the boats were so loathed that inmates couldn’t even use them as trading material, as is done with coffee or sweets.
He said oftentimes the bread was tasteless, the muffin cold and hard. The milk would “clabber up” when stirred into the cereal.
“Most people, even prisoners, like to start their day with something in their gut,” he said. “This is not even something.”
The 69-year-old was released in January after serving a term for a conviction of first-degree robbery in 2001, when he held up a string of gas stations on Sprague Avenue. In the early years of his sentence, he said, he was able to cut and shape wood at a hobby shop, where he learned skills he later applied to a temporary job he got in Spokane at a paint store.
But after a time, he said, the shop closed down, explained away as a budget cut. All of his following jobs found him working for CI, where he helped run the cold food storage warehouse at Airway Heights and, most recently, managed commissary food package orders in Walla Walla.
“Overall, it’s just boring warehouse work,” he said. “You have to really seek out something to do. I was so depressed at first, I just wanted to find a place to hang myself. Fifty-three years old and you got a 25-year sentence, that doesn’t make a bright future.”
Missing goals, hitting targets
Correctional Industries says the complaints are exaggerated and the claims unfounded.
“It’s easy to potentially target Correctional Industries, especially when there’s a food strike, but it really is a good program,” said Miller, the interim director. “It provides the opportunities for (inmates) to gain skills, so when they do release, they’ll be a contributing member of society. Which is what they’d want and what the community would want as well. CI is a good program.”
Dolan, the food administrator, said the goal of CI isn’t to serve processed or unhealthy foods, but rather to make sure each prison in the state has a stable menu with a standardized set of items. She took issue with the term “processed,” saying it “could include fresh spinach that has been washed.”
And while the DOC isn’t yet hitting health requirements set by Inslee, she said they’ve hired a licensed dietician to revamp the menu and identify areas for improvement. Notably, she said, sodium intake and the amount of fish served are big targets.
After the inmate strike at Washington State Penitentiary, Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Lynnwood, publicly supported the prisoners, saying he had concerns with the health of some inmates at Monroe. One family member interviewed by NPR said her husband at Walla Walla wasn’t getting the proper food to help manage his diabetes.
“They were very receptive to my concerns and were already doing some efforts to meet the governor’s standard,” he said of CI in May. “They’re still not there 100 percent but they were further behind.”
Prison Voice Washington’s Rafay, who is married to Atif Rafay,who was convicted in 2004 of murdering his parents in Bellevue, and who was the subject of an episode in a Netflix documentary called “The Confession Tapes,” isn’t convinced CI and the DOC are taking the problem seriously.
She said when former state prisons’ dietitian Brent Carney was speaking at a family council meeting in early 2017, he said “well, since this governor was re-elected, we have to keep working on this issue.”
“That to me was a really unabashed, unashamed Department of Corrections admission that they’re willing to only work on positive things if there’s enough public pressure to do so,” she said.
Carney did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment.
CI officials said they were receptive to the idea of completely changing the menu to meet inmate desires and needs, saying that it’s something that is constantly in flux.
Dolan said, if necessary, that could include a complete overhaul. Whether that means renovating their food production facilities – Airway Heights included – or tearing down the factory model altogether, only time will tell.
“I would say on the whole we’re always looking at evolution,” she said. “In terms of our equipment, that’s always something we’re taking into consideration.”