By Tate McCotter, NIJO Executive Director
“Three hots and a cot!” Let me ask, is that really the standard? Are jails required to serve meals hot? If so, how many? Let’s add to this issue. Unlike persons in the free world, inmates are dependent on jail staff to ensure that their nutritional needs are met. There are varying opinions about what might be considered “nutritious” and those opinions seem to regularly make their way into inmate-filed grievances, media and the courtroom. Administrators must balance the requirements to provide food services on a limited budget, accommodating a wide range of dietary and religious needs. It isn’t easy but knowing what the law actually requires in the preparation of meals provides the necessary framework.
Food services can be handled internally by preparing and serving meals in a suitable food services area, contracting with a private institutional food services provider or by purchasing meals from a local restaurant, hospital or other food service provider. Regardless of who is tasked with that responsibility, consider the following points as it relates to policy, procedure and daily food service operations.
- A dietitian or other qualified food service professional should develop or approve menus. The Eighth Amendment prohibits jail staff from denying inmates food or serving a nutritionally inadequate diet; and often food services is used as a measuring stick to determine compliance to the Eighth Amendment. The terms “wholesome and appetizing” may sound very subjective. Administrations should adopt and implement policies and procedures requiring a professional dietitian to plan menus for the facility. Consider the fact that detention staff is not ordinarily trained to know the minimum nutritional requirements which should be provided to inmates. While there is no clearly established constitutional requirement defining who shall prepare menus and common sense could result in a generally adequate menu development, there is a greater likelihood that the menus will be adequate and more defensible in court when using a nutritionist or dietitian to plan menus.
- The menus should be reviewed and updated, at least, on an annual basis. A review allows the administration to discover potential issues with a repeated menu that, over a sustained period of time, could adversely affect inmates’ health.
- Food service staff should ensure that meals are prepared in a sanitary manner and consistent with health code requirements. Meals which are not prepared in a sanitary manner, may create a risk of disease transmission. Some jails are not regularly visited by their local health department, often forgotten until the time of a lawsuit. At that point, it could be too late to be of value. Administrators should request the county health department to inspect at least annually to provide a layer of verification to ensure operations meet required safety and health codes. Additionally, it allows for food service equipment to be checked so that maintenance requests are given a higher priority, especially when outside the control of the jail administration.
- It is not a violation of inmate rights if the administration occasionally serves more than one meal per day cold (i.e., sandwiches, salads, gelatine desserts, etc.). In fact, there is no clearly established right to receive hot meals. However, generally the courts have supported at least one meal each day being served hot, understanding the administration has the discretion to serve more than one meal hot. What is important is ensuring that inmates’ health does not suffer as a result of inadequate or unsanitary food service. Certainly an administration has the discretion to serve more than one hot meal.