The food was pretty good at the Idaho State Correctional Institution's dining hall, PenDyne, but the ambience was lacking. Peering up from my plate, I saw armed corrections officers walking by, even more armed personnel staring down from a watchtower, and a mean-looking guard dog pacing around the perimeter of the institution, which is home to nearly 2,000 male inmates.
The centerpiece of the bright orange tray consisted of hot dogs (steamed to an internal temperature of 160 degrees) on freshly baked whole wheat rolls topped with expertly tart and snappy sauerkraut, surrounded by veggie sticks, green Jello, fruit and a large helping of baked beans with generous molasses. The hot dogs, rolls and sauerkraut were fine, but the beans were exemplary.
Anyone who thinks that Idaho prisoners are eating high on the hog need only look at the average cost per offender meal. During the 2012 fiscal year, the cost of a meal was 81 cents--one of the lowest among the nation's state prisons. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an average state prison meal costs between $2.50 and $2.70.
"A number of other states regularly ask us about how we do things here," said Katie Hall, dietary service manager for the Idaho Department of Correction.
Jeff Zmuda, IDOC deputy chief of prisons, said that in his 25-plus years in the prison industry, he and his colleagues have made Idaho prison food increasingly economical.
"We're more austere than ever," said Zmuda. "Twenty-five years ago, prison food was not as basic as it is today. But the quality is as high as it's ever been, maybe higher."
As for frugal taxpayers who might prefer prisoners be fed bread and water, Zmuda was quick to add that quality food on a budget is much more than conservative economics--it's the right thing to do morally and legally.
"First of all, constitutionally, we can't feed people bread and water," he said. "Plus, there is a respect and fairness issue. To manage prisons effectively, you have to have mutual respect between offenders and staff."
Zmuda added that food is "never used as punishment."
"It may have been back in the day, but no longer," he said. "Occasionally, if we have someone that's disruptive, we may need to put them on an alternative meal where they don't have to have utensils."
An "alternative" meal might be simple finger food--such as a sandwich--or something known as Nutriloaf.
"We have very infrequent cases of where we might have to use Nutriloaf," added Hall, referring to the densely baked loaf of ingredients that would normally comprise a meal. In a 2002 examination of the controversial food, The New York Times headline read: "What's worse than solitary confinement? Just taste this."
"Offenders here don't eat it on a regular basis," said Zmuda. "It's usually very short-term."
ISCI inmates are allowed to sign up for optional diets if they choose not to participate in PenDyne's traditional meals.
"In addition to our main line, we offer a non-pork, a vegan, a lacto-ovo [vegetarian but including dairy and eggs] or what we call a healthy choice diet, which is low in sodium, sugar and cholesterol," said Hall. "When they come into the dining hall, they go to a special window to pick up their meal."
Almost as impressive as the cost per meal in Idaho prisons is the fact that so much of the food is made from scratch in ISCI's huge kitchen.
While the kitchen resembles a large commercial operation, its personnel are under close watch by armed supervisors to make sure there's never a false move among the pots and pans.
"We have a steam-based system," said Jeannie Hunter, ISCI food service manager who led BW on a prison kitchen tour.
Inmate Tony Garren--who's serving food while serving time for grand theft and burglary--stirred a giant steaming vat of beans that was half as tall and twice as wide as the musclebound offender. Several feet away, inmate Robbie Cox--who has worked in the kitchen for a year and was convicted of sexual abuse--was stirring another huge pot of applesauce.
As many as 120 offenders are on the roster to work in the ISCI kitchen. They're supervised by 12 food service officers, who are prison guards first and food service specialists second.
"It's a promotion for a security officer to become a food service officer," said Hunter. "I much prefer teaching a security officer about food service than having a food service person learn to be a security officer."
A heavenly waft of cinnamon and brown sugar hit us as we opened the door to the kitchen's huge bakery.
"That's the coffee cake we just finished," said offender Henry Torres--who has been at the prison for 10 years following his conviction for injury to a child. "I'm very proud of our work here."
Torres awakes each weekday at 3 a.m. in order to get the bakery's ovens fired up by 4 a.m. The bakery, which makes all of the prison's desserts from scratch, pushes out the equivalent of 1,700 loaves of bread each day.
"The offenders who work in the kitchen are under extremely close supervision. They can't pull food, the tools are all locked down and all the supplies--especially the spices--are on lock and key. Spices are a high-risk of theft," said Hunter. "But they learn how to prepare and cook, and we promote from within. When they're released into society, they have a definite sense of worth."