What jails serve that Paris snubs / Prisoners' meals required to be nourishing, appealing
With less than two weeks to go on her sentence, hotel heiress Paris Hilton reportedly is rejecting most of her jailhouse rations, opting for just the cereal and bread.
The Los Angeles County jail is no Ritz-Carlton, to be sure. It's not even the Hilton. But contrary to popular belief, food fare in the slammer these days is far from gruel and water. In fact, a whole set of regulations require meals not only be nourishing but also look good on the plate.
Many California jails, including those in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties, have gone so far as to serve vegan dishes to please their socially conscious inmates. Other jails have a plethora of plans to satisfy diets restricted by religion or health issues.
Some serve fresh, roasted turkey on Thanksgiving, Danish for breakfast and even dessert. One Bay Area county, so desperate to get one of its prisoners to eat, broke down and bought him a Big Mac.
Steve Whitmore, a Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman who has been working double-time handling the press covering the Hilton case, says he's been eating a lot of meals from the socialite's new home -- the downtown Twin Towers jail.
"I think they're really good," said Whitmore, who particularly savors the bologna sandwiches. As far as Hilton: "I'm not going to comment on what individuals in the jail eat or don't eat," he said.
On a typical day, according to Whitmore, inmates get a breakfast of cold cereal, hard-boiled eggs and a beverage. For lunch, it's usually a sandwich of ham and cheese or turkey, fruit, Jell-O and cookies. Dinner is a hot meal -- entrees like pepper steak or macaroni and cheese, vegetables and dessert.
Los Angeles County has 47 different meal plans for inmates who can't eat certain foods, said Magi Work, a field representative for California's Corrections Standards Authority, a government agency that monitors jails statewide.
Unlike prisons, jails hold people either awaiting trial or sentenced to serve less than a year behind bars.
According to state regulations, jail food must meet nutritional requirements and include at least one hot meal a day. Inmates must have a minimum of 15 minutes to eat and in some jails are permitted to chow down in front of the television -- just like home.
The state also dictates that violent or problem inmates be served the dreaded "disciplinary loaf," which is designed to be eaten without utensils. The strict recipe calls for dry milk, potatoes, carrots, tomato juice, cabbage, lean ground beef or turkey, textured vegetable protein, eggs, red beans and chili powder -- all baked in an oven for an hour.
"It's actually not that bad," said Marin County Sheriff Sgt. Mike Crain. "And it's very nutritious."
But do the inmates like it?
"These are the kind of inmates who wouldn't like filet mignon if you served it to them," he said.
At the Marin County Jail, if you're good, you get cake, baked in-house. You also get an occasional dinner of chicken cordon bleu or meat loaf. Not in the mood for rich comfort food? Crain says folks can trade any entree for a good old peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey is particularly concerned that his inmates get the real deal for Thanksgiving.
"It's bad enough being in jail for the holidays, but getting pressed turkey is horrible," said Eileen Hirst, the sheriff's spokeswoman.
Like many jails, San Francisco's contracts with a large food service provider -- in this case, Aramark, which also serves ballparks, schools and professional clubs, oversees the kitchen at the San Francisco Jail, and trains prisoners how to cook.
At all jails, select inmates do the cooking along with the staff. But it only stands to reason that the jail in a city known for its culinary prowess would also turn out some pretty good chefs. Michael Buffington, who was released from custody in San Francisco in 1992 after a conviction for cocaine possession and driving under the influence, went on to work in some of the world's most famous kitchens and later opened his own catering company.
Over the years, the jail's menu has evolved. When some animal rights activists were arrested several years ago, they posed a dilemma because they refused to eat animal products. In response, the jail introduced a vegan plan, Hirst said, and has been offering it ever since.
San Mateo County offers one, too. Its jail also had its very own heiress as a guest. In 1975, Patricia Hearst, of the newspaper family that now owns The Chronicle, spent some time behind bars awaiting trial for her days with the Symbionese Liberation Army.
It was a long time ago, but no one can remember her complaining about the food. Years later, convicted wife-killer Scott Peterson would tell the staff that the food was "much better than Stanislaus County," recalled former Sheriff Don Horsley.
It didn't hurt that the fellow in the neighboring cell was slipping Peterson his leftovers, according to Horsley. On the first Christmas the Modesto fertilizer salesman spent behind San Mateo County bars, he dined on a turkey and ham roll, yams, peas, carrots and vanilla pudding with cookies.
Lt. Lisa Williams says meals on the Peninsula are hearty -- about 2,200 calories a day -- and include fare such as cheese and tomato hot-pocket-style sandwiches, vegetables, beans and applesauce.
Of course, as in any jail, inmates are free to buy cookies, candy and noodle soup from the commissary using money given to them by family and friends. Williams said they get pretty creative with the simple snack food, even making casseroles out of noodles, Doritos, crackers and hot water.
There was a time, Horsley can remember, when prisoners broke into the jail's electrical system and devised homemade hot plates. The county has since fixed that oversight.
Not all jail food is good. A few dishes might even have scared some crooks straight. In San Diego County, for example, the threat of a steady diet of "Duffy burgers" -- bologna sandwiches named for the late Sheriff John Duffy -- was enough to put fear into the most hardened criminal. Word was, however, that the jail's chocolate chip cookies could turn even a preacher bad.
Yet there are always those people, maybe not as rich or as pampered as Paris Hilton, who just don't like eating from a prix-fixe menu. San Francisco once had an inmate who refused meals for nine days. When Sheriff Hennessey pleaded with him, the man replied that he'd eat only a Big Mac.
That caused much debate at the jail. Would they be setting a bad precedent if they gave in to the fellow? Hennessey decided it would be worse having a man die of hunger on his watch. So he went next door to McDonald's and got the man his burger -- and a side of fries.