Deputies at the El Paso County jail are in a food fight of sorts and giving inmates the bird.
A Sheriff's Office press release of Aug. 3, defending the jail's meals in the wake of a brief hunger strike by inmates, is the latest development in what has become a jail food saga. The release says that on July 30 inmates were served turkey for a fifth consecutive meal, despite protests, and it promises more turkey is to come.
"Staff addressed the [inmates'] concerns and reassured them that turkey, turkey and more turkey is not a form of punishment," the release states.
The episode comes as the Sheriff's Office faces numerous internal complaints and at least 10 lawsuits filed by disgruntled inmates over jail food.
One suit, filed by former inmate Mark Compton, describes the jail fare as substandard. He alleges that each meal was cut back by 25 percent as of March, and that some inmates have reacted by eating scraps from the trash, begging or intimidating fellow inmates for food.
Compton could not be reached for comment.
Lt. Clif Northam, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, says turkey is cheaper than beef or pork, highly nutritious and less likely to prompt religious complaints. Turkey will continue to be a mainstay, he says, served at just about every meal.
"A lot of our deputies eat the same food the inmates eat," he adds.
Yet complaint forms attached to Compton's lawsuit raise doubts about food quality. Inmate Darius Pinkney wrote that some peaches served in June were "four different colors (i.e. black, green, red and orange).
"Some were mushy, some were rock hard," he wrote. "They were in my opinion not fit for human consumption."
Other inmates complained about the peaches, too, but were instructed by a deputy not to consume them.
"In your handbook, it states to eat around anything not to your liking," the deputy wrote in the official complaint form.
Michael Holmes, another inmate, accuses Sheriff Terry Maketa of standing idly by as the jail's food contractor, Aramark Correctional Services, shirks its responsibilities by serving "unhealthy disease causing garbage."
Sarah Jarvis, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia-based Aramark, defends the food quality and says the company wasn't aware of the inmates' complaints until contacted by the Independent.
"We will be looking into it," Jarvis says.
The Sheriff's Office denied an Independent reporter permission to eat with the inmates, saying the journalist's presence might aggravate them, including some whom Northam describes as being "on the edge" over food.
He adds that the press release, penned by Sgt. Jim Groth and acknowledging that some of the inmates' "feathers were ruffled," was intended to be tongue-in-cheek.
Northam deflects the question of whether the release was appropriate, given the inmates' concerns about food.
"It's jail, you know," he says. "If you don't want the turkey, don't go to jail."
-- Michael de Yoanna