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Washington Prison Food Factory Cooks Up Controversy

The idea was peddled to the Washington state legislature as a scheme to save tax dollars: a giant prison food factory manufacturing institutional meals on a vast scale for sale to other prisons. "Build it," they said.

When the $3.5 million "Correctional Industries" food factory opened in 1995 at Airway Heights prison (AHCC), near Spokane, WA, the operation was supposed to crank out a thousand meals an hour. Officials predicted the high-tech kitchen would soon prepare entrees served to most of the state's 13,000-plus prisoners, thus trimming prison food budgets statewide. But the hyperbole soon turned to bitter controversy.

Partly in response to a barrage of complaints, the state health department inspected the AHCC food factory on May 14, 1996. Health inspectors cited numerous food-handling violations and found tons of rotten chicken on the premises.

Three weeks later the DOC conducted an audit of its own, bringing in food service managers from three other prisons. The audit was prompted by the Dept. of Health inspection and a rising tide of prisoner complaints statewide about the AHCC food product.

"The Audit Team objected to the use of tainted chicken and after much discussion ... 250 pounds were discarded. We were told that 6,000 pounds ... was discarded on 6/3 [the day before the audit]," said the team's report.

By the end of that month, state prison officials ordered a recall of all meals with ground beef and chicken that the factory had made from May 22 to June 17 and delivered to Meals on Wheels programs statewide, including: Spokane Valley Meals on Wheels, Prospector Senior Nutrition, and the Spokane AIDS Network.

"Our internal audit was disturbing," said Janeen Wadsworth, director of correctional industries for the DOC, "and we didn't want a Jack In The Box type incident," referring to the E. Coli outbreak in 1993 that killed three children and sickened hundreds.

About the same time, state prison officials rescinded an earlier directive for all state prisons to order 13 percent of their meals from Airway Heights. That action cut factory income by half, and the gleaming new kitchen was soon falling far short of the $1.1 million in sales needed to break even.

The local press began to smell a story and assigned a reporter to cover it. State DOC records obtained by the Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper unmasked the odor of serious problems wafting from the AHCC operation, including: complaints from prisons statewide about poor food -- including "green" creamed beef, slimy meatballs, undercooked turkey, even a bloody Band-Aid cooked into a biscuit; citations from the state department of health for thawing ground beef at room temperature; protests from prisoner food factory workers about the purchase of a shipload of surplus food from a dry-docked U.S. Navy ship -- much of it with expired freshness dates; a major flap over a delivery of several tons of bad chicken from a Minnesota supplier, marked "BAD CHIX" and "DO NOT USE."

Prisoner food factory workers contacted the Spokesman-Review and PLN, citing other disturbing problems. Workers say they were ordered to alter 1991 expiration labels (by writing in 1996) on tons of Navy surplus food days before a USDA inspection. They report incidents of recipe tampering and sabotage, including one prisoner who said he was directed by his supervisor to substitute eight pounds of corn starch for modified food starch as "a deliberate attempt" to ruin a batch of food overseen by a rival supervisor. Prisoners say they were threatened by prison officials for talking to the press. AHCC food factory manager, Fred Straub, told reporters that complaining prisoners were "liars."

Straub replaced Lain Knowles, who was "let go" after the state audit. He told visiting legislators in September that he hoped to restore the factory's spoiled reputation and canceled contracts, projecting the factory's income would rise above break-even by early 1997. "We've had a setback, but eventually we will be successful," he promised.

Although the food factory was the brain child of Loye Studer, the DOC's state-level food service program manager, food managers at individual prisons have "strong concerns" for their liability if anyone gets sick, said Paul Brand, business manager at the Washington State Reformatory. Food managers fear "damage to their reputations/careers if food poisoning, etc., should occur," Brand told Studer.

By early 1997, AHCC food products began reappearing on prison menus statewide. The AHCC food's poisonous reputation, however, is keeping food managers close-mouthed about how much AHCC product they serve.

"If I quoted you an exact figure," one cautiously said, "I'd probably be off, but it's not much." When pressed to reveal if he was obligated to purchase a specific amount of food from AHCC, he would only say: "Well, there's an obligation there, obviously, but I can't say how much. I can tell you this, there's a relationship there -- there is with all of the prisons, just like we buy from the C.I. [Correctional Industries] meat plant and C.I. dairy. It's all about supporting correctional industries and creating inmate jobs. If we don't buy from them, they don't sell anything, and that means no inmate jobs."

Meals on Wheels and other non-profits contacted by the press in early 1997 were even more close-mouthed. None of them would talk about their relationship with the prison food factory. Some even denied they had ever served AHCC prepared meals, obviously hoping to wash the taint of rotten prison food off of their own damaged reputations.

So the state is stuck with a $3.5 million embarrassment that has cooked up more controversy and red ink than anything else. And the DOC is forced to maintain a trade-off between the need for AHCC "inmate jobs" on one hand and the rising tide of discontent from state prison chow halls on the other.

Corrections "professionals" must be uneasy about this delicate balance, knowing that many a prison riot has been sparked by something as "trivial" as, for instance, a bloody Band-Aid in a biscuit served to a prisoner who needs just on more push to propel him over the ragged edge of violence.


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