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Attempted riot over food at El Paso County Jail preceded by rise in complaints, warnings from deputies

March 7, 2017 Updated: March 8, 2017 at 4:51 pm
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Inmates stir up a big pot of turkey tetrazzini to serve other inmates at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center on Monday, March 6, 2017. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

An attempted riot over food portions at the El Paso County Jail in November was not without warning signs.

In the weeks after the institution switched food service providers in early fall, complaints about meals skyrocketed, deputies warned their supervisors as pressures mounted and inmates from several wards threatened to "take matters into their own hands" if something wasn't done, according to information provided by the Sheriff's Office in response to a Colorado Open Records Act request.

The turmoil began in September, when the jail's vendor changed from Aramark Correctional Services, which had served the institution for 18 years, to Trinity Services Group.

In the first month of Trinity's contract, inmates electronically submitted 392 complaints about food service - a massive increase from the 14 submitted in the final month of Aramark's contract, according to the Sheriff's Office. The complaints remained high in October, at 124, and November, at 42.

The figures do not include written complaints, which a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office said weren't readily available.

Unhappy inmates

Issues with food service continued into November, when nine inmates refused to leave their cells for five hours, kicking cell doors and threatening to flood their cells. One deputy was punched in the face and another nearly assaulted. All nine inmates are facing felony charges for the incident, which occurred Nov. 21.

The food disturbance and its aftermath were first reported by The Colorado Springs Independent.

Jail Cmdr. Rob King, who sat on the committee that evaluated contract proposals for the jail's food service, knew little about the details of Trinity's agreement, including how many calories inmate meals are supposed to contain and how that total stacks up to industry standards, according to emails provided by the Sheriff's Office in response to the records request.

"I just wished I had asked the questions regarding portion size and how it compares to other facilities during the contract negotiation ... instead of now," King said in a Dec. 2 email to Trinity District Manager Mark Yearout.

"A fat and fed inmate causes much less trouble," King said. "This seems to be where we are missing our target."

The county's contract with Trinity, renewed for 2017 in December, requires "well balanced meals" that provide a minimum of 3,000 calories to each inmate per day.

Before Trinity was awarded the contract, the company was required to submit sample menus that met the standards of the American Correctional Association and National Commission on Correctional Health Care, said Sheriff's Office Spokeswoman Natalie Sosa.

The company also had to submit a sample menu that was certified by a nutritionist or dietitian for "daily dietary requirements," Sosa said.

'Building tension'

During the first few weeks of Trinity's contract, the company's kitchen staff was late to work and struggled to prepare enough meals to feed the jail's average daily population of roughly 1,500 inmates, emails provided by the jail staff show.

In a Sept. 18 email, Lt. Shane Mitchell told King about the "building tension."

"There has been grumblings throughout the wards the last three days reference the food service," he said. "The primary complaints I'm hearing have to do with the entree portion size. In addition, meals are not being served in a timely, consistent manner."

He said that inmates in three wards told him they would take action if nothing was done to correct the issues.

A day earlier, a jailer detailed hangups in meal preparation in an email to Mitchell. Sgt. Mike Pitt described a "huge shortage" of sack lunches, an understaffed kitchen, and delays in dinner service, which "caused obvious back-ups and very upset inmates who started to act out." The sack lunches that were served the previous day contained a slice of meat, a roll, and a small bag of chips - "subpar at best," Pitt said.

Trinity staff blamed the issues on not having enough food or inmate help in the kitchen, Pitt told Mitchell in the email.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sosa said jail staff has met with Trinity's team daily since the beginning of its contract to discuss the issues and suggest improvements to streamline the food service. Jailers also helped the kitchen staff deliver meals to inmates at the beginning of the company's contract.

"We briefed our staff to address concerns immediately and involve a shift supervisor when necessary to ensure small issues were resolved quickly and not allowed to grow into bigger problems," Sosa said in a statement.

But the problems were not short-lived.

Price increase

In a Nov. 6 email, Mitchell describes another "major breakdown in food service," including more lags in service, insufficient management in the kitchen and poor communication between Trinity staff.

"I find it hard to believe that this far into their contract Trinity is still struggling to deliver their services effectively and efficiently," Mitchell writes to Detention Bureau Chief Mitch Lincoln and Jail Cmdr. Tom Deluca.

In emails to Jail Commander King, Trinity District Manager Yearout expressed concern about the issues in food service. Yearout, as well as Trinity's public relations team, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Trinity's contract came with a price increase. In 2015, the last full year of Aramark's contract, the company was paid $1,890,980. For the first full year of Trinity's contract, which was renewed Dec. 30, the county will shell out $1,985,529. Both contracts included supplying the jail's commissary, where inmates can buy food, drinks and toiletries.

In a Dec. 3 email to a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, King said the contract negotiation process opened up for competitive bid under Sheriff's Office administrator Larry Borland. Prices weren't considered "until we had selected a vendor who we believed could provide the highest level of service in both food service and commissary service," King said.

Switch complaints expected

In the same email, King blamed Aramark for the "horrible start" to Trinity's first few months of service, saying Aramark's kitchen staff "refused" to help Trinity work through the transition after they lost the contract.

But Karen Cutler, vice president of corporate communications for Aramark, said the Aramark's staff made efforts to ensure a stable transition, including allowing Trinity's staff into the jail's kitchen for the last week of August.

"Both the new provider and the County did a walk-through and inspection on our last day and no issues or concerns were raised," Cutler said in a statement. "The kitchen was cleaned and we completed all responsibilities through the last meal we were contracted to provide on August 31."

The county did not tell Aramark why it was terminating the contract, Cutler said.

Jackie Kirby, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said an increase in complaints was expected with the switch.

"Any time there is change in the daily routine involving inmates, they tend to complain or write grievances," she said in a statement. "It is as if they become dependent on the routine nature of being incarcerated."

Worried about nutrition

An assembly line of inmates fill a dinner food tray at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center on Monday, March 6, 2017. The dinner included turkey tetrazzini, mixed vegetables, a biscuit and cookies. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette 

Inmates were worried about receiving enough nutrition from what they described as undersized portions, a sampling of complaints provided by the Sheriff's Office shows.

In one complaint from October, provided by the Sheriff's Office as part of a sampling, an inmate describes his meal: a slice of bologna, a roll, a carrot, two cookies and juice.

"That does not constitute a meal," he writes in the complaint. "The above diet is why I weigh 132 (pounds) at 6 (feet) tall." Another inmate expressed concern on Oct. 5 about not having enough calcium in her diet.

"Meals are a joke," a third inmate wrote in an Oct. 10 complaint. "I don't know who's supervising Trinity, but the portions are insufficient."

After the attempted riot, Kirby told The Gazette the incident was an attempt by unruly inmates to get extra food.

A week before the Nov. 21 disturbance, kitchen staff were short on items, so inmates in the ward where the incident occurred were given a sack lunch to supplement their meal.

"They thought they could get an extra sack lunch any time they made extra noise," Kirby maintained.

In his Dec. 3 email, Jail Cmdr. King said the jail had experienced some "growing pains and difficulty getting to full speed due to the less than pleasant transition" when Trinity took over, but service had since improved and the new vendor was "doing fine."

Electronically submitted complaints fell to 25 in December.

The jail added some additional items to the breakfast menus in February, according to the Sheriff's Office. The changes did not affect the price of the contract.

A former Aramark employee, who worked at the jail until May and did not wished to be identified, said inmate complaints were fairly minor. If the jail is experiencing issues with inmates becoming unruly over food, "they're not listening to the inmates concerns," she said.

She added that food is often the sole comfort for someone who is incarcerated.

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Gazette reporter Lance Benzel contributed.

Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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