Through the bean hole

Haywood takes no prisoners when it comes to jail food
By DeeAnna Haney | Jan 31, 2014

A typical workday for Regina Barnette begins before most people make it out of bed. By the time 4:30 a.m. rolls around, she's already in the kitchen at the Haywood County Detention Center, brewing coffee and counting trays.

By 6 a.m. Tuesday, 130 inmates were already being served their breakfast of waffles, apple sauce, link sausage, margarine, maple syrup milk and coffee, through a hole in the dormitory door called the "bean hole."

As soon as breakfast was over, it was time to get started on lunch. Also known as "Mama Jean" by her coworkers and inmates, this has been Barnette's job for the past 14 years, and she's got it down to a science.

The kitchen staff must follow rigorous guidelines set forth by the state regarding what goes into the mouths of the inmates. For starters, inmates must be fed a minimum of 2,400 calories every day.

"The majority of these inmates don't eat as well on the streets or even at home, and we've got to get them well before they leave here," Barnette said. "Sometimes they're not so healthy when they get here, but we try to get them as healthy as possible."

At breakfast, they are required to serve two to three ounces of meat and a bread. At lunch and dinner, they must be served a 4-ounce serving of meat, two vegetables, a bread, at least two fruits and/or a cookie or cake for dessert. They are also required to serve two 8-ounce cartons of milk and one 8-ounce serving of coffee each day.

For dinner around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, inmates enjoyed beef stew with vegetables, coleslaw, cornbread, tropical fruit and milk.

Inmates aren't served any meat with the bone in it because that is something that could potentially be used as a weapon. If they serve corndogs, the stick is removed first.

Working in the kitchen isn't always a piece of cake, so to speak. Not only must the staff stand on their feet and cook for several hours, the job also requires crunching numbers, evaluating food costs and planning ahead. There can never be a day when an inmate goes without food due to ill-planning.

Kitchen staff are given a "menu" from the state listing appropriate meal options, but with the high cost of food coupled with the rise in inmate population, adjustments must be made.

"We have to figure out a substitute within the guidelines that is most cost worthy for our budget," Barnette said.

The current annual food budget is $200,000, which breaks down to an average of about $16,700 each month to feed an average of nearly 4,000 meals, said Jail Administrator Capt. Jim Schick. It costs about $7 per day to feed each inmate, which makes meeting budget a difficult task each month.

The generosity of the local community helps offset some of those costs sometimes. On Christmas, local churches brought enough meals to feed all of the inmates, Schick said. People often also donate fruit and vegetables.

"It's all put to good use. Like I said, we're not in the position to waste anything," Barnette said.

Even though most people take off work on holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, inmates must still be fed. That means someone must work in the jail kitchen every day of the year.

This year, Barnette worked on Jan. 1 and went out of her way to plan a traditional Southern meal meant to bring good luck. To start off their year, inmates were fed "real" black eyed peas, smoked hog jowl, cornbread and collard greens.

Two cooks work in the kitchen at a time with the help of two inmates called "trustees."

"It's a privilege for them to be here and it also shows that someone else is willing to trust them," Barnette said.

Having the chance to get out of their cell for a while, even if it means working a 15-hour shift in the kitchen, is incentive for inmates to behave.

"I believe in second chances. We do everything we can to help them with their life issues," Barnette said.

For the most part, the trustees are a big help in the kitchen, helping prepare food, cleaning and carrying heavy boxes that Barnette can't always carry herself.

"There have only been two occasions in 14 years that I had to get ugly like a momma figure with some of them," she said.

Whenever she gets a chance, she talks to the inmates and tries to get them to open up to her about their problems and obstacles in life. If it involves substance abuse, she encourages them.

"My husband and I have seen what alcohol and drugs can do to a family," she said. "If I can help one person through persuading a young person not to do drugs and alcohol, I feel like I've done what I need to do."

The trustees work 15 hours a day, seven days each week. Every 30 days, they are given four days off.

"There are no two cooks that cook the same," Barnette said. "Doris likes to make cakes — she makes the best prune cakes. And Glenn makes the most delicious black walnut pound cake from scratch that you've ever put in your mouth."

Sometimes Burnette makes homemade meatloaf, tuna salad or chicken salad. For a special treat, if there are leftover biscuits from breakfast, she will make homemade bread pudding.

"I tried to remember as close as I could to my grandmother's bread pudding recipe," she said. "We don't waste anything, that's for sure."

Some inmates have special needs when it comes to their food. When they are booked into jail, they must fill out a medical form specifying any food allergies.

Kitchen staff post a paper on the wall listing the names of inmates and their specific food needs.

"We really have to be careful with the people who can't have nuts," Barnette said.

Others, such as diabetics, are given an extra snack in the evening to keep their blood sugar regulated, and pregnant women and juveniles are given two milks instead of one during meals.

In some cases, inmates claim they don't eat certain foods because of religious reasons or because they are vegetarian, and Schick said he always makes sure the kitchen caters to their needs.

Mealtime at the Haywood County Detention Center isn't exactly like what's shown in movies.

The food is placed on a tray in the kitchen, covered and placed on a rolling rack. Then, kitchen staff rolls the meals to jailers who distribute each tray through the "bean hole." Inmates line up to pick up their tray and then those who are not on lockdown eat in a communal setting.

By the time the last food tray was distributed Tuesday, some were already turning their empty trays back in. Some inmates practically inhale their food and others take their time and joy each meal, said Schick.

For the inmates on work detail picking up trash or working at the recycle center, the kitchen packs them a lunch with a sandwich, chips, crackers, cookie, fruit and a carton of milk.

Complaints about the food are rare at the detention center. One time, Barnette remembers the jail housed several out-of-county inmates who did not want to leave the Haywood County Detention Center because of the food.

"They will tell you that Haywood County has the best-fed inmates in the state. I've heard that more than once," Barnette said.