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'Cleaning Up' A Corrections Kitchen

State-of-the-art equipment, improved facilities design and an upgraded food safety program have prepared a North Carolina women's prison that dates back to the 1800s for the challenges of the 21st Century.

The North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women (NCCIW) in Raleigh has taken major strides toward improving its food safety program by renovating and redesigning a more-than-a-century-old facility that has endured a doubling of its inmate population.

The project, which included construction of a new building with much-improved kitchen design and layout and new equipment, is part of North Carolina's systemwide effort to upgrade the foodservice at its penal institutions and ensure the safety of its inmates and officers.

The NCCIW was built way back in the 1800s, and is the second-oldest prison in the state. A new kitchen was added about 12 years ago, but it had been designed to feed just 600 inmates - half of today's population.

"With the changing of the population, and us incarcerating a larger female population than ever before, we had outgrown the prior kitchen completely," remarked Nancy Porter, RD, foodservice director for the Division of Prisons for the State of North Carolina and a 2001 IFMA Silver Plate Award winner.

The new complex now includes a maternity ward, an infirmary, a mental health area and a death row (whose most infamous resident, Blanche Moore, was portrayed in a movie by the late Elizabeth Montgomery).

What WasThe doubling of the inmate population had caused a variety of logistical problems. As Porter recalled, "The time it took to serve was horrendous because the dining room didn't have enough seats. Then, it was also very cramped as far as cooking was concerned; there was just no room."

In the kitchen, she recounted, "Staff couldn't even walk around because it was so extremely tight in there. It just was terrible. For physical safety, as well as being able even to handle the food correctly, it was beyond hope."

The Raleigh prison serves as the main segregation facility for female inmates who have to be locked down, other than death row, Porter explained. "This is where all the unruly females are sent, so we have a lot of meal trays that have to go out in heated carts. Then, there are the infirmary and all the people served in the mental health building. Actually, we have a lot of carts leaving the facility, and we did not have a place, really, to load them other than on the main serving line. Prior to the meals going out, we had the inmate employees getting the trays assembled and putting them into carts out in the dining room."

As for food safety in the old kitchen, Porter only said, "We got by." One of the things that made it challenging was the lack of proper refrigerated storage. "We just didn't have that much. This was especially challenging because we are a centralized purchasing type of agency with a centralized meat plant that furnishes us with all of our meat, frozen vegetables and all other cold items."

Porter and her colleagues also have had to cope with the fact that their purchasing agency will deliver products only once a week, which has created storage problems. "In the South, in the summertime, we have to store bread in the refrigerator or else it will mold because of the humidity in the kitchen. We had a terrible time keeping milk, and the ventilation in there was terrible."

The prison's meal production schedule made things harder still. "In essence, we never stop cooking," said Porter, a leading figure in correctional foodservice since joining the North Carolina system in February 1992. "We never have a shutdown time, which means we can't ever completely clean up. We go from one meal to another, and we about had to start serving the first inmates coming in before we really had even cleaned up from the previous meal."

NCCIW: Key Equipment List
  • Two 40-qt. tilting braising pans
  • Three deep fryers
  • Two 60-gal. steam kettles
  • One 80-gal. steam kettle
  • Two 2-compartment steamers
  • Two flat griddles
  • One combi oven, double-stack
  • One convection oven, double-stack
  • Two 5-gal. steam kettles
  • One flight-type dishwasher
  • One pot/warewashing turbo sink
  • Two slicers
  • One vertical cutter/mixer
  • One tray make-up/conveyer
  • One dough rounder/divider
  • One roll-in rack oven, double-rack
  • One roll-in proofer, double-rack
  • One blast chiller
  • Four walk-in coolers
  • One walk-in freezer
  • Two pass-through refrigerators
  • Four pass-through heated cabinets
  • One reach-in heated cabinet
  • Three reach-in refrigerators
  • Two reach-in freezers
  • Four ice machines
  • Two ice dispensers
  • Six heated meal delivery carts
  • Two toasters
  • One mobile heated cabinet
  • Thus, a decision was made to scrap the existing kitchen entirely and construct a new one in a new building about 100 yards away. The new kitchen began operating last April, while the old facility has been converted to a warehouse.

    "We took all the equipment out," said Porter. "We even moved the walk-in coolers - all but one, and that one is staying there to supply the canteens, where inmates can go and purchase things. All the other equipment was either scrapped or sent to other facilities."

    Touring The New Kitchen The old kitchen was approximately 13,000-square-feet, while the new one measures about 19,000-square-feet. The total cost of the project was $4.7 million, according to Brian Murray, Correctional Food Service Manager IV at NCCIW, which was partly paid for with funds from a federal grant. He oversees a staff of 12 paid employees, including a dietitian. About 100 inmates work two shifts in the kitchen.

    The new layout and design was executed by an architect, but conceived by Porter herself. An observer entering the facility from the front will first find a dining room that seats 400, roughly twice as many as before. There are two serving lines on opposite sides of the building and, between them, is the dirty-dish-return window.

    As in many correctional facilities, the service counter is designed for "blind feeding." This means that the serving window is raised only about 10 inches, just enough to permit a tray to be passed through. "That way, we don't have much visual and verbal communication going on, showing favoritism or things like that," noted Murray, a 15-year veteran of the North Carolina corrections system who came to this facility last spring.

    Entering the kitchen, there are pass-through cold and hot boxes on the serving lines. The dishroom area lies in the center between the serving lines. Further back is the main food preparation area, with two large banks of equipment. The battery includes grills on one side, a double-stacked combi oven and another double-stacked conventional oven. There are two tilting skillets, three 60-gallon kettles, a pair of double-stacked steamers and three deep-fat fryers. (See sidebar for full equipment inventory.)

    A bakery area includes a dough rounder/divider, a couple of mixers, a roll-in double-rack oven and a double-rack proofer. Opposite that on the other side of the cooking area is a vegetable prep area with slicers, a vegetable cutter, mixer and other pieces.

    Porter called the blast chiller and new pot-and-pan sink the most important additions to the kitchen because of their impact on food safety. The blast-chill area is a small station in front of the walk-in coolers, which are aligned along the same wall. There is also a thawing box that leads into a walk-in freezer. In the back end of the kitchen are day storage and dry storage areas. Between them are a pair of offices with windows that look into the storage rooms and the kitchen. Nearby are the loading dock and staging area for supplies that come off trucks to be broken down and brought into storage.

    "Lots of times in a foodservice operation you never have enough office space," Porter said. Here, however, that shortage has been addressed. The facility's dietitian has an office, as does Murray. A third, large office is available for other supervisors.

    The new facility's improved overall workflow, beginning with deliveries, has added significantly to an increase in food safety. Said Murray, "It's much more efficient as far as receiving deliveries and putting them right into storage. In the old kitchen, the storage areas were near the center of the space. Staff had to bring cases and supplies all the way through and pass workstations and areas. The flow now is much more smooth. There's some cohesion, some rhyme and reason to what we're doing here."

    The old kitchen, he added, was kind of "'piece-mealed' together as it was added to and expanded. There was an old dining room and an old kitchen, then there was another kitchen added to the old kitchen, and it was all pieced together over time. There was no good flow to anything."

    Emphasis On Food Safety The largest of North Carolina's 77 state prisons generally hold populations no greater than 1,200, according to Porter, which is diminutive compared with states like California and Maryland where it's nothing for them to have 3,000 or 6,000 prisoners in one compound.

    The renovation of the NCCIW is indicative of the trend taking place around the state and across the nation, Porter noted, wherein correctional institutions are instituting HACCP plans and moving to feed more inmates than before they were Serv-Safe-certified.

    "Hopefully, this is going to be not just a trend but a positive development that will be permanent," said Porter. "What we try to do is communicate to our local [operations] people what our food safety requirements are." Prisons, she reflected, "move pretty slowly in their thinking, and on the whole [don't get] too progressive too quickly. But one of the worst things we could have would be a food contamination situation, considering how many people we have confined here."

    Colleague Irene Lippert, CCFP, president of the American Correctional Food Service Association who recently retired after 28 years with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, agreed with Porter. At least part of the reason for the emergence of food safety as an issue in corrections kitchen designs is the fact that "we are living in a fish bowl here.

    "The food comes in to the dock and the inmates unload it and they know how to read the dates on it," she explained. "They know when the equipment is not cleaned or is not cleanable or has been sabotaged. In the long run, these inmates have rights. They can sue the Department of Corrections of the state, county, municipality if we allow an unsafe foodservice facility to operate, and they're going to win."

    Equipment's Impact In the NCCIW kitchen, a new turbo-jet pot and pan washer "has given us a safety factor," Porter asserted. The new kitchen's layout also separates the pot-and-pan area from the dishmachine area, a feature that is working well, as the distance helps inmate workers clean more efficiently. "We don't have too many pots, but we must clean our baking pans and the stainless-steel pans that are put in the wells for serving."

    Murray observed that the piece of equipment that he thinks has had the biggest impact on food safety is his flight-type dishwasher. "The old dishmachine was kind of worked into a corner, and there were a lot of problems with the unit itself. Now, we have a really good piece of equipment, so we're not having the problems with temperatures and down time that we had with the old one."

    The kitchen's blast chiller is located in the prep area, Porter noted, "so that when staff are making, say, macaroni salad, chicken or potato salad, Jell-O or any of those types of things, they can quickly chill them down. The food safety advance is that we don't have hot items in the thawing refrigerator, [so] we have less chance of food contamination. If we've pre-cooked, say, chicken and cool it off for chicken salad and don't bring it down properly, then we can have people become very ill. The blast chiller gives us a safeguard we didn't have before at all."

    The new kitchen also features what Porter referred to as "a regular [meal assembly] system like you'd see in any hospital or large production area, with a tray line that is located away from the regular cafeteria line. Therefore, we can handle food better, keeping hot items hotter and cold things cold. We have become much more efficient regarding the length of time it takes to do those tasks and the amount of time that the food is not being protected has been cut in half."

    The additional cold-storage space installed in the new kitchen has further impacted food safety for the better, while the new blast chiller has meant better handling of leftovers. "These new pieces help us safely bring foods' temperatures down, making our production more consistent with the [five-year-old] HACCP program we have in place," said Murray.

    "We have a roll-in baking oven in our baking complex, so the baking ovens no longer have to be used to prepare regular foods," Porter pointed out. "Before, in the old kitchen, staff had to share a mixer if they were whipping up potatoes making gravy, because there was just the one. Now, each area has its own processing equipment to handle its foods without having to carry them [and potential food contamination] across the whole kitchen."

    Employee training on the new kitchen equipment was handled in large part by the vendors themselves through on-site demonstrations. "We do that with any new start-up facility," said Porter. "For instance, we're going to open three new facilities in 2003 that are going to feed 1,000 people each and staff there will have and be trained on this same type of equipment."

    Indeed, keeping up on the latest trends in correctional foodservice equipment has taken on added importance for Porter, who has made it a point to visit many of the state's federal prisons and compare notes with her counterparts. "When I first took this job, I always made time for vendor reps so they could talk to me and I could ask a lot of questions," she said. "That relationship builds up so that our reps are willing to tell us about new trends and products. That's the only way you're going to be able to learn."

    But correctional foodservice managers across the nation are learning, and learning well, that food safety is and must remain a top priority - and a critical consideration when planning any sort of facilities update.

    North Carolina's speed in recognizing this and bringing food safety to center stage should serve as an example for both new and (especially) old correctional institutions everywhere.