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Correctional E&S: Serving Time

Equipment that meets the need for security, durability and high-volume production rules the day in correctional foodservice facilities.

Have you ever seen knives tethered in metal to kitchen worktables or to shadow boards on the wall? How about can openers that drop tops and bottoms in separate bins for counting, or control panels on ovens that lock tightly? If you answered “no” to any of those questions,questions, then you haven't been inside a kitchen at a prison or jail.

Challenging? Of course. Correctional foodservice operators deal with equipment vandalism, budget constraints, complicated service repairs and a score of other issues. But for Lori Schroeder, principal of S3 Designers and a 20-plus-year veteran of the correctional foodservice industry, the test of knowledge and wills is the best part. “People who like challenges like working in correctional facilities,” she says.

But a great thing about the work, both Schroeder and Paul Mackesey, designer and president of Mackesey Associates and a 25-plus-year veteran of the industry, say, is that they can apply what they learn in corrections to other projects. As a result, they become better specifiers and their traditional foodservice projects become a piece of cake.

“We learn how to specify very durable equipment,” Mackesey says, for one. “If we know a flight dishmachine will last 10 years in a correctional institution, that's the one we want in a school cafeteria because it will get some good use.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge correctional foodservice professionals deal with is overcrowding.

“The problem is the kitchen doesn't get any bigger but the population increases,” Mackesey says. “What ends up happening is the overall facility gets stressed.”

Schroeder agrees and adds, “Typically, as a facility expands the first and foremost goal is to increase bed capacity, and oftentimes the support area — food, laundry and all the other systems — is overlooked.”

One way correctional foodservice operators deal with this is by expanding the kitchen's hours of operation, Schroeder says. Items served cold and others that keep are prepared for the morning or next day's menu in an off-meal service shift, often occurring between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.

Ricky Clark, training and development coordinator for the Virginia Department of Corrections and a 22-year veteran of correctional foodservice, says his staff adjust hours when necessary. “You start work at 3:30 in the morning. You cook the whole day you're in there, cooking for one meal that runs into another,” he says.

The one primary process that cannot be moved to an off-time shift is sanitation of trays used to feed the inmates, Schroeder says.“If you're serving breakfast at 6:30 a.m., all of those trays have to get back and be sanitized before the next meal service at 11:30,” she says.“It's impossible to just have more trays with limited space.”

Other methods of dealing with overcrowding issues include outsourcing some food production, using convenience foods, and/or getting more deliveries — maybe two deliveries per day as opposed to one.

Premade food is big at the jails, with roughly 80 percent of all the food coming from deliveries, says Clark. The reason for that is inmates stay for much longer periods at prisons than at jails. And that means more time to train prison inmates how to cook and bake, and make things from scratch.

That said, inmate labor is vital to correctional foodservice. With tight budgets, jails and prisons save loads of money by employing inmates in the kitchen. However, with more inmate labor comes issues of vandalism and security.

“Working in the kitchen is a privilege, and it's taken away if there's a lack of performance,” says Mackesey. Typically, prisons try to employ inmates who are within only a few months of being released. Otherwise, if they're in there for life, they may be more inclined to damage the equipment as a way to rebel.

The other huge issue is security.

“Inmates will take apart whatever they want to take apart to fashion into a weapon,” Schroeder says. As a result for all jails and prisons, Schroeder offers a correctional package, with specified equipment that has tamper-proof screws, quick-release doors, and locks on the control panels of ovens, refrigerators and other equipment.

As far as cutlery, more correctional kitchens are doing without the need for it, ordering pre-chopped vegetables and other foods. In other situations, knives are tethered with a strong, metal material to the workstation, or operators will use a shadow board — a board with hooks and tracings of each knife so supervisors can quickly identify if all the knives are correctly in place, or if any are missing. In maximum-security facilities, knife racks are often double-locked— the first being the lock on the cabinet where the knives are kept, and the second being the lock on the foodservice supervisor's door.

At the Sauk County Law Enforcement Center, a 145,000-square-foot building in Baraboo, Wis., which houses the Sauk County Sheriff 's Office and a jail with 458 inmates, all the major foodservice equipment has quick-release functions and locks that secure cabinets and drawers containing kitchen tools.

Control panels and tamper-proof screws make it impossible for inmate staff to gain unsupervised access to the equipment. A can opener drops the tops and bottoms of cans into separate boxes where they get flattened and each one is counted so that supervisors can clearly see that for every can there are two ends. And if the facility has a recycling program, those cans go into a metal bin that locks. As far as the cutlery, all 36 pieces are clearly defined on a silhouette board so supervisors can make sure each knife is where it should be.

The kitchen sits in the jail's secured main area, surrounded by two floors of housing units, where inmates receive trayed meals each day. At the entrance of the kitchen, reach-in refrigeration takes up the right side with dry storage on the left. Past the storage area, the main production area consists of worktables, a stove, and equipment such as kettles, braising pans, steamers and combi and convection ovens. Convection ovens are perhaps the most popular equipment in correctional foodservice, according to Mackesey, because of their versatility in cooking everything from meats to starches to bakery items.

A tray-line assembly area sits to the left of the main production kitchen. In this section, staff cover prepared meals in two-piece trays with insulating foam centers that stack on top of each other and fit on carts that roll 100 to 300 feet down hallways.

At Sauk County, the menu remains simple, as with most jails, Mackesey says. That's because the turnover rate is so high that inmate staff don't have enough time to be trained in more elaborate food preparation. “You have to have very simple processes,” he says. Especially processes involving food cutters, choppers, mixers — anything that could cause bodily harm if the equipment operator is not properly trained.

But you can't make the menu too simple, both Mackesey and Schroeder agree. Mackesey gives the example of one time at a jail when administrators tried to cut back on costs so they served only one hot meal a day, rather than three. Inmates received a cold breakfast, a hot lunch, and dinner was a sandwich and cup of soup.

“Well, you know what happened? They had sandwiches and soup over all three floors. There was a riot — they [the inmates] weren't going to put up with it,” Mackesey says. “There's a minimum requirement as to what the inmates will tolerate.”

Schroeder calls this “menu fatigue,” basically getting sick of eating the same thing day-in and day-out. “Because of budget constraints, we come back to the same low-cost items over and over and over again and if the repetition is too frequent, that's when the inmates start getting upset and riots happen,” Schroeder says. This situation happens more in a state prison than in a jail where inmates have longer stays.

One way correctional facilities have dealt with this issue is not only by offering better quality food, but also by standardizing the preparation process to create consistency. Enter cookchill technology.

Generally, correctional facilities don't need to use cook-chill technology because of the high population of inmate labor. School districts or healthcare facilities use cook-chill technology more because of staff shortages. However, the technology allows correctional institutions to better control their food product. Typically a cook-chill facility, located within an institution or outside of it, will serve other institutions in the county.

For example, the Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum- security state prison in Jefferson City, Mo., uses a cook-chill plant to serve seven prisons in the state. The plant, which sits outside the secured perimeter of the Jefferson City Center, consists of a food preparation area and a warehouse for supplies, and serves an inmate population of 10,000.

Because cook-chill technology requires highly trained foodservice operators, inmates only work in the warehouse and distribution portion of the plant. However, all of the equipment is specified for a correctional facility, so eventually the center may employ inmates in those areas, Schroeder says.

Four 200-gallon kettles, two tumble chillers and a pair of 2,000-pound cook tanks make up the food preparation area. The tanks prepare many items that an operator can cook in an oven, from rice to barbecue pork to side dishes like au gratin potatoes. Staff package raw food products and then place them in the tanks where hot water passes over the food to cook it. Chilled water passes through next to cool the food.

In the kettle process, food is cooked and then sent through a pump and fill station where it is metered by volume, cased and then chilled in blast chillers for about an hour.

“The kettle is truly the workhorse of the kitchen,” Schroeder says. Kettles can serve multiple purposes and prepare many different menu items, such as hot cereal, scrambled eggs, sauces, even coffee, making them a better bang for correctional facilities' very small buck. Likewise with ovens that can prepare patty items, cakes, cookies, rice and other foods.

In the kitchen at Jefferson City, packaged foods from the cookchill plant get rethermed in bulk, through kettles, combi ovens and rack ovens. Grills are available for pancakes and other foods prepared in-house for the cafeteria-style service line. All the equipment features tamper-proof screws, locking control covers, and lockable knife cabinets located in the foodservice office.

Key E&S for Corrections

Convection ovens
Confectionery ovens
Roll-in rack ovens
Combi ovens
Retherm ovens
Cook-and-hold ovens

Tray carts
Tray assembly materials
Steam and/or tilting kettles
Reach-in refrigerators
Reach-in freezers

Dry storage space
Grill or range
Braising pans
Heat lamps
Hot-holding boxes

It depends on the type of correctional facility, but most food production takes the form of bulk rather than batch production. Prisons generally have a longer service perimeter, meaning the time for service is longer than most jails, so they can do batch cooking. “For example, if you're using instant mashed potatoes where all you add is boiling water, you keep your boiling water ready in the kettle and do 50 percent for the entire population, and then you keep making smaller batches as demand requires,” Schroeder says.

Clarks says cook-chill technology “works great” for the Blue Ridge Regional Jail system in Lynchburg, Va., where food goes to five jails in the whole region. But whereas the technology is a helpful feature, it's not completely necessary for correctional facilities. And, he says, there are some drawbacks. First of all, it can be expensive, and there's no guarantee that food that comes from a main source will get to all the facilities, in correct form, on time or at all.“Inmates are not going to be happy if you run out of food,” he says.

The Botetourt Correctional Center in Troutville, Va., does not have a cook-chill operation, but nevertheless runs smoothly, thanks in part to a skittle, which is a kettle-type piece of equipment that performs multiple functions — it can cook, boil, fry, steam and even make pancakes, Clark says. Since 1984, when the correctional unit had just 87 inmates, the population has increased to more than 400 inmates at one time. The facility underwent an expansion in 1989 to become a medium security-level prison with two open dorms in addition to the original one. In 2003, the kitchen was revamped with all new equipment. On one side of the serving line sits the staff dining hall, set up for about 20 people, and on the other, the inmate dining room with about 140 seats. In the main kitchen, a steam kettle, a three-stack convection oven and the skittle sit on the left side. On the other side of the skittle is a double-stacked confectionary oven, a grill and a double-deep fryer.

Clark says the best way to set up a kitchen that is flexible and can respond to increases in inmate populations, such as at Botetourt, is to keep a 30-day supply of food on hand. Finding different uses for equipment like rotisserie ovens that can cook different foods in bulk, and training your staff for emergency situations, is also key.

In the design world, Mackesey handles increases in inmate populations by accounting for that possibility in the initial stages of planning a kitchen. “You try to identify available space that can be converted for later kitchen use,” he says. “You install hoods and then the equipment later. You set up the kitchen adjacent to an outside wall or adjacent to a general storage area that could be used for expansion. What you don't want to do is landlock the kitchen and surround it by major circulation corridors or mechanical spaces.”

At the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Ill., where the population has doubled over the years to 650, Schroeder says the goal for remodeling the kitchen was to maintain many of the flows, such as the loading dock, the hood line and duct work. Instead, designers increased the production capacities by reconfiguring equipment under the hood — bringing in larger kettles, ordering rack ovens and double-stacked convection ovens, installing a new dish- and cartwashing area and creating a tray assembly line, which did not previously exist there. Schroeder also expanded the kitchen into nearby rooms that were used for other purposes. The only problem with trying to reconfigure equipment during a remodeling process is that oftentimes the original hood was not designed for larger equipment, and it needs to be replaced so exhaust doesn't overtake the kitchen.

The typical time line of the design process from construction to completion, Schroeder says, can take up to three years due to budget constraints, which creates other challenges. “I may specify a piece early on and the manufacturer may eventually discontinue that model number or change it.” In replacement situations, she says, money has to first be budgeted for the replacement of a piece of equipment, then the agency has to write a specification for it, and then it has to go through the public bid process. At that point, a purchase order has to be cut. Many government agencies go through a similar design process, all because of a need to adhere to a state or other municipally controlled budget.

Service calls are also handled differently for correctional facilities. “It always costs more,” Schroeder says. “You have to go through security, you need to get tools required for the job through security, and the number of people who want to or have clearance to do the work inside a facility is lower than in traditional foodservice operations.” Oftentimes, the service agent will need an escort on the job because of security reasons. The other issue is that the kitchen tends to fall to the lowest of priorities among in-house mechanics. “If the toilet is overflowing, that's an immediate need. Do you fix that or do you delime the boiler in the kitchen? The choice is obvious— you have to go to the housing unit and fix the toilet,” says Schroeder.

For this reason, preventative maintenance is key. “You have to be careful about specifying the equipment so that it's durable,” Mackesey says. “You can't buy on price.”

And with a tight, state-controlled budget, that means everyone in that decision-making process has to be educated about the money that's available. Mackesey says designers must realize that the life of the equipment in a correctional facility is not going to be like that in a traditional foodservice operation. Inmates have a tendency to abuse and/or completely destroy equipment, especially warewashers — oftentimes, many will jam the conveyor in an effort to speed up the process.

Budget concerns as such are an ongoing challenge in correctional foodservice. Some correctional facilities will employ inmates not only to work in the kitchen, but also to work in the processing part of foodservice as well, to cut costs. For example, the James River Correctional Center in State Farm, Va., has an on-site dairy farm where inmates will milk cows and do other work. The center also has a meat plant where inmates work. Inmates also grow their own produce that goes to the prison and to DOC Farmer's Market controlled by the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Yet another challenge in correctional foodservice is the legal and ethical need to meet inmates' special religious and dietary requirements, especially in facilities with diverse populations. The goal with that, Mackesey says, is to meet those needs in the most cost-effective way with the least amount of work. So, foodservice staff will try to modify the base menu as best they can when preparing special trays. But, Clark says, the costs can be enormous. At some institutions, a common religious-sensitive meal will cost $5, whereas an entire day of meals for an inmate without special requirements costs $2. Schroeder says specially packaged meals from an outside source can run up to five times the cost of a meal prepared in-house.

Another issue facing corrections in the future is emergency response, Clark says. After Katrina, more and more correctional facilities and foodservice operations are basing their training on responding to such emergencies. At one point during the storm, staff from a New Orleans jail literally had to swim to the warehouse to pick up the food. “Those are things you would never think you would have to face,” he says. “If and when the Asian flu happens, what are you going to do? What staff will stay at work, and what staff will go home? Where are we going to house the inmates? Are we going to have to move the inmates to prevent the spread? These are all major concerns.”

E&S Considerations

Durability: Inmates have a tendency to be rougher on equipment in correctional facility kitchens, so make sure the specified equipment will last over time.

Security: Opt for a correctional package that ensures equipment will feature tamper-proof screws, locking control panels, tethered knives or shadow boards and quick-release doors.

Preventative Maintenance: Bringing in service agents to correctional facilities can be difficult due to security issues, so it's worth it to purchase better models that won't break down frequently.

Energy Efficiency: There is a growing need for energy-efficient equipment to save costs, as correctional facilities have limited budgets.