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Cass County inmates claim they're going hungry in jail

A typical meal at the Cass County Jail in Fargo. This lunch consists of barbecue turkey, corn, bun, macaroni salad and brownie. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Fargo, ND (Forum News Service) - Being in jail isn't supposed to be a picnic, but some Cass County inmates claim their mealtime experience is more like a prison camp. They accuse the jail of being tight with food to save money, causing them to go hungry each day.

Two inmates have recently written letters to The Forum, saying they've filed grievances with jail administration, but their complaints have gone nowhere.

"It appears that numerous inmates are losing weight and becoming malnurished (sic) and increasingly agitated due to psychological effects of hunger," wrote Eric Webb of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"I understand that jail and prison is supposed to be 'bad,' but ... I don't believe anyone should be treated as if they were eating in a concentration camp," said Webb, who was shot by a police officer in June while allegedly fleeing the scene of a downtown Fargo hotel robbery.

"My stomache (sic) hurts so bad I can not sleep," writes Wesley Brown of Watford City, N.D., adding, "This is cruel and unusual punishment."

Brown is behind bars after he escaped from a Devils Lake jail in March with the help of a female guard and was later captured in Oregon.

The head of the Cass County Jail says some meal trays occasionally look skimpier than others when they come off the assembly line, and jail staff try to make amends when that's brought to their attention. However, he doesn't put much stock in the grievances.

"It's not the first complaint we've gotten and it won't be the last, " said Capt. Andrew Frobig, administrator of the Cass County Jail.

Frobig said when you consider the size of the jail population, the number of complaints lodged about food is small.

An estimated 7,500 inmates pass through the Cass County Jail every year. Daily head counts are around 250, although the numbers vary with new intakes and releases.

The jail menu is established by CBM Managed Services, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based company that provides food service to correctional, health care, school and corporate facilities nationwide. Frobig said the food offerings and portion sizes are reviewed by a licensed dietitian.

"They're the right size for the calorie count that they're supposed to get per day," said Lynn Halvorson, a CBM employee and food service director at the Cass County Jail.

She said CBM meals provide each inmate with about 3,000 calories daily.

"If you're used to eating ... 6,000 calories per day, you're going to lose weight when you come in here because you can't eat what you want," Halvorson said.

Jail fare compared

Frobig said the Cass County Jail has logged 16 food-related grievances from inmates so far this year — five of them related to portion size. The others dealt with food quality, temperature or special diets.

In comparison, the smaller 90-bed Clay County Jail in Moorhead has received about 12 formal food complaints this year — most of them also about portion size.

The jail leader in Moorhead said she's confident about the food served because the Minnesota Department of Corrections dictates their operations under state statute.

"We're governed pretty tightly," said Julie Savat, administrator of the Clay County Jail.

The Clay County Jail has a contract with A'viands, based in Roseville, Minn., another company that offers food service to correctional facilities throughout the country.

The food is prepared at Red River Recovery Center, a treatment facility in Dilworth, and is brought over in heated containers to be served by jail staff and working inmates.

At the Cass County Jail, food is prepared in the kitchen by three CBM employees and dished up assembly-line style by inmate workers. Some of the work-release inmates also help with food preparation and daily bread-baking, under supervision of CBM employees.

A glance at the two jails' monthly menus indicates similarities. Both serve up cold cereal and a muffin or coffee cake for breakfast and offer 10 to 12 ounces of a main entree at dinner, including lasagna, turkey pot pie, tater tot casserole, baked ziti and goulash.

But the Cass jail offers fewer servings of milk each day than its counterpart across the river.

Instead of milk at dinner, the Cass jail offers a "fortified drink" packet to mix with water; which, according to its label, provides 100 percent of the daily value of vitamins C and D.

While Cass inmates get a little more substance at breakfast, with two slices of bread and peanut butter also in the daily mix, Clay inmates get more fruit during other mealtimes.

"It's not the best food in the world," Frobig admitted, but he believes it's satisfactory for the inmates and has proven to be so to the general public.

He said the meals are the same as what's served at frequent Jail Chaplains luncheons and at the Cass County Youth Commission's annual meeting, which hosts students from high schools across the county.

"Most comments we get is, 'It's a lot better than what we get at high school,' " Frobig said.

Complaints are few

Frobig said jail food service is funded through the Cass County Sheriff's Office annual budget as a line item, based on an estimated daily average population. He said the jail negotiated a sliding scale for per-meal costs, so the cost actually goes down as the inmate headcount goes up. Any money not spent on meals can't be used for other purposes and goes into the county reserve fund.

A recent CBM invoice provided to The Forum by Frobig shows that the jail spent an average of $857 per day feeding the estimated 250 inmates and a handful of staffers during the last week of September. The total cost of food service was just over $6,000 for the week.

Frobig said the jail would pay more for food if CBM and dietary experts decided portion sizes needed to be bigger, but that hasn't been the case.

Brown claims to have lost 35 pounds since being booked into the jail in April and said the only way he can keep the hunger pains away is by filling up with snacks from the commissary.

Part of his grievance claims commissary prices are too high as well.

"They starve us to force us to pay unreasonable rates," Brown wrote.

Frobig said commissary prices are bound to be higher than those at a grocery store, for example. He even brought a list around to local convenience stores to see how prices compared to what's sold in the commissary.

"Our prices were the fourth lowest of five sampled," Frobig said.

Frobig thinks the whole thing was spurred by a couple of inmates encouraging one another after having a meal they didn't like.

"One here, one there," Frobig said, doesn't point to a problem.