Inmates lament amount of food

HOLLIDAYSBURG – At least two inmates in the Blair County Prison are protesting the food, complaining that they are not getting enough of it, but Warden Michael M. Johnston, after an investigation this week, doesn’t think the complaints are founded.

Johnston said Thursday the inmates filed grievances that led to the investigation.

He said he examined the meals that were served last Sunday, took pictures, and concluded the portions being served in the county facility were adequate.

Blair County Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, chairman of the Blair County Prison Board, asked the warden about the complaints by the inmates and said he was satisfied the meals meet regulations.

He said he also is satisfied with the way Johnston handled the complaints.

One of the inmates involved in the fuss over the food, who asked that his name not be used, wrote to the Mirror asking for help in bringing the food issue to the public, and a girlfriend of the other inmate who complained said her boyfriend went into prison at 203 pounds and is now down to 180 in just a couple of months.

While the two sides disagree on whether inmates are being properly fed, both agree as to what occurred last Sunday.

When the food was distributed in the main cellblocks, the two inmates refused their trays.

When they allegedly urged other inmates to reject the food as a protest, they were taken to the restricted housing unit, which the inmates called “the hole.”

The inmate who wrote the letter complaining about the food said he weighs 240 pounds, and he said the meals that are being served are not enough.

He said the inmates complain “almost daily and nothing is done.”

He said that it is possible to purchase food through the prison commissary, but he said he gets no money from anyone, so he can’t supplement his diet through the commissary.

The inmate said he understands he broke the law and is being punished but he complains he should not be treated in this way.

“Again, I know we are inmates, but we are not animals, and we should at least be fed properly,” he wrote.

The inmates filed grievances with the prison, and the warden said he investigated the complaints.

Johnston said the trays were pulled and photos were taken.

He said that the diet for the day called for four ounces of meat which is one scoop of meat that has been prepared.

The investigation showed, he said, the inmates received the recommended four ounces.

The two inmates were removed from the cellblocks, Johnston reported, because “they were trying to stir the other prisoners up.” He said he didn’t want further problems, and noted the other inmates did not reject the meal that day.

The warden said that a dietitian associated with PrimeCare Inc., the Harrisburg company that provides medical care at the prison, is in charge of preparing the menus.

The menu is reviewed every six months. There are regulations, Johnston said. For instance, the meals must contain fruit.

He said also meals are supposed to contain as specific amount of calories each day. He believes that it is around 2,000.

The meals are rotated over a five-week period.

He stated that sometimes there may not be enough of that day’s food to cover the entire prison population, which fluctuates daily. The prison can hold up to 348 inmates.

If the food for the day isn’t enough to cover all the inmates, then food left over from previous meals is substituted.

The warden addressed the problem of the inmate who lost 20 pounds.

While he may have lost weight, other inmates have gained weight on prison food, Johnston explained, noting how that facet of the debate is not predictable.

He also said that dietary concerns of the inmates are taken into consideration.

Muslim inmates do not eat pork, he said, so pork isn’t served.

Some inmates are allergic to fish or to certain sauces, the warden said. That is taken into consideration when their meals are prepared.

The director of the Blair County Branch of the NAACP, Don Witherspoon, meets with inmates a couples times a month, and he said his organization receives some complaints about the food, but he said most are about preference rather than amount.

A member of the Blair County Prison Society, who did not want to be named, said complaints about food are constant. Members of the prison society meet once a month with inmates, and any problems or complaints are relayed to the warden.

The prison society last year related complaints about the sanitary condition of the kitchen, and the warden addressed the concerns, she reported.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.