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Fewer meals for Ill. inmates costlier than thought

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
The Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Ill., is seen July 25, 2011. A program to serve Illinois prisoners two meals a day instead of three was supposed to save the state money, but Corrections Department officials told lawmakers it will cost $200,000 per prison to implement the "brunch" program.

SPRINGFIELD – Feeding prisoners two daily meals instead of three seems like it should save money, but substituting breakfast and lunch for “brunch” at Illinois’ two dozen state prisons could cost several million dollars.

Disappointed lawmakers learned this week that it cost the Illinois Department of Corrections $200,000 to convert each of the prisons in Canton and Galesburg to the brunch and dinner system, department spokesman Tom Shaer said Friday. A third lockup, in Mount Sterling, may soon adopt the new system, which eventually will be used throughout the state prison system.

Funding for the program was part of an extra appropriation of $40.5 million the department requested this week for the budget year that began July 1. The House Public Safety Appropriations Committee hasn’t acted on the request yet.

The main reason for brunch-and-supper, officials say now, is to cut the amount of inmates’ out-of-cell movement, which increases the safety risk to inmates and guards, and to avoid serving breakfast during the dark early-morning hours of winter. Meal shifts at larger prisons begin long before sunrise.

“The ‘brunch’ program was not created to save money,” Shaer said. “It was for safety and security by not having to march lines of inmates to [the mess hall] in the dark during winter early breakfast hours, to better utilize dietary staff. Also, inmates were in favor of not having to eat breakfast at 4:30 a.m.”

Corrections Director S.A. “Tony” Godinez, though, cast the program in a different light in an April 2012 story by Lee Enterprises Newspapers, saying it would save $2.5 million the following year. Shaer said there were no savings because the program didn’t get started.

“That’s what’s so frustrating,” said Rep. David Reis, a Republican from Willow Hill and appropriations committee member. “We make tough [budget] decisions back in the spring and then they go back and ask for it [money] again. ... It’s the same song and dance.”

Reis said the conversion should yield some savings on food and inmate movement.

Corrections officials say among the costs they have to consider when switching to the brunch system is how to provide prisoners with the same number of calories as they get in the three-meal system. Shaer said it’s not as simple as serving each prisoner at brunch a breakfast package and lunch package, and the current milk and juice carton sizes are wrong.

There will be costs in ordering new single-unit food packages and changing to bulk drink dispensers that inmates will use to fill cups, he said.

It should cost less converting other prisons than the $200,000 it cost converting the first two, Shaer said. And while there are significant upfront costs, dietary unit efficiency and less work by guards moving prisoners will make up for those costs, Shaer said.

“It should be cost-neutral when the dust settles,” he said.

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