Cooking for a captive audience.
Today's lunch menu at the Lane County Jail: ham, chicken noodle soup, crackers, fruit, Kool-Aid. Cost for ingredients: 74 cents per meal.
Running 20 hours a day in the jail basement, the kitchen prepares 1,600 meals a day with a staff of eight civilian cooks and an inmate crew of 29.
Behind glass windows in a cramped office nearby, Liz Burrows, 49, makes sure her customers are as satisfied as possible.
As much as steel bars and burly deputies, food is an inmate management tool. Historically, many a prison riot erupted over bad food, says Burrows, the food services supervisor.
"We don't serve things, or keep things on the menu that are unpopular," Burrows says. "If you give them good food, they look forward to the next meal. It makes them more manageable."
Burrows, a 1986 Oregon State University graduate in food systems management and dietetics, discovered her passion for food and nutrition growing up in San Jose, Calif., where her family often dined out. She also adopted a pragmatic career approach that led unexpectedly to a 13-year stint inside the Lane County Jail, where she earns $58,739 a year.
A network of mentors and professional contacts set her on the path with jobs at both local hospitals, Lane Community College and the Eugene School District before she took an 18-month hiatus to work at Gray's Garden Center.
Around the time she wanted to get back into the field, the jail's former food manager - a professional acquaintance of Burrows - was retiring. He urged her to apply.
"I was very scared. All you know about corrections facilities is what you see on TV," she recalls. "Nothing prepared me to work in corrections. It was a leap of faith, another steppingstone."
Right off, she learned that makeup and tight clothes are not advisable around a male inmate population. But there are other elements that make jobs in jails unlike any other, she says.
"It isn't that you're safe. You don't become comfortable here. You become confident. You are always aware," Burrows says.
Training is rigorous to ensure that the civilian workers know what to do if something gets out of control, and to help people such as Burrows detect problems before they explode.
"You walk into the kitchen and you get a feel for the tension level, or lack of tension level. You learn to trust yourself. If you think something's not right, you check it out. You confront it. You watch it," she says.
At least three times a week an inmate is removed from the kitchen crew and sent back to the general population, she says. The reasons vary, but they boil down to anti-social attitudes, ethnic and racial prejudices, and job performance, she said.
The inmate kitchen crew works together more than 40 hours a week and also lives together in the same jail dorm. There are benefits to the job and it's a privilege they must earn every day. Their regular schedule helps pass the time. They earn time off their sentences for working, and they get extra food, Burrows says.
But today's inmates are not the inmates of years gone by. The county's chronic shortage of jail space means that the jail is reserved mainly for the more hardened criminals. Burrows says the typical inmate these days is a tougher character than that of even a few years ago.
"These are not drunk drivers. These are not the guys we would have in the kitchen five years ago. They have records. Long records," Burrows says.
But they do take pride in their work, says inmate Gregory Clemons, serving time for drug and other crimes. He says he has never heard other inmates complain about so much as a hair on their food tray. Good training is the key, he adds.
Inmate worker Michael Jason, serving time for theft, says sanitation in the jail kitchen is better than in some private restaurants where he has worked.
"It's pretty hard to please everyone all the time. On a large-scale basis, Lane County does a pretty good job," Jason says.
The food is much better than in Linn County Jail, which privatized its jail food service, says Mark Bailey, who worked in Linn County's jail kitchen and is doing time in the Lane County Jail for drugs. Lane County's jail has fresher vegetables, better variety of fruit, frosting on its cakes and much less starchy "filler" foods than Linn County, he says. It also provides special diets for vegetarians, such as Bailey.
Privatizing the food operation is one of the many options that have been considered to cope with shrinking budgets, Burrows says. But it hasn't penciled out financially, she says.
Burrows says jail managers try to avoid being too gloomy about future budgets because that leads to poor decisions for the present. But it's not easy, given the uncertainty of federal funding for the county and the consistent refusal of local voters to boost taxes for services.
"I've been through 12 (tax) measures in this organization. Every one of them has failed," Burrows says. "I think the county is up for quite a roller coaster ride. I think the real challenges are ahead of us."
Title: Food services supervisor, Lane County Jail
Duties: Oversees kitchen, laundry and warehouse, supervises 15 employees.
Family: Two children. Husband, Bill Burrows, teaches economics at Lane Community College.
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|Title Annotation:||Features; The jail's food supervisor orchestrates meals for hundreds|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Aug 20, 2007|
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