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After violating state regulation, Orange County jails begin serving hot meals again

The Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.
The Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department said it has resumed serving hot meals in county jails, more than a week after a state board told the agency it was violating a regulation by not providing inmates with at least one hot meal a day.

The California Board of State and Community Corrections raised the issue after it was contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The ACLU sent a letter to the BSCC in early April, contending that the sheriff’s department hasn’t served hot meals in its jails for about a year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in dramatic shifts to the food that incarcerated people are served,” the ACLU letter says. “Incarcerated people no longer work in the kitchens and instead are served cold sack lunches three times per day. The BSCC Title 15 regulations require incarcerated individuals to receive at least one hot meal per day. Furthermore, OCSD’s Food Services Policy requires a minimum of one hot meal per day.”

In its letter, the BSCC said the Orange County jails weren’t complying with the hot meal rule in the Orange County men’s and women’s jails, the Intake Release Center, Theo Lacy jail or Lamoreaux Justice Center.

Sheriff’s PIO Todd Hylton said in an email that the sheriff’s department resumed hot meals on Monday. This was the same day the department received an email from TimesOC asking for comment on the BSCC letter, which was dated April 16.

Hylton said that the jails are now serving hot food with breakfast and dinner, including oatmeal, farina, grits and soup.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigation efforts implemented within our facilities, hot meal services were suspended intermittently for the health and safety of those in custody,” Hylton said.

An Orange County sheriff’s deputy watches over a group of detained immigrants in the medical area at the Theo Lacy Facility.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Hylton said the sheriff’s department notified the BSCC of the initial suspension of hot foods in April 2020. Hot meal services eventually resumed and then were suspended again in December amid a COVID-19 outbreak that eventually spread to more than 1,000 inmates.

“Each suspension correlated with an active COVID-19 outbreak in our jail system,” Hylton said.

Alyssa Matias, who is leading the ACLU’s advocacy efforts regarding the hot meals, said the county jails have been serving sack lunch meals with bologna sandwiches for lunch and dinner, and cold meals in the mornings.

Matias, who wrote the letter to the BSCC, said she’s been getting updates on the meal situation from inmates.

“The bologna sandwiches come frozen, the meat is spoiled ...” Matias said in an interview. “They’ll be served moldy fruit and moldy bread.”

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes speaks during a monthly media briefing in Santa Ana.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Hylton said that deli meats in the jails come in individually sealed packaging.

“The products come from approved vendors and are subject to California Retail Food Code regulatory guidelines for storage, delivery, receipt, temperature control, etc.,” Hylton said.

In its letter to the BSCC, the ACLU also said that the sheriff’s department hasn’t honored the food needs of inmates with religious and medical diets. The letter said that inmates told the ACLU that deputies retaliated against them after filing grievances or reporting meal issues to the ACLU.

The ACLU included in the letter accounts from a few anonymous inmates who said they weren’t getting foods that fit into their medical needs. Many of these individuals are diabetic or prediabetic.

“OCSD has not suspended and continues to provide medical and religious diets during the pandemic,” Hylton said in response to the claims.

The BSCC said it will be conducting an inspection of the county jails to determine if they are providing medical and religious diets.

Matias said the ACLU is continuing to push for more substantial hot meals, rather than oatmeal and soup, including hosting a call to action event this Friday to mobilize the community to put pressure on Sheriff Don Barnes to “fully reinstate hot meals.”

“What they’re actually doing, and what we’ve heard from several incarcerated folks on the inside this week, is that they’ve started giving hot oatmeal,” Matias said. “Then we heard from one person that he got hot soup at night, but what he said was that he and everyone else is still receiving cold bologna sandwiches throughout the day. So, to the extent that that can be considered a hot meal, sure, but the majority of what they’re consuming is still cold bologna sandwiches throughout the day.”

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