Cold and rotting foods served in Orange County jails, report says

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

Incarcerated people in Orange County jails have been served nutritionally inadequate, cold and sometimes rotting foods, according to a report from a coalition of advocacy groups.

The report comes as the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has put pressure on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department over the last year to reinstate substantial hot meals in the jails since they were suspended during the pandemic.

“This report shows that the diets offered in the Orange County Jails are high in processed foods, carbohydrates, fat and sodium,” the report says. “This type of diet, together with limited opportunities for physical movement and exercise, can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke for incarcerated people. The report also mentions concerns regarding food safety related to the offering of spoiled foods. Eating spoiled foods can lead to foodborne illness.”


The report, “Cold, Rotting and Moldy Meals: Food Oppression in the Orange County Jails,” was published Wednesday by the Stop the Musick Coalition, which is made up of various Orange County social justice organizations that advocate for the rights of incarcerated people. One of the primary goals of the group is to stop the expansion of the James A. Musick jail near Irvine.

According to the coalition’s report, inmates have been eating three bagged, cold meals every day for almost two years. They generally consist of bologna sandwiches, and sometimes an apple or carrots. Inmates have reported that the sandwiches are “frequently” spoiled. Inmates also reported that deputies leave food trays on the floor before giving them to inmates, which causes bugs to infest the food.

“People living inside Orange County jails report that sandwiches are given to them with molding bread and rotting, discolored meat,” the report says. “The bologna sometimes leaks a dark juice and is blotched with green spots. Several people have described becoming so sick that they needed medical attention. People have to skip meals when the food is too rotten, often skipping several meals in a row.”

Orange County Sheriff's Department Headquarters and OC jails are located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Headquarters and OC jails are located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Orange County jails previously provided two hot meals a day, including spaghetti, hamburgers and stew, the report says. But those meals were suspended in March 2020 when the pandemic took hold, the report says. Sheriff’s spokesman Todd Hylton said in the past that the hot meal services were suspended for the health and safety of inmates.

Since that time, inmates and advocates worked to get hot meals reinstated, including contacting the Board of State and Community Corrections. After being contacted by the ACLU, the board told the agency in April that it was violating a regulation by not providing inmates with at least one hot meal a day in the Orange County men’s and women’s jails, the Intake Release Center, Theo Lacy jail or Lamoreaux Justice Center.

Following that letter, Hylton said that the jail started serving hot meals again in the form of oatmeal, farina, grits and soup.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department follows Board of State and Community Corrections requirements regarding meals for those in our care and custody, and we are currently in compliance with the BSCC meal guidelines,” Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said Wednesday in an emailed comment. “OCSD has not suspended and continues to provide medical and religious diets during the pandemic. We are reviewing the report from the ‘Stop the Musick’ coalition, a group with the stated goal of ‘work[ing] toward a world without incarceration.’ We dispute their allegations that OCSD is serving spoiled or nutritionally deficient food to incarcerated persons.”

The coalition takes issue with the introduction of oatmeal and the other hot foods.

“The small change was inadequate to address the nutritional deficiency and otherwise poor condition of jail meals,” the coalition’s report says. “OCSD has since discontinued the cereal in some parts of the jail.”

The coalition argues in its report that the Sheriff’s Department has significant funds to reinstate hot meals and improve the food conditions in jails since it has saved money due to the closure of jail kitchens and reduction in the county jail population. A judge ordered Sheriff Don Barnes in December to cut the jail population in half due to COVID-19 outbreaks among inmates.

The report says that in 2020, the department spent nearly $1 million less on jail food than was provided in its budget. This year, the department has continued to shift an average of more than $50,000 per month away from food for incarcerated people, putting the money back into its general budget, the coalition says.

The coalition also says that the department continues to make about $10 million a year from commissary purchases despite the decreased jail population. This may be due to inmates’ need to supplement the cold meals they have received, the report says.

According to the report, inmates who could not afford to purchase extra items at commissary have become sick.

“It’s so sad,” an unnamed individual who is incarcerated at the Theo Lacy facility said in the report. “It breaks your heart to see the elderly people and the people without funds on their books getting sicker. You can’t imagine.”

The coalition says that the addition of hot cereal and soup didn’t improve the situation.

“For them to be telling people they’re giving us hot meals — they’re just keeping up appearances,” an unnamed inmate in Orange County Jail said in the report. “The ‘soup’ is awful, it’s a lukewarm liquid substance with no substance. It’s broth with a few floating tomatoes and onions. You dip a spoon in and get nothing. It’s been three sack lunches a day for almost two years. They’ve been murdering us for two years. If I didn’t get commissary once in a while, I would have starved.”

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

In addition to the lack of hot meals, the report says that jail personnel are also not honoring medical dietary restrictions for inmates, despite some of them having heart conditions, Crohn’s disease, allergies or diabetes. Jail personnel are also not honoring inmates’ religious diets, such as Halal or Kosher food restrictions, the report says, calling the denial of the diets “dehumanizing.”

“Food is not only sustenance but a fundamental component of cultural identity and spiritual practice, and being forced to break religious dietary rules strips people of an essential part of their spiritual lives,” the coalition says.

The food conditions offered in Orange County jails can have a significant impact on inmates’ health. In its report, the coalition compiled data on the nutritional value of the foods that inmates have been served. The organization found that inmates are given food containing more than twice as much sodium recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which can contribute to hypertension and other health complications. A 2019 Orange County grand jury report found that jail staff failed to monitor and treat inmates with high blood pressure and hypertension, leading to hospitalizations and deaths.

The coalition also determined that Orange County jail menus contain more than 150% of the FDA-recommended daily fats, almost 290% of the recommended daily carbohydrates by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and 125% of the recommended daily cholesterol by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Excessive fats, carbs and cholesterol can contribute to health issues like hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.

At the end of its report, the coalition makes a number of recommendations to the Sheriff’s Department, including reinstating full hot meals with fresh ingredients, providing fresh fruit and vegetables and a variety of meat, properly storing food, ensuring that inmates have adequate time to eat and honoring the religious and medical dietary restrictions of inmates.

The coalition also provides a number of recommendations to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, including directing the Orange County Health Department to perform regular inspections of the Orange County jails, requiring the Sheriff’s Department to publicly post current jail menus and ensuring that inmates can report health code violations to the health department, among other recommendations.

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