Thousands of ... inmates in the Texas prison system have been eating fewer meals since April after officials stopped serving lunch on the weekends in some prisons as a way to cut food-service costs. About 23,000 inmates in 36 prisons are eating two meals a day on Saturdays and Sundays instead of three. A meal the system calls brunch is usually served between 5 and 7 a.m., followed by dinner between 4 and 6:30 p.m.The Times' Manny Fernandez notes that these reductions actually began in April, during the last fiscal year. The cuts as a practical matter were even bigger than depicted in the Times article. Grits reported back in January that this line item was formally cut 13.5%, or more than $14 million, from 2009 levels (which IMO is the better point of comparison in a biennial budget). Still, this is the first story I've seen offering any detail on how implementation has directly impacted the quantity and quality of prisoner food. One imagines scaling back to two meals might also spur commissary sales, which through a jaundiced eye might look cynical after the Lege told TDCJ last spring to seize money in prisoner commissary accounts to pay for their healthcare and confiscated commissary profits for budget reduction that would have gone to "inmate recreational and educational materials."
The meal reductions are part of an effort to trim $2.8 million in food-related expenses from the 2011 fiscal year budget of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state prison agency. Other cuts the agency has made to its food service include replacing carton milk with powdered milk and using sliced bread instead of hamburger and hot dog buns.
Prison administrators said that the cuts were made in response to the state’s multibillion-dollar budget shortfall in 2011, and that the weekend lunches were eliminated in consultation with the agency’s health officials and dietitians. Michelle Lyons, an agency spokeswoman, said that inmates with health problems who have been prescribed a therapeutic diet continue to receive three meals per day.
It was a long, hot, un-air conditioned summer in most Texas prisons, with another one likely next year. Tack onto that rationing food and healthcare and reduced oversight of private facilities, and this issue joins the list of looming budget-related flashpoints before the Legislature meets again. That's especially true since, between weather and the commodities market, as Grits wrote when the budget cuts were announced, "food costs are rising, so that leaves reduced quantity or quality as the only real ways to save money on that line item - unless, of course, the state decides to simply reduce the total number of people it's feeding three times per day." Having failed to do that, front-line austerity in the prison cafeteria became inevitable. The question becomes, is it sustainable?
MORE: Best headline on this from CNN-Money, "Texas prisoners lose their lunch." AND MORE: At Texas Justice Dot Org.