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Is dealing with RLUIPA the biggest challenge?

Oviatt:
It’s a huge challenge, because we have to meet the religious requirements for all offenders. We just talked to a leader of the Wiccan religion, and he told us inmates could have a revelation and decide to go strictly vegan. As offenders put in those requests, it makes it difficult to know if they’re truly in that religion and then what we have to serve them. We’re not sure when someone is going to say this is my religion and this is what I need, and then we have to verify and match what’s needed. And you can talk to three different religious leaders and get three different responses. If I’m doing 4,500 meals a day and it’s 4,500 different meals, that’s going to bust my budget completely. We need things as standardized as possible.

What types of challenges does having inmates working in the kitchen present?

Oviatt:
We do have a hiring process to try to give them a real life experience with interviews to prepare them to return to the community, but it also screens out people with gang and disciplinary problems. We have tool control, but they do have access to knives that must be returned. The more dangerous equipment is chained to the table. General population works in the kitchen, not maximum security.

How important is it to provide good, healthy meals for inmates?

Oviatt:
If you look at history, a lot of riots are centered around food. Food plays an important role and if we’re not feeding and keeping inmates happy, they get more disgruntled and will create problems up to and including riots. So it’s a huge focus for us to ensure food color and presentation are pleasing and not just a gray mass sitting on a plate. We also put a lot of emphasis on flavor to ensure a good quality meal. In my career, I’ve seen some severe assaults over meals and other times inmates just wanting to act up more or less throwing food trays.

Do you feel the food quality has improved since you’ve taken over a year ago?

Oviatt:
We’re going away from standardized cheese pizza and are exploring options with various vendors that are cost effective and at the same time, can add variety to the plates. Instead of standard fruits like apples, we’re doing kiwis, strawberries and grapes. Grapes had some inmates in tears, because it had been years since they’d eaten them. We want to make inmates happy because a happy belly means a happy inmate and an easier-to-manage inmate.

In other segments, directors look to guest and patient satisfaction to improve, but beyond those security issues caused by food, do you have any method or desire to gauge how well your food is being received?

Oviatt:
I’ll get out and talk to inmates to get feedback. Another way we track things, if inmates don’t like what’s going on, they can file a grievance and it’s got to be researched and resolved. The number of grievances over food has dropped. When I first started, we were getting at least 10 complaints or letters a week—all related to food. I haven’t received a letter and my staff gets maybe two a week.