By Brittany Hailer
Incarcerated individuals at the Allegheny County Jail are alleging starvation after being fed what they term “inadequate” meals such as peanut butter sandwiches or a scoop of oatmeal.
The allegations are being made in sworn statements collected by the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and have prompted the Allegheny County Controller’s office to investigate the situation with the jail’s food vendor Summit Food Service LLC.
According to interviews of incarcerated persons and affidavits shared with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ), food issues at the jail have arisen due to incarcerated kitchen workers who are locked in quarantine for COVID-19. Last week, Allegheny County confirmed that there were 83 new cases of COVID-19 at the Allegheny County Jail.
Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel for Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, said the Controller’s office will make inquiries with Summit.
“We pay the vendors, so we review the invoices. We ask the vendor to justify the costs. Based on the affidavits, there’s questions about the food that Summit has provided. We have questions about those invoices and they need to be satisfied before we pay them,” said Korinski. “Once vendors don’t get paid, things get real.”
Jail administrators notified staff in an email on Sunday, Aug. 15, that 15 housing units in the jail were on quarantine status, including housing unit 2A, which is where those who work to feed the jail are housed. When the kitchen pod goes on quarantine, the jail must find new workers from other pods, as reported in May by the Pittsburgh Current. Currently, the jail cannot staff the kitchen with enough people to prepare and serve food to residents, incarcerated persons claim.
Laura Rojo-Eddy, a spokesperson for Summit Food Service, wrote in an email that Summit “…is working closely with Allegheny County to meet staffing needs, a challenge that food service providers nationwide are currently struggling with.”
She wrote that despite the struggle, “…both Summit Food Service and Allegheny have worked together to ensure that all inmates receive at least three dietician-approved meals per day that align with state and national guidelines.”
Summit did not respond to requests for a list of approved meals provided to the jail population in the past week. Amie Downs, the communications director for Allegheny County, did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Korinksi, Summit is contractually obligated to maintain a certain number of workers to staff the facility and that their workforce is dependent upon unpaid incarcerated labor.
“One of the problems is, if you’re relying on inmate labor and there is an outbreak, if something like that happens, you go out and get temporary workers and staff it that way. You live up to your contract. It is not in the contract to starve people. If for that month, you do it at a loss. That’s the free market,” said Korinski.
Allegheny County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam and member of the Jail Oversight Board (JOB) said she’s also received phone calls and messages from incarcerated persons and their loved ones “in tears because they are starving.” One mother told Hallam that her son is “withering away from lack of sustenance.”
“And if the jail doesn’t have the capacity to provide adequate nutrition to its population, they need new resources. They need to pay people to serve the food instead of taking advantage of an unpaid workforce,” said Hallam.
Korinksi said that Summit is paid “millions of dollars a year” and is “owned by hedge funds.” In 2017, Summit’s annual revenue was $160 million before it acquired CBM Managed Services, another corrections food service company with annual sales of around $70 million.
Korinski and Hallam both said that Summit’s contract with the county to provide commissary, a limited selection of food available for incarcerated persons to purchase, is a conflict of interest.
Korinski said this is also a problem for the jail because, “there’s a baked-in incentive to make steep margins” in commissary prices.
Food from the jail kitchen is the only way for the incarcerated to eat for free. Incarcerated persons who lack the funds to purchase through the commissary rely entirely on the food provided from the kitchen.
Derrick Eggleton Jr., 28, is currently housed at the jail. He said that the cost of video vistations, calls and commistary during the pandemic are draining the pockets of the incarcerated and families. Eggleton said he feels badly for people who cannot afford to buy commissary when the jail cannot provide adequate meals.
“Men are choosing between seeing a loved one and being able to eat,” Eggleton said.
Michael Manno, 48, said all but two men in his housing unit sent their trays back to the kitchen in protest
“I understand that we’re prisoners and we committed crimes, we’re still human and shouldn’t be treated like animals,” said Manno.
Two incarcerated persons in separate housing units sent photos of meals provided this week: sausage, potatoes and corn (left); sausage, bread and peanut butter (right).
According to Manno’s affidavit, “There are many indigent people who cannot afford the expensive commissary food items, so all they count on are the kitchen meals. Some people who could purchase commissary food couldn’t eat items that required hot water such as soups because the hot water canteens weren’t delivered to our housing pod. Sometimes we have to wait eight hours between meals. I fear for my health and life if I remain at ACJ.”
Mikayla Cox-Powell, 23, is 35 weeks pregnant. She said in her sworn testimony that for several days, “We have been starving on the pod because we have not been given enough food to eat.” According to her affidavit, Cox-Powell is supposed to receive a prenatal nutrition bag with peanut butter, jelly, fruit, and other food items. Cox-Powell also reported that she hasn’t seen a medical provider since July 29 and that medical staff is overwhelmed due to COVID positives in the facility. She fears for her life and that of her unborn child, she said.
“I have not received my prenatal nutrition bag on a regular basis, including this past week. Corrections officers told me, ‘We’re not doing that today.’ When I have received it, many of the food items were missing,” Cox-Powell wrote in her affidavit.
In 2017, the jail settled a federal lawsuit filed by five women who were held in solitary confinement while pregnant. In their complaint, the women alleged that they were denied access to proper nutrition or medical care for pregnancy throughout their incarceration.
But, jail administrators have stated on record time and time again that the jail’s food menu is decided by and presented by their vendor, Summit.
According to JOB minutes, in the July 2021 JOB meeting, Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper told the board that the jail administration inspects meals provided by the vendor, “… Summit has a dietician that comes up with the diet plan for individuals living in our facility that consist of 3200 calories…A dietician prepares a meal for Summit and the meals are presentable and good. We get photographs of these meals; we inspect these meals; and the meals look swell.”
In the following month’s JOB meeting minutes, Summit was addressed by the board again following public comment. Deputy Laura Williams clarified that the dietician for the jail is not on-site and is employed by Summit.
“The vendor has a registered dietitian, who is the individual responsible with preparing the menus per the contract specifications…The dietitian does not work on site. That individual is employed by the vendor and is responsible for overseeing that dietary menus of multiple different contracts…” Wiliams said according to the minutes.
Several incarcerated persons confirmed in sworn testimony and in interviews with PINJ that meals this past week at the jail included a scoop of oatmeal and two slices of bread for breakfast, a scoop of chili and two slices of bread for lunch and two peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. There were no fresh fruits or vegetables served, they said.
Kevin Watson, an incarcerated worker in the jail, said in an interview that his unit is overpopulated due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Officials are sending persons with negative COVID tests to his unit, but the kitchen has not delivered enough trays to feed all of those transfers. Watson said the workers are giving their trays to the new transfers. At the time of his interview, he said that he himself had only eaten one meal a day for three days.
According to the jail’s food service procedure policy, “Prisoners will be provided a daily diet that is nutritionally adequate for the maintenance of good health. Prisoners will receive three meals a day, including two hot meals in a 24-hour time period … Dietary requirements will be available for those inmates whose medical condition requires a prescribed therapeutic attention.”
Korinksi said the current situation at the jail is why the liaison position—a position the JOB has discussed hiring for several months—is vital for investigations and inquiry.
“I have advocated for such a long time for that liaison position—because once again, how do we know? If we can work with someone who can go into the Allegheny County Jail, who can find out what’s true, false or in the middle, because there’s always an answer,” he said.