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— One prisoner said he eased hunger pangs by eating toothpaste. One complained he got so little food that he trembled at night in his cell. Another filed grievance after grievance, each consisting of a single word: “Hungry.”

These complaints, all from the Gordon County Jail in Calhoun, Georgia, highlight a growing debate involving correctional institutions nationwide. In an era of tight government budgets and little sympathy for the incarcerated, three square meals a day in jail are giving way to aggressive cost-cutting through outsourcing of food services.

For-profit companies control expenses by carefully measuring the portions in inmates’ meals and, in some cases, serving food just twice a day. They charge jails and prisons as little as 75 cents a meal and seldom more than $2.

In Georgia, where dozens of jails have privatized their food services, even small counties save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Some have cut their costs in half.

The result, prisoners’ advocates say, may be an unconstitutional denial of basic nutrition for inmates who have no other options for sustenance.

Courts have ruled that prisoners are entitled to “substantial and wholesome” meals, the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights recently said in a letter to Gordon County officials. If the county doesn’t improve its food service, the center may file a lawsuit that might also force other jails to change how they feed prisoners.

Gordon County officials say prisoners get plenty of food. The county relies on its contractor, Florida-based Trinity Services Group, to create healthy, satisfying meals.

Trinity, one of the largest players in the correctional food industry, says criticism from inmates is inevitable.

“They don’t have a choice,” Jim O’Connell, a company spokesman, said in an interview. “We could have a bigger discussion of why they’re there to begin with. But you’re served what you’re served.”

One day in October, breakfast at the Gordon County Jail consisted of one-half cup of fruit juice, one-half cup of canned fruit or a piece of fresh fruit, one cup of cold cereal, 11/2 cups of “country gravy,” a biscuit, three servings of margarine and one cup of 2 percent milk. Coffee was optional.

The dinner menu one night that week called for 11/4 cups of meat-fried rice, one cup of beans, two pieces of cornbread, two servings of margarine, a slice of cake and a one-cup serving of a “vitamin beverage.”

The jail, about 70 miles north of Atlanta, serves two meals a day, the minimum required by state law. Breakfast is at 7 a.m., dinner at 5 p.m. Any other food — even snacks — comes from the jail commissary, but that’s only for prisoners who follow the rules and who have money in personal accounts managed by the jail.

The two meals are supposed to provide about 2,800 calories a day, an amount that Trinity says is “nutritionally adequate” for sedentary, incarcerated men.

Menus, created by Trinity dietitians, typically feature starchy items, such as biscuits, potatoes and macaroni. Fresh fruit and vegetables appear occasionally. Most protein comes from meat or beans.

Earlier this year, prisoners began reporting to the Southern Center for Human Rights that they weren’t receiving even the modest portions the menus describe.

“We get complaints about treatment in county jails every day of the week,” said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney at the center. But she said the volume of reports from Gordon County stuck out. So she used the state Open Records Act to obtain written grievances prisoners had filed with the jail.

“We found complaint after complaint after complaint,” Geraghty said, some from prisoners “so uncomfortably hungry that they’re eating their own toothpaste.”

The jail, which over the past year housed an average of 278 inmates, received 85 prisoner grievances about food from July to November. Jail officers closed each grievance as “unfounded.”

In late July, prisoner Tammy Walraven went to a computer terminal in a common area of the jail to report that she was “starving.”

“I thought we got three meals a day,” she wrote. “I’m so hungry.”

“No,” an officer wrote back, “two.”

A day later, prisoner Demitrich Carey wrote: “Why are we barely getting food on our trays? This is not enough. I know I’m in jail but we should be fed better than what we are. Please and thank you.”

The response: “The food portions have not changed.”

Several inmates claimed they had lost weight — 20 or more pounds in a few months — and others said they were sick from not getting enough food.

“It’s hard for me to go to sleep because my stomach hurts,” Michael Johnson Jr. wrote in August.

“You get the same as everyone else,” a jail officer responded. “It is what is required daily.”

The Southern Center, however, is investigating whether Trinity employees have quietly reduced servings to save the company money.

“It does not appear,” Geraghty said, “that the county is getting what they’re paying for.”

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