By Christopher Crosby
PARIS — Just prior to mealtime rushes at Market Square Restaurant, cooks prepare food for a very different sort of place: the jail.
The restaurant has cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for the inmates of the Oxford County Jail since 2009, when a relationship was born out of budget constraints and convenience after the state consolidated the jail system.
Those involved say the arrangement has been a hit.
“It works out well for us, giving us some extra income during hard times of year,” restaurant owner Scott Gilbert said.
“He’s never even gone up on his prices,” Jail Administrator Ed Quinn said.
Three times a day, usually an hour before the height of service, the jail puts in a call to the restaurant with the number of prisoners being held. The number ranges — on Tuesday it was 12 — though Quinn said the average is 4 or 5. The arrangement allows Gilbert to bring on an extra cook to prepare those meals, which the restaurant then delivers.
There’s no menu for inmates to choose from, but the restaurant makes accommodations for allergies and for inmates on vegetarian and vegan diets. Barring those constraints, the cook prepares a daily meal from the same food served at the restaurant, usually specials left over from the day before.
The arrangement allows the restaurant to sell food it might otherwise get rid of, which is good for its bottom line, Gilbert said.
The meals are not elaborate. Breakfast might be an English muffin or a breakfast sandwich, and milk. Lunch, which is almost always a cold meal, could be a chicken sandwich, which comes with juice. Dinner is a hot meal. By law, one meal must be hot.
“There’s no roast beef, no lobster,” Quinn said.
No toothpicks, bottles, cans or other items that could be harmful inside a jail are served with the meals. Before meals are given to inmates, guards open the Styrofoam containers and inspect them for contraband. Quinn said there’s never been an issue, but safety is a concern.
Oxford’s scenario differs greatly from full-time facilities, such as Androscoggin County Jail, where statute requires that chefs and nutritionists plan and cook meals for a stable inmate population. The jail in Auburn budgets $200,000 a year for meals, with some 200 inmates consuming about 2,600 calories daily.
When the Oxford County Jail was downgraded from a full-time jail to a 72-hour holding facility in 2008, the budget could no longer support a kitchen, which now sits dormant.
Predicting the change, officials at the sheriff’s office went to the restaurant, explained the situation and, from day one, contracted with the restaurant to cook the inmates’ meals.
Since the daily inmate population in Oxford can vary significantly, contracting became cost effective.
“This became the only solution because they have the inventory on hand and we do not,” Quinn said.
Aside from the stipulation that dinner be served hot, Quinn said jails are free to determine how much they want to spend, and how much food prisoners get. Breakfast costs $4 per inmate, lunch $6 and dinner, because it’s more involved, $8. Roughly $41,000 is budgeted for the service.
While inmates are never behind bars long enough to have favorite meals, he said the restaurant get compliments on the food all the time.
“Sometimes, after they’re released, we have guys come back because they liked the food so much,” Gilbert said.