Time drags when you’re locked up.
“We’re bored,” a woman inmate says to Capt. Ed Aber as he walks by her gray cell with blue trim. She is on the ground peering out the door’s tray slot. “When’s lunch?”
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are some of the few moments in the tedious 24-hour days at the La Plata County Detention Center that inmates have to look forward to.
There is no monthly meal schedule – other than Wednesday’s breakfast burritos and Saturday’s bagels with cream cheese – so inmates never know what to expect. The early 4:30 p.m dinner could be a meaty 80/20 chili with cornbread and butter; a crowd-favorite double cheeseburger with all the fixings, mayo and mustard packets; a Mediterranean salad; a Philly cheesesteak; or teriyaki chicken. All the well-balanced dishes come with a veggie, salad and dessert. There is a baker who makes the sweets, such as rice krispies, chocolate cookie sandwiches. cheesecake and carrot cake.
“We are spoiled,” said Savannah Green, sipping from a plastic cup of instant Keefe coffee made with hot shower water. “We call it La Plata Ramada.”
Brian Oakeley has been in LPDC for seven months. He said he has been detained all over the state and the Western Slope jails have better food, maybe because they are smaller, but it’s not consistent.
“On the other side of the state, you’re like cattle. There are so many people in the system. It’s all sack lunches,” Oakeley said. “It’s the same meal every meal you get – a sandwich, a cookie, maybe some milk, and a fruit, and you’re lucky if the fruit is edible. It’s depressing.”
Even the little things in jail can make for a bad day, he said.
The value of foodThe La Plata County Detention Center is the Joël Robuchon restaurant of jalis. And Jerry Rodri, the correctional food service manager, is the no-BS but caring Joël Robuchon who happens to blacksmith bowie knives in his free time.
Rodri started in correctional food service when inmates were still allowed to have a commissary-purchased smoke after a meal. That was 30 years ago – what he calls “a minute.” Most of the recipes are his own, though he lets the guys in the kitchen occasionally use their creativity and experiment.
“It’s my strict conviction that everybody in here is a human being,” Rodri said. “They are judged down there on Second Avenue. I am just here to feed them.”
In 2018, the crew served up 466,145 meals in trays that keep food warm for 45 minutes at $2.16 per meal. There are typically 20 or so religious or medical diets they have to consider. Financial constraints are a challenge, but Rodri said LPDC spends a little more money on food than other jails.
“It’s a false economy to serve inmates second-rate food. There are a lot of companies that want to take over, do contract food service, and all they brag about is their bottom line,” he said. “If you can save a few grand a year, you are going to eat that up with the first cop that goes to the emergency room with his eyeball hanging out on his cheek.”
During Rodri’s time at the jail, there has never been a fight or riot that started because an inmate was angry about bad food.
The crewThe kitchen is clean, too. Tuesdays are the scrub-down day. The blue, non-slick floor is a lie and feels wax-coated after it’s been mopped. The stainless steel bomb-proof “skittles” (skillets/kettles) shine. The large dry storage doesn’t have as much as an onion flake on the ground and is stocked with bulk items of middle-of-the-road brands. The neat and tidy cold storage and freezer look like Marie Kondo was in charge of organizing. The sparkling result is in part because of the teamwork of the crew.
There are one or two leads at a time who help direct them. The respected Chris Kohlenberg was training Nathan “Red” Hoffman, who stepped up to replace him the day the Herald stopped by for interviews. A bed opened up and Kohlenberg was sent to prison that morning. He got on the “happy bus” and took with him a breakfast burrito made with eggs, hash browns, two sausages and salsa and left Hoffman his blue Jordans that would no longer be of use to him in the joint.
“These are the first pair of Jordans I’ve ever had in my life,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman is more of a people person, whereas the other lead, Ronnie Johnston, is more of a chef.
“Ronnie likes to cook more than he likes to tell these idiots what to do,” Rodri said.
There are around 30 or so inmate workers, or trustees, at a time who are either in the kitchen, doing laundry or are on the floor. There is a trustee application process that has to be approved by the inmate selection committee. After 30 days working, trustees earn 10 days of good time for each month, meaning 10 days off their sentence.
“I would lose my mind if I had to be in a pod,” Johnston said in a baritone voice. Pods A through E are where inmates are locked up and separated depending on the level of security.
“I definitely thank God I have this place because it makes my day go by so much faster,” he said.
But the kitchen isn’t a vacation. They’re in jail.
DisciplineRodri runs a tight ship and the crew works long hours. They are up before dawn and in the kitchen by 5 a.m. They then work until 8:30 or 9 a.m. There is an hour break before they come back for lunch, take another break, then come back for dinner.
“I work them so hard they refer to their remaining time – ‘I have six GI days left,’” Rodri said, referring to the military-like rigor of the day.
There are three things that Rodri will not tolerate: rap, whistling and backward caps.
Everyone appreciates the whistling rule.
“Rap, I don’t like it anyway, and it tends to make people act out,” he said.
He doesn’t like the backward hats because he doesn’t want individuals in the kitchen, rather those who are willing to work as a team. Hoffman, who has been in LPDC since January, said he would vouch for any of the guys who work in the kitchen.
“From the dish pit – they are the heart and soul of the whole team. Any kitchen. You can’t have a good kitchen, period, without a good dish pit – all the way up to my juiceologist,” Hoffman said. “We have like six different Kool-Aids and he comes up with all these different flavors. I don’t even know how he can do it.”
The atmosphere can transform even the most stubborn inmate into a team player, as Hoffman demonstrated in a spot-on cholo impersonation: “‘I’m not going to do nothing, bro. What you gonna do, homie? ... I’m from Southside.’ Then you see the inner good come out,” he said. “A week into it they’re like, ‘Hey man, you need some help with that?’”
‘The island of broken toys’The sad truth of a “Jail serves decent meals” headline is that it points to the fact it’s abnormal. It’s normal to serve tasteless mystery meat behind bars as added punishment. The use of food loaf is takes this a step further. Food loaf, or nutraloaf, is an unseasoned, nasty mashup of random scraps that meets nutritional requirements. Some jurisdictions have deemed it unconstitutional, but many used the mush as an additional disciplinary measure for inmates who misbehave. They serve food loaf at LPDC, but Rodri doesn’t like to make it. He doesn’t like using food as punishment.
The warm food is a distinct contrast to the cold walls.
“This is really the island of broken toys,” Rodri said. “It will just break your heart listening to some of these stories.”
Statistics say the majority of the inmates will return. Working in the kitchen at least teaches more skills than sitting in a cell ever could.
“All you’re doing is sitting here for no reason and becoming a better criminal,” Hoffman said. “We just had one of our favorite – I call em’ buddies – roommates with us (Arthur Wyatt), he actually got his GED in here.” Wyatt was almost 50 when he accomplished it.
Wyatt earned his first-ever “A” taking the GED course. Rodri has a photo of him in his blue cap and gown near his desk like a family photo.
“We made him a big ol’ cake in the shape of an ‘A,’” Hoffman said.