After an unannounced inspection last month, state inspectors concluded that food served by Orange County Sheriff deputies to people in jail is consistent with “grocery store standards” and not rotten or moldy.

“Despite assertions, the findings from (California Board of State and Community Corrections) after an unannounced inspection show exactly what we have said time and time again – we provide nutritionally balanced and healthy meals that meet or exceed requirements for incarcerated persons entrusted to our care,” said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes in a news release Monday.

The inspection came months after a December report by the Stop the Musick Coalition was published with testimony from inmates who say they’ve been fed spoiled and rotten food.

Sarah Kahn, who is a part of the Stop the Musick Coalition and a Justice Catalyst Fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an email Tuesday improvement to the food conditions only came after two years of people in jails organizing and public pressure on the department.

“The fact that an inspection found the jail to be in technical compliance with the minimum standards that regulate detention facilities reflects the organizing and courage of our incarcerated community members,” she said in the email. 

“The documented history of inadequate and inhumane food conditions further highlights the fact that our penal institutions are set up to provide little or no protection to people who are incarcerated.”

[Read: People in OC Jails Say They’re Still Fed Moldy Food, Sheriff Department Disputes Claims]

Following unannounced inspections on March 17 and 18, a field representative for the state board concluded in an April 6 memo there were no violations.

“The kitchen facilities were clean, orderly, well-stocked and contained food items that were consistent with grocery store standards appearing edible, without mold or a rotten appearance from a consumer perspective,” reads the memo.

The coalition behind the rotten food report is dedicated to reducing jailhouse populations in the county and are fighting the expansion and reopening of the James A. Musick facility – a jail in Irvine.

That report said people in OC jails have been eating up to three cold rotten bologna sandwiches a day for the past two years.

“The bologna sometimes leaks a dark juice and is blotched with green spots. Several people have described becoming so sick that they needed medical attention. People have to skip meals when the food is too rotten, often skipping several meals in a row,” reads the coalition’s report.

The report’s finding has sparked outcry over food conditions in OC jails from not only residents and activists throughout the county, but from the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board.

The Democratic Party of Orange County passed a resolution calling on the Sheriff’s Department to stop serving rotten food.

But the sheriff’s department disputed the allegations and following the party’s resolution, Democratic OC Supervisor Katrina Foley did her own inspection at Theo Lacy and said at a board meeting earlier this year that she felt the jails were compliant with state regulations.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint to the California Board of State and Community Corrections that alleged that the Sheriff’s Department had violated various state regulations surrounding sanitation and food storage; frequency of hot meals; and observation of medical and religious diets.

Kahn said in her email that the department has reintroduced hot trays for some of the meals.

“We don’t yet have enough information to know whether they will permanently reinstate full hot meals,” she said.

The inspection took place about a week after the state board informed the Sheriff’s Department and the County’s Health Care Agency of the ACLU’s inquiry.

A couple days before the surprise inspection, the county’s Health Care Agency reported that there were “no areas of noncompliance” on the related issues, according to the state board’s memo.

“In addition, various meal plans and menus were provided that detailed all meals along with substitutions for our review. As indicated, there were several variations of menus that were approved by a public health nutritionist for meal service during impacted time periods,” reads the memo.

This is not the first time the department has come under fire over food conditions in the jails.

A report by the Office of the Inspector General after an unannounced inspection of the Theo Lacy Facility published in March 2017 expressed concern over the sheriff’s department’s handling of food. 

Hundreds of inmates went on a hunger strike in 2020 calling for hot meals to resume after they were suspended during the pandemic.

[Read: Hunger Strike in OC Jails Over Lack of Visitations and Hot Meals Comes to An End]

The state board said in its April 6, 2022 memo that it will do a follow up inspection later this month.

“(Board of State and Community Corrections) staff along with the public health authority, will continue to monitor the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s food service items, quality, and methods for meal delivery,” the memo states.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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