There's something new at Virginia prisons, something that can call to mind Belgian waffles, bottomless pitchers of mimosas and unhurried conversation to the strains of a string quartet: It's Sunday brunch.
Last month, Virginia's Department of Corrections started serving brunch on weekends and holidays at most of its nearly 50 facilities.
But not all prisoners greeted the news as if it were a serving of mascarpone-stuffed French toast or a well-made Western omelet. The reason: They say the morning meal is brunch in name only. And on the days when it's served, inmates receive only two meals, not three.
The move to eliminate a meal on weekends and holidays is indeed a cost-cutting measure, said Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor. It is "a way to help the administration cut the budget, because of the budget shortfall," he said. But, he added, Virginia's 31,000 prisoners are also getting something out of the new arrangement. "It's a chance for the inmates to sleep in in the morning . . . rather than forcing them to get awake for the early meal," he said.
Keith DeBlasio of the inmate advocacy group Virginia CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) said many prisoners are happy with the change for that reason. They aren't roused so early for their daily morning count. Others complain the brunch offerings leave them hungry, he said.
Thomas Alexander of Glen Allen, Va., was released in October from the Lunenburg Correctional Center in Victoria County, where the two-meal policy has been in effect since last year. He said that while prison administrators promised to add two extra food items to brunch and to dinner, the items were skimpy. Brunch was often distinguished by an extra pat of butter and a piece of fruit, he said. Dinner included a second roll and extra green beans.
"We all know what the definition of brunch is," Alexander said. "It's a combination of lunch and breakfast. There was no lunch food on there."
The department said a typical brunch menu is oatmeal, scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, home fries, biscuits, margarine, jelly, fruit, coffee, milk and "breakfast juice."
The change is drawing some protest from out-of-state prisoners incarcerated in Virginia. Virginia has contracts with corrections departments in Vermont, Connecticut, New Mexico and the Virgin Islands to house prisoners, receiving $60 to $64 a day per inmate, Traylor said.
"We're getting notes from mothers and wives and loved ones of the inmates, complaining about the situation," said Vermont's director of correctional services, Richard Turner. "Not a whole lot, but some."
Some Vermont prisons also have opted for two meals on weekends and holidays, Turner said. Connecticut and New Mexico prisons serve three meals, as do Maryland's.
All of Connecticut's 500 prisoners and 200 of the 500 from Vermont are at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, which is served by a private food-service vendor. That contract stipulates three meals a day.
The rest of Vermont's inmates, however, are at Virginia's Haynesville Correctional Center, a dormitory-style facility that has adopted the new brunch schedule.
Vermont's Turner said he believes that regardless of how often inmates are fed, there is no problem as long as adequate nutrition is provided. "It's part of our contract that they're supposed to" meet dietary requirements, he said. "We'll be checking into that."
Traylor said that there was some griping from inmates and their families early on about the switch to two meals, mainly because "some of the facilities were having trouble getting a time frame down," leaving too much time between brunch and dinner. Now, weekend brunch starts at 8 a.m., two hours later than breakfast on weekdays. Dinner on weekends is served at 4 p.m., two hours earlier than during the week.
But, he pointed out, inmates with money in their prison accounts may buy snacks and keep them in their cells. And diabetics and others who require regular meals still receive breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The department doesn't have a firm estimate of how much it will save by eliminating breakfast at least two days a week, though Traylor said, it could be as much as 10 cents per inmate per weekend day and holiday.
Ex-inmate Alexander said he thinks the whole thing is a lousy idea. "Prison isn't supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be an enjoyable experience, but don't make a man suffer by cutting the amount of food you're going to serve him. You've already got guys there with attitudes about being incarcerated, why instigate it further by making him hungry all the time?"