Elbert County feeding prisoners for $4.50 a day

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Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap is garnering praise for the way his department has managed to cut meal costs at the county jail.

“We’ve got it down to about $1.50 a meal,” said Sheriff Heap, whose staff served about 50,000 meals in 2012.

“The hard thing about meals is you can’t cut it to just bread and water,” said the sheriff. “There are rules.”

The jail has the capacity to hold about 45 inmates — “55 if we pull out some cots,” said Heap.

The department’s deputies are on track to make 16,000 service calls this year, Heap said, adding that 60 percent of arrests made are of people who do not live in Elbert County.

In 2013, the jail’s daily inmate population is averaging between 35 and 37 prisoners. And like all department heads around the cash-strapped county, Heap said he is constantly being asked to cut expenses.

But the sheriff’s kitchen staff “has to meet certain nutritional and caloric standards” while serving three meals a day, he said.

“One lawsuit claiming we’re not feeding these folks appropriately would be a big problem for a county in our financial situation,” Heap added.

So while jail food meets certain basic minimum standards, the sheriff and his staff have become very creative with the facility’s food budget — and menu.

Frozen hamburger patties are purchased by the dozens of cartons — and at a deep discount. “Last summer we had a lot of zucchini so we made a lot of zucchini bread,” said Heap. “The inmates liked that.”

The jail’s kitchen is equipped with government-surplus refrigerators and freezers, acquired at little or no cost to the county, and Heap’s staff makes good use of “day-old” bread donated to the jail on a regular basis by Safeway.

The kitchen is partially staffed by prisoners, and inmates grow their own vegetables in a garden behind the jail.

“Getting assigned to the garden is a perk,” said Sheriff Heap. “We don’t pay them a nickel.”

In fact, the sheriff said that sometime later this year, he plans to go before a judge and argue that inmates at the Elbert County jail should “pay for their cost of care.”

“Places like Summit County and Garfield County already charge inmates,” he said. “I think we should be able to do it here too.”

According to the sheriff, the average total cost of housing an inmate is $79 a day.

“For those who can afford it, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to charge them at least $25 or $30 a day while they’re staying with us,” he said.

Board of County Commissioners Chairman Robert Rowland is a big fan of the sheriff and praised Heap and his staff for their resourcefulness.

“I think the sheriff and his department do a magnificent job with the resources they’ve got to work with,” said Rowland, who called Heap “one of the superstars of Elbert County.”

“Shayne’s very smart and has a great business mind,” Rowland said. “And he is thoroughly dedicated to this county.”

Heap, 42, was hired by the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy in 2002. He rose quickly through the ranks and was appointed undersheriff in 2007 and then elected sheriff in November 2010.

His annual salary is $66,600.

Wearing a buzz cut, combat boots and a big gun on his hip with a silver star on the grip, Heap clearly relishes his role as the county’s top lawman.

And he says he has no problem running a no-frills jail.

To prove his point, after being elected, the sheriff removed weightlifting equipment that had been used by inmates at the facility.

“It’s not my job to give them a place to lift weights,” he said. “My deputies don’t have weights here to work out with, so why should the prisoners?”

The jail does have a bare-bones exercise room and inmates are allowed to watch television and buy candy bars and other snacks from the jail commissary, the proceeds from which the sheriff uses to pay for the toiletries and other basics inmates are issued when they arrive at the jail.

Maximum-security inmates get their meals through a slot in their cell door. The jail’s other prisoners eat communally.

Heap said he models the jail’s weekly menu on a similar one used by the Colorado Department of Corrections.

“This is a county jail, the first stop on the way to prison for some,” said Heap.

“Inmates who qualify for worker status are required to perform manual labor,” Heap said, jobs that include picking up trash on county roads and landscaping and snow removal at the justice facility.

“Cost for care and labor requirements are a necessity,” the sheriff added. “No free room and board here.”

And as far as future menu offerings at Elbert County’s jail, the sheriff vows to continue to find ways to “do more with less. We get a few complaints about the food,” he admits. “But some of these guys will complain about anything.”

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