Everybody considers their workplace a prison, from time to time at least. I have shared that feeling, too. (For the record, my managing editor is the most benevolent warden, I mean boss, I've ever had. Hope that keeps me in my cell, I mean in my cubicle.) But it seems that it takes something special to work at a place where you are actually serving people the least charitable among us would call the underbelly of society.
Harlow doesn't use such epithets. "They're people. They've messed up. But they're people."
She also doesn't see what she has done as anything special. "When I cooked, I tried to fix the best food possible, like I did when I worked at a restaurant. Inmates have to eat, too."
The daily menus
And, based on Harlow's quick review of some daily menus, the inmates apparently eat pretty well.
A typical breakfast is a tray filled with two eggs, two strips of bacon, toast and coffee. Other entrees for the morning meal include biscuits and sausage, and pancakes.
Lunch entrees include fried chicken and baked potato, broccoli casserole, and, like the day I was visiting her, pizza. An aroma like you'd smell at an Italian restaurant wafted around the kitchen as workers unloaded large pizza pans with bubbling cheese and tomato sauce from the big ovens.
Dinner is the light meal of the day as cooks and their helpers turn unused ingredients from other meals into casseroles.
"We have always tried to offer as much variety as possible," said Harlow. "We also provide special diets for diabetics, people who are lactose intolerant, and others requiring special foods."
In the "others" category would be Muslims, whose religion prohibits them from eating pork.
"One of the things I've noticed in the last few years is that we are seeing more and more Muslims, and that means a little less pork," she said, adding that the jail kitchen also follows state nutritional guidelines as well as medical or religious dietary rules requiring special meals. "In addition, we do get some inmates who can't eat pork due to doctor's orders, but most of the pork-free meals are because of religious reasons."
Harlow, who worked for 38 years as a cook and waitress at the ABC Grill in Danville, said she has tried to plan and prepare the meals the same way she did at the grill - "as homemade style as possible."
"This is not a fancy restaurant or a fast-food restaurant," she said.
"We don't cook steaks, but we do fix hamburgers occasionally but not like they do at a Burger King or something.
"We've got a lot of mouths to feed. We've got a day cook and evening cook and an inmate crew of four to five and today we've got to fix three meals a day to 241 inmates and also 15 to 20 staff. But we try to provide a menu that features simple, homestyle food, like you'd find at a family restaurant."
"Family" focus evident on holidays
That "family" focus is particularly evident at Thanksgiving and Christmas when the kitchen staff prepares turkey, dressing and all the trimmings. "The inmates can't be home for the holidays but we try to give them a little bit of home at meal time," Harlow said.
While she talks about making meal time "family-style," "homestyle" and "family restaurant style," she acknowledges that she orders food for what would be a huge family, big home or massive restaurant.
A recent weekly order placed by Harlow included 24 gallons of canned green beans, 12 gallons of canned corn and 800 pounds of chicken breasts. Despite the great volume of food that the kitchen prepares and mouths that it feeds, she believes the kitchen has been successful in satisfying most inmates' culinary needs.
"We've received a lot of compliments with a lot of inmates saying what we fix is better than what they get at home or have had at a lot of restaurants," she said. "We don't allow tips, but some of them have offered to buy me a Coke."
However, not all inmate palates have been pleased.
"Some of the inmates have griped about the food, and some have even filed a grievance against me," Harlow said. "But most of the gripes have to do not so much with what we fix for them as what we don't.