Jeffrey Vickers: The Rehabilitator

In this modified cook-chill operation, the majority of foods are cooked, then blast-chilled and sealed in a three-compartment disposable tray made from recycled milk cartons. Meals are sealed with film over the top and refrigerated until time of service. Gravies, mashed potatoes, rice and spaghetti sauce are cooked, then pumped into bags and kept chilled until needed.

All lunch and dinner meals are prepared in the central production kitchens, then shipped to the other two jails Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, two days worth each time and three on Fridays. Inmates are remanded to pods, and meals are rethermed at the point of service in each pod.

Once Vickers secured a grant to purchase a delivery truck and determined who would make deliveries, he had effected [as he had expected] some substantial savings. But one major "customer satisfaction" improvement caught him by surprise.

"It was no surprise that we saved one FTE [the salary for a lead cook in the Bay Area for a 40-hour week is $45,000, plus 60% more for benefits] for a savings of more than $80,000," Vickers explains. "We also realized a 5% reduction in waste by consolidating to one kitchen. Our annual food budget is $2.1 million, so a 5% savings is about $105,000 annually."

"Seal" of approval: But what was totally unexpected, he continues, was the inmates' reaction to the changes, which they perceived in their meals. "They loved it," he says. "I was on a module on the first day of service to quell any problems. If you're there and responsive, you can solve a problem immediately. They loved it because the plastic film over the meal meant that nobody had [tampered] with it."  By "nobody," Vickers means inmate workers who conduct the retherming, potentially someone that, to any given inmate, could be an enemy or member of a rival gang.

Costs related to the disposable tray system (which Vickers refers to as his Seal-A-Meal program) eat up most of the 5% savings; it runs about 14¢ a piece for trays and film, although the machinery and maintenance come free with the program, an important cost savings for correctional facilities, Vickers notes. Overall, meal cost per inmate day is approximately $3.15 to $3.20.

Web-based commissary: With Seal-A-Meal in place, Vickers turned his attention to the inmate commissary operation. Under the Sheriff's Department's auspices, the business of selling candies, toiletries and other supplies to inmates was a $1 million business in 1997. But since the department wasn't charging inmates enough to cover costs, it was losing money.

Vickers believed that outsourcing commissary operations was the solution and asked to be in charge of putting out the RFP and supervising the change over. "It's become a $1.6 million business and we earn a 40% commission on that, so now we're receiving $600,000 annually," he says proudly. "To us, it's peripheral business, but we wanted it to be a money maker."

The commissary's Web site launched last September; now, inmates and their relatives and friends can order on-line, whereas in the past, only inmates could place orders, once a week after filling out a paper order form (which they can still do). "The contractor created the Web site, and we've increased off-site sales by 15%, thanks to the natural growth of the program over the past 10 years," Vickers says.

Purchase ease: "All of the correctional contractors are competing for commissary sales, but we were the first to develop this Web site," he continues. "I was instrumental in developing the concept and its implementation, and I think it will be huge in the industry. Now, friends and relatives can send gifts to inmates. Since we're earning a commission, the easier it is to make a purchase, the better. They just click on the Web site [ ], then indicate the name of the facility and inmate for whom they wish to make their purchase."

The annual commission of $600,000 goes to the Inmate Welfare Fund, administered by the Sheriff's Dept. "All programs must in some way benefit the general welfare of the inmate and we fund 50% of each of the programs," Vickers points out. Currently, funds are spent on GED courses, landscaping and other vocations.

The Web site also allows family members and friends to make deposits to inmates' accounts, eliminating the need for them to visit the jails to do it and for department personnel to wait on them (though some deposits are still made that way). "Now," Vickers says, "we use the same Web site and accept ATM and credit cards only, when making a deposit. We've reduced on-site deposit activity by about 50%."

Currently, Vickers' department has 12 authorized positions in foodservice, but four are vacant. He's now thinking out-of-the-box in order to improve recruitment. "I want [the prison administration] to go to continuous open testing so people can walk in anytime and be tested, versus giving the test only once a year," he states. "“It would change the way we do business."

Seeking revenue: He also has his sights set on generating more revenue. "We feed the county-run homeless shelters on a contract with the Health Department," he says. "Providing one meal a day with our Seal-A-Meal program, we generate about $35,000 to $40,000 annually. I'd like to provide the same foodservice to the juvenile facilities. I'm trying to get the county to study it."

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