It takes a lot of turkey to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 1,700 prisoners at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, Pendleton.
On Monday, the cooking crew began preparations for the big meal and will roast 634 pounds of sliced turkey breast Thursday and serve it hot. Additionally, the meal requires 53 gallons of gravy, 80 gallons of mashed potatoes, 80 gallons of stuffing/dressing, 3,380 dinner rolls, 52 pounds of margarine and more, according to information from Ron Miles, acting assistant to the superintendent. Inmates prepare and cook all the meals at the prison under staff supervision. Miles said it usually costs $2.20 to provide three meals a day to EOCI’s inmates, but Thanksgiving dinner costs 98 cents per inmate.
“We’re splurging on this meal, and we’ll do it again at Christmas and again at New Year’s,” Miles said.
Each dinner will have moderate portions: 6 ounces of seasoned turkey breast, 2 ounces of cranberry sauce, 6 ounces of squash with brown sugar and margarine, a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped topping. Miles has heard taxpayers complain about inmates getting perks, but he contended inmates are people and there are benefits to treating them humanely, particularly because 94 percent of Oregon prisoners eventually back on the streets.
“We don’t want to release angry inmates,” Miles said, because they are more likely to end up behind bars again. Creating a prison environment where inmates work, go to school and get a literal taste of the holidays, he said, helps to prepare them for life out of prison.
Marco Antonio Vildozala-Aguirre, 40, and a pair of other inmates make bread stuffing for Thursday’s holiday meal. Gallons of broth fill more than half of a waist-high metal vat, and chunks of dried bread pile up in two more vats on either side. Vildozala fills a metal bucket with broth and pours it over the bread, while his cohorts use six-foot-long metal poles that look like paddles to stir the stuffing.
The work is hard, but Vildozala said that’s a good thing for him and other inmates.
“Here in the kitchen, they can learn to make soup or bread in the bakery,” he said. “They can learn in here. They are not wasting time.”
Thanksgiving dinner is a bigger meal than most, Miles said, but not so unusual as to require extra workers or extra staff for oversight. Kitchen crews, 35-40 inmates per shift, are used to making about 1,700 meals three times a day.
But correctional staff at the entrance to the prison are busier because families typically visit during the holidays. Several inmate visitors, including children, lined up Wednesday afternoon to pass through pat downs and a metal detector.
While the holiday meal is a bonus, Vildozala said this time of year is difficult for some prisoners because they cannot be with family. Most inmates, he said, won’t show that or admit it.
“We try to be a little bit strong,” he said, and keep busy to keep their minds off what they miss.
Contact Phil Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0833.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.