1 of 8
Steve Gehrke, Utah Department of Corrections
Inmate Fonua Kimoana prepares food inside the Utah State Prison Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

SALT LAKE CITY — Female prison inmates in Utah are packing on pounds at the state's expense.

A new legislative audit shows women gaining more weight than men while incarcerated at Point of the Mountain. Auditors found the state could have saved $1.2 million the past five years had the prison cut the 2,600 calories a day it feeds women.

And big meals apparently hurt women's ability to make it on the outside.

A Department of Corrections medical staff member told auditors that obesity decreases female inmates' earning potential after they're released, making them more likely to return to prison. Officials say some revert to drug abuse as a quick way to lose weight.

Overpaying for food and feeding inmates too much were among the findings of a Legislative Auditor General report released Tuesday that took an in-depth look at the Department of Corrections' $263 million budget. Auditors also found that the prison could reduce costs for outpatient medical care and prescription drugs.

The audit admonished the prison administration to be more forthcoming with the Legislature concerning its budget.

In February 2011, former executive director Tom Patterson told lawmakers that the prison could not sustain cuts without having to release inmates early, yet it gave career ladder raises to 500 employees totaling $4.5 million four months later, according to the audit. Also, the department accumulated a $25.2 million surplus over a five-year period by not filling open jobs.

Patterson resigned in January after six years at the helm. Rollin Cook, a retired Salt Lake County sheriff's deputy, replaced him in March. Much of the audit focuses on Patterson's administration.

In his written response to the audit, Cook promises the department will be more transparent with the Legislature, its own staff, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and the public.

Change of menu

To address the food cost and menu issues, Cook said he recently sent two captains to training at a national association for prison food services and hired a registered dietician. He also wants new cost- and menu-control software to better manage culinary services.

House Minority Leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake, called the audit "extraordinarily draconian" because it didn't go beyond suggesting that women inmates get less food. The state, she said, has to do better than just "pumping out clients who aren't healthy when they get out."

"Is it healthy food? Are we recognizing why people are eating certain things?" she said at an Audit Subcommittee meeting Tuesday. "I think we need to do a lot more investigation to find out what the reality is."

Legislative auditor general John Schaff said the audit revolved around dollars and cents and whether the state was getting a bang for its buck.

"I admit we didn't look at whether they were getting their carrots and corn," he said. Schaff said the "intent here is not to starve anyone" but to improve the program.

Food costs

Overall, the audit found the prison's $8 million annual food costs could be reduced with better management, not only with smarter buying but by reducing portion sizes for women.

A body mass index analysis, which uses height and weight to determine body type, shows that while male and female inmates put on pounds while in prison, women outgain men. BMI scores for both placed them in the "overweight" category, and women were only a tenth of a point from "obese."

The prison feeds women 2,600 calories a day, 800 more than its clinical director recommended in 2005. Food service workers told auditors they did not follow the guideline because it was difficult to customize meals for women.

Auditors pointed out that the prison already prepares meals to meet religious or medical diet restrictions, so it's possible to change them for female inmates. The prison could have saved $240,000 a year had it fed women fewer calories, according to the audit.

The report focused on women because auditors found the caloric intake for men to be about right.

Corrections spent $1 million more per year on food at the Draper prison than it did at the Gunnison facility, which does not house women, the audit says. The per meal cost at Draper last year was $4.16 compared with $2.96 at Gunnison.

Part of the reason, according to the audit, is that the Draper facility has not bought food from second-market vendors that sell excess or discontinued items at lower prices.

Utah spends more on prison food than all of its neighboring states except Wyoming, according to the audit.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy