Those behind bars were able to devour a traditional Thanksgiving meal, too.
The Sarpy County Jail serves holiday meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter and sometimes the Fourth of July, said Food Service Director Geoff Geislar of Dval Enterprises, a company Sarpy County contracts for food services at the jail.
The meal is a reasonable way to celebrate the holiday, Lt. Jacob Betsworth said.
“We try and treat everybody in here with respect,” Betsworth said. “That respect that we earn is given back to us … it keeps the peace, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Geislar and a team of inmates started preparing the 160 meals at 9 a.m., about an hour earlier than regular days. The food had already been cooked the day prior but needed to be reheated, Geislar said.
The inmates helping him are part of the jail’s Trustee Program, which program supervisor Officer Timothy Kendall said provides offenders with minimal crimes the opportunity to work various jobs, starting in the kitchen.
The program, Betsworth said, helps with inmates’ reentry into society so that they hopefully don’t commit another crime.
“It allows them to build life skills,” Betsworth said. “We’re hoping that they will get jobs with the skills that they’ve learned inside of our jail.”
A group of trustees wearing black and white uniforms stirred the food in silver pots and pans. The men help prepare, cook and serve the food under supervision, as well as clean up.
Geislar creates a schedule of who does what to make meal prep go smoothly. He switches the task assignments daily to keep it interesting for inmates, he said.
On the menu this year was turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, salad and pumpkin cake. Geislar said portion sizes were a bit bigger than normal. On a typical day inmates are served 2,000 calories minimum between breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“It’s not probably as good as it is at home, but it’s a close try,” Betsworth said.
Served at 11 a.m., inmates had their usual half hour to eat lunch.
The food was pretty good, inmate and trustee Justin Butler said, but not the same as a home-cooked meal with family. He said the mashed potatoes were his favorite part, and he was thankful to have real turkey.
“People probably get to eat a lot less somewhere else,” Butler said. “I guess I have things to be thankful for.”
Geislar said that while inmates of course wish they could celebrate the holiday from home, they appreciate the jail’s effort.
‘It’s nice to just give them a break and remind them what’s really going on outside of here,” Geislar said. “Hopefully we get some of them thinking about family.”
On the days leading up to the holiday, Geislar said he notices many inmates become quiet, while others become agitated.
He’s seen the kitchen trustees look out for one another.
“They may see one [inmate] down and come by and try to cheer them up again and think about something else,” Geislar said. “They still have their moments.”
Besides the meal, the holiday is another ordinary day in the jail.
“We try to keep them in the routine as much as possible,” Betsworth said. “The structure in here helps with behavior and those kind of things.”
Visitors aren’t allowed on Thanksgiving because it requires more staff who want to be at home with family, Betsworth said.
Butler said he doesn’t want visitors, but he calls his family often. Knowing his situation is temporary, he said, helps him get through being away from home.
“This is my time to change the things that I need to change,” Butler said.
In previous years, before he was incarcerated, Butler visited family for Thanksgiving. He listened to holiday music, drank a glass of wine and cooked and ate a delicious meal.
When interviewed after lunch, Butler said he was waiting to call his family to wish them a happy Thanksgiving. He was planning to talk to his father, 16-year-old daughter and maybe some of his sisters. Calling them was another reason he said he’s grateful despite the circumstances.
Since incarcerated, Butler said the past four months have been a time of change and a learning experience, he said.
“My time in here has probably been a saving grace,” Butler said. “It’s given me time to think and reflect on things. It hasn’t been a real negative experience like some people may have. I guess I’ve got to be grateful for that, too.”
He hopes to get Time Served and be out before the new year. Once free, he intends to get back to work collecting trash in Council Bluffs. He said he’ll be careful not to make the same mistakes that landed him in jail.
Betsworth said it’s important to remember that the facility is a county jail, not prison, and many of the inmates aren’t there for long and live in the community.
“A large majority of the people that we have in our custody today might not be in our custody in a year,” Betsworth said.
“They made a mistake.”