ATLANTA - Female inmates in Georgia's state prisons have a lot less food for thought these days.
In late summer, the Depart-ment of Corrections reduced by nearly 20 percent the number of calories female prisoners can have on a daily basis, dropping the average from 3,050 to 2,472. The average calories-per-day for male inmates - 3,050 - remains unchanged.
Although some inmates have complained about having less to eat, prison officials say they've experienced few problems and point out the new calorie level is still higher than the daily intake suggested for most women.
"I believe there's been about two complaints," said Henry Brooks, the deputy warden of security at Metro State Prison in Atlanta. "Other than that, the transition has been real smooth and we've had no problems with it."
The National Academy of Science, a private group that advises the federal government on scientific issues, recommends roughly 2,200 calories per day for teenage girls, active women and sedentary men and suggests 2,800 calories for teenage boys and active men.
Corrections spokeswoman Peggy Chapman said the department's slimmed-down food plan for female inmates came after health service workers inquired whether the old menu allowing women to have more than 3,000 calories a day was contributing to weight gain.
"I think when that was brought to (our) attention, we started providing them with more fruit and vegetables and fewer calories," Ms. Chapman said.
The calorie cutting affects roughly 3,900 women housed in Metro State Prison, along with those at Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville and Washington State Prison in Davisboro. Corrections officials say the move will save the department about $86,000 annually. The department's overall budget is roughly $880 million.
However, the "healthier" menu has some observers and state lawmakers concerned the large drop in available calories doesn't take into account that some female inmates are larger or more active than others.
"I'm a little taken aback by this," said Debbie Seagraves, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. "Calorie intake is just not standard from one person to the next, so to - just by a standard - decrease the available food to women because they are women does sound to me like discrimination."
Kristen Jaskulski, a dietitian with Medical College of Georgia, said that while gender plays a role in determining caloric needs, it's not the only factor.
"It's not gender alone; it's height, it's activity level and age; they all play just as much a role," Ms. Jaskulski said.
Stan Lore, a resident of Columbia, often visits several friends who are inmates at Washington State Prison, about an hour southwest of Augusta.
He said many of the inmates he talks with complain they aren't getting enough to eat and also have seen many food items - including cheese, sausages and beans - removed from the prison snack bar inventory.
"Not only could the inmates look forward to smaller servings at the mess hall, but now they could not supplement their diet except with potato chips, candy bars (and) ramen noodles," Mr. Lore said.
Corrections officials say they have reason to be concerned about how much inmates eat. The state spent $122 million on physical and dental care for inmates in the fiscal year that ended June 30. A healthier diet for female inmates could help reduce medical costs related to poor eating habits, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 681-1701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.