Alone with the sounds of their grumbling stomachs, Gordon County, Ga., jail inmates say they make meals out of what is available in their cells.
They swallow toothpaste and stuff bits of toilet paper down their throats. They lick the remnants of sticky syrup packets. They gulp extra water to trick their bodies into thinking they are full -- "water sandwiches," they call the world's most basic liquid.
That is according to the Southern Center for Human Rights, a legal nonprofit based in Atlanta. Attorneys for the group say they interviewed about 25 inmates classified as nonviolent offenders this month who provided consistent stories of near-starvation.
The occupants described a jail where inmates lie in bed all day to conserve energy, battle headaches and try not to think about food.
On Tuesday, Southern Center attorney Sarah Geraghty sent a letter to Gordon County Sheriff Mitch Ralston, asking him to review his jail's feeding practices. Geraghty says the vendor that provides food to the jail, Trinity Services, is not giving inmates enough to eat.
The company's menu for Gordon County inmates shows a robust diet of more than 2,800 calories a day for each inmate -- breakfasts with grits, biscuits and scrambled eggs; dinners with spaghetti, green peas and a roll.
But, Geraghty said, "it would appear that Trinity does not actually serve detainees what it claims."
In the letter, Geraghty told Ralston she would like to meet with him to "resolve this issue" without a lawsuit.
In turn, Ralston called Geraghty a liar.
The sheriff wrote in a statement to the Times Free Press that his jail's health providers have not treated any inmates for malnutrition. He also pointed out that a Gordon County grand jury reported this summer that the jail was run professionally. Also, a dietitian working for Trinity Services wrote a letter saying the company's meals are "nutritionally adequate."
Ralston accused the Southern Center of slander to get attention.
"Despite their appearance of concern for the well being of inmates," he said in the statement, "the personnel from the Southern Center For Human Rights chose to publish an internet article and an open letter rather than report the alleged malnutrition to my staff, myself, or even to an outside medical authority or healthcare provider."
Geraghty said she alerted Ralston to the problem when she published the letter Tuesday. She also said the sheriff should have known about the issue already.
"Numerous detainees report that they have reported this problem to the sheriff's office -- repeatedly and in writing -- but that their requests have been ignored," she said. "I agree with the sheriff that we should report this to the health department and we will."
Most Gordon County inmates eat at 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Those who do some kind of work at the jail also get a lunch. And other inmates whose families have given them money can buy an extra meal.
According to the jail's policies, inmates can get special meals for health reasons, but Geraghty said the jail staff denied at least one diabetic inmate's request for an off-menu diet.
Local taxpayers provide the money for inmate meals. In 2011, Gordon County paid Trinity Services $1.77 per meal.
A budget report shows that Gordon County paid Trinity Services $400,000 from July 2013 through June of this year. In the four months since then, the county has paid Trinity $125,000 more.
Ralston said the Florida-based company provides food to 350 jails. A spokesman for Trinity Services declined to comment Tuesday.
Jail inmates elsewhere also have accused the company of starving them. In May, 46 jail occupants in Schuylkill County, Pa., filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. The lawsuit is pending.
They say their lack of food has caused them pain. One inmate, who now weighs 200 pounds, claimed he lost 80 pounds in nine months.
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6476.