Hiring an outside vendor to handle food service at the Harvey County Detention Center — instead of having inmates prepare the meals — could save the county money and remove liability.

"We got a good price and good experience," Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said of the bid from Consolidated Correctional Food Service, an Iowa-based company with more than 35 years of experience in the industry.

Currently, inmate workers prepare and serve the food at the jail, but an audit flagged this practice as problematic.

"They believed we should have a deputy in that kitchen at all times when that food is being prepared," Walton said, but added he doesn't have enough personnel to supervise the kitchen.

Most jails in the area contract out their food. Walton originally found outside vendors to be too expensive for Harvey County, but rising food costs have made hiring an outside vendor a more economical option. The estimated cost per meal through Consolidated would be $1.24 (based on about 110 inmates). The cost per meal now is about $1.46, meaning the county could potentially save thousands on jail food each year by switching to an outside vendor.

The meals prepared by Consolidated may have smaller portions than prisoners are used to, but they will meet all the dietary requirements for prison food, including the amount of calories that must be served and the nutritional value of the food. Having an outside vendor also will help protect the county from liability and lessen the threat of a lawsuit. The company will cover its own liability.

Walton has looked into contracting out the jail's medical services as well. By law, the Detention Center must provide medical treatment for inmates.

"I have to provide medical care for every inmate that comes in here," he said.

The county currently has two RNs on staff, who are paid employees of the sheriff's office, and a contracted doctor. Right now, deputies must pass out medication to prisoners, a practice that would be taken over by a vendor if a contract is approved.

Walton sees pros and cons for hiring an outside vendor. A medical vendor would take over liability from the county, similar to the food vendor, and most jails in the area do contract out their medical care. However, contracting out medical care would cost more than the county's current system, and Walton said he is hesitant to lose the good team of workers providing medical care at the jail now.

If the county decides not to go with a medical vendor, it may have to look at raising the rate of pay for the jail's RNs; otherwise, the county may have a hard time keeping people in the position, Walton said.

County commissioners have not yet made a decision on the vendors' proposals but likely will make an announcement as they determine the 2014 budget.