On the Menu at American Prisons: ‘Rotten’ Food, Inadequate Diet

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Illustration by Melissa Garden/Impact Justice

U.S. correctional facilities are “food deserts” that perpetuate the malnourishment of Americans who were already suffering from inequitable access to a healthy diet before they were confined, according to a new report.

The investigative report by Impact Justice, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit,  based its conclusions on a survey of former incarcerees, three-quarters of whom reported being given “rotten or spoiled food” at some point while incarcerated.

“Food, which should nurture life, has become yet another means of denigrating incarcerated people,” said the report, entitled “Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison.”

The first three installments of the  six-part report were published last week, in what the authors called “the first national investigation of its kind.”

Impact Justice looked into food-related policies across state correctional facilities in all 50 states.

The organization conducted interviews with 43 professionals in the correctional field, and 11 former inmates on their experience with food in the correctional system. It also surveyed  250 former incarcerees and 230 of their friends and family members .

According to the report, an average incarceree serving a three-year sentence will consume more than 3,000 meals while in prison.

Part One, “Food on a Tray,” looked at the quality of the food that inmates were given while in a correctional facility.

Interviewees described typical menus that were low in nutrients and high in salt, sugar and certain refined carbs.

“People in prison are fed a diet that everyone else has been advised for decades to avoid for health reasons,” said the researchers.

Levels of sodium and sugar were double the recommended target for a healthy diet; sugar levels alone were triple recommended minimums for women.

A menu from a prison in Idaho displayed in Part Two, “When Food Harms,” shows a week’s worth of carbohydrate-loaded meals, most lacking in protein, fresh fruits or vegetables and calcium.

In fact, 62.2 percent of the incarcerees surveyed reported they rarely or never had access to fresh vegetables; while 54.8 percent said the same about fresh fruit.

“Just one month of unhealthy meals can result in long-term rises in cholesterol and body fat, increasing the risk of diet-related diseases,” said the report, noting that it makes incarcerees more susceptible to a weakened immune systems—and more vulnerable to viruses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  has said that “incarcerated men and women are six times more likely than the general public to contract a foodborne illness” from prison food, which was reflected in the reports from ex-incarcerees who described prison-wide outbreaks of e-coli and salmonella.

Additionally, 80 percent of the formerly incarcerated said that the food they were served was unappetizing in taste and smell, and 94 percent said that they couldn’t eat enough to feel full.

Photos in the first and second installments showed trays filled with small portions of colorless food.

The unappetizing nature of prison food is likely linked to the fact that facilities also had problems with keeping their cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Some of the meat products were labeled “not for human consumption,” or “prison use only.”

Illustration courtesy Impact Justice

According to the report, 72 percent of people in the survey said that food was not served at the right temperature at some point while incarcerated.

Additionally, 66 percent of the survey respondents said  they had been served food with bugs or portions that were moldy or spoiled, including “weevils in grits, rocks in turnip greens, maggots in meat, a rat tail buried in one day’s entree, and oatmeal [containing] human hair, pieces of metal, or cockroaches.”

Although food is fuel for the body, “fuel alone is not enough,” said the report.

”We also need vitamins, minerals, and other naturally occurring micronutrients to keep our heart pumping, bones strong, and muscles flexing, and to support our body’s other vital systems.”

The report continued: “A malnourished person is often portrayed as emaciated, but someone can be both malnourished and overweight, even obese, if they consume an excess of calories lacking critical nutrients.”

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reflects this, showing that incarcerated individuals “suffer from higher rates of diabetes and heart disease (both often associated with metabolic issues that stem from excess weight).”

Part Two makes clear that food served in correctional facilities isn’t just physically damaging, it has a severe impact on mental health as well.

Data from the report show that lack of proper nutrients can lead to increased aggression, and the fluctuating weight change resulting from poor nutrition can cause depression and other mental health problems.

This is even more dangerous for youth and young adult offenders, who enter prison often without full brain development, researchers said. The lack of proper nutrition affects that development.

One ex-incarceree confined as a juvenile expressed his fear that prison food had impacted his growth and development.

“You’re going to return [these people] them back to society and people expect them to conduct themselves like they’re 38, but what if their brain has never developed due to [lack of] nutrition?” said the former prisoner, who was identified as “James.”

Another problem with prison food outlined by the report is the lack of attention to good hygiene.

Every offender gets the same plate, whether they’re lactose intolerant, have an iron deficiency or other specific food needs.

While prison facilities are required to accommodate food to meet the medical or religious requirements that an offender may have, according to the report their specific needs often go unmet.

Not only is the food unwelcoming to the eye; so is the environment.

Part Three notes that cafeterias in correctional facilities bear little resemblance to dining rooms in institutional facilities like schools or military bases.

Some 85 percent of those surveyed felt that the place where they ate food in the facility was unwelcoming. Descriptions given included being “drab and bleak, lacking in natural light, loud, and often uncomfortably hot or cold.”

The report quoted incarcerees who described unsanitary dining halls, with “visible mold on walls, swarms of insects buzzing overhead, and odors of ‘something rotten and dying.’”

The amount of light, surrounding noise or perceived threats from correctional staff or fellow inmates can further affect digestion, the report said.

Some facilities were even reported to have staff parties where correctional staff consumed pizza and cake, and intentionally threw away perfectly consumable leftovers in front of inmates.

The report said that individuals often felt as though food from the commissary was safer to consume than the food they were being served.  Commissary options were usually junk food, lacking healthy, more expensive snack options.

Prices of commissary items also often reflect their real-life price, which is a lot steeper when prison jobs pay an average 10 cents an hour, the researchers said.

A few facilities, however, were held up as models that others might imitate.

The Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charlston, Maine leases a plot of land to grow its  own produce, which is served to incarcerees.

Other facilities in rural areas could do the same, said Impact Justice.

In addition to local farms that would help enrich a prison diet, “gardening and culinary education programs in prison are associated with boosts in self-esteem and resilience, reductions in violence, and the fostering of positive relationships,” said the report.

“The experience of cooking and eating together forges relationships across racial and other differences that are typically barriers in prison.”

The remaining three parts of the report will be released this week.

Impact Justice’s investigation began in 2018. Researchers at the organization, which advocates for a more “humane and restorative” criminal justice system, said they hoped  their survey findings would enourage change in the way the correctional system handles food.

The report was authored by Leslie Soble, a research fellow, Kathryn Stroud, a research analyst, and Mika Weinstein, program manager.

Read Parts One, Two and Three in full here.

 Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

2 thoughts on “On the Menu at American Prisons: ‘Rotten’ Food, Inadequate Diet

  1. I am so disgusted by continually reading these articles all I want to know is how can I do something about it. With the cost they say it takes to incarcerate a person a healthy diet should come with it!

  2. As as advocate of Criminal Justice Reform and Human Rights, if, in any way, I can become involved in helping to change these inhumane laws in this flawed U.S. Criminal Justice System. These stories are heartbreaking! We’re talking about human beings and many haven’t committed the most heinous crimes, yet, they’re facing a potential death sentence! This needs to stop!

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