The American prison system is an overcrowded, sometimes draconian maze that houses more than 2 million people in more than 1,700 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, more than 3,100 local jails, some 1,700 juvenile facilities, military prisons, immigration detention centers, psychiatric facilities ... and on and on and on.
The many problems inherent in the setup are deep and disturbing. Often overlooked but still a critical issue: The food in most lockups is horrible.
What the system provides to those millions now incarcerated in the American prison system is, to many, nothing short of a public health crisis. Some might consider it a crime in itself. Cruel and unusual.
"When we're talking about the quality of the food, we're not concerned with how the food tastes so much. Prisoners are not asking for tasty, luxury food. They just want food that's nutritious," says Loretta Rafay, a policy researcher for the advocacy group Prison Voice Washington. "People think that prisoners are asking for filet mignon. That's not it. They're just wanting food that's not processed with a bunch of texturized vegetable protein and unhealthy oils and white flour. They just want fresh vegetables and fruit and a sufficient amount of protein."
Feeding the Imprisoned Masses
The challenges in feeding a prison population that large, and doing it cheaply enough that the taxpayers who foot the bill don't revolt, can't be downplayed. It's expensive to feed that many prisoners. Estimates range in the millions of dollars a year, per state.
It's complicated, too. As it is on the outside, one type of meal doesn't fit all. Some inmates require special diets on religious grounds (kosher or halal, for example) or for health reasons (gluten- or dairy-free). The rules on special requests vary from state to state and even facility to facility. Many prisons will accommodate requests where they can, Rafay says. But it's not always easy or effective.
An inmate in New York went to court in 2018 to force state prisons to recognize his right to meals that did not set off a dairy allergy and that were suitable for his diet as a Nazarite Jew. A federal judge sided with the state, ruling that the prisoner's demands would place an undue burden on the state. An appeals court overturned that decision.
The New York case noted that the Upstate Correctional Facility has a kosher kitchen and a kosher meal plan, though that wasn't suitable for Nazarites. But many prisons throughout the nation do not have specialized kitchens because more and more have their meals pre-packaged and shipped in from off-site vendors to cut costs.
As [Correctional Industries, Washington state's prison food vendor] took over food services around the state, it gradually eliminated all freshly prepared, natural food. Without exception, every single main course is now a reheated, highly processed CI product with high amounts of sodium. Apart from the occasional serving of beans, lean, natural proteins are never served at any meal. Unprocessed meat is never served.
Even if the food is prepared in a way that meets religious or dietary requirements, that doesn't mean it's nutritious, or that the meal is balanced. Often, Rafay says, if an inmate is, say, gluten-intolerant, the gluten from a meal is simply removed. Nothing replaces it.
Aside from special-needs meals, an average meal at an average jail or penitentiary is about what you'd expect: often skimpy, lacking in nutrition and entirely unappetizing. And, of course, cheap. According to The Guardian, in some prisons inmates are fed on less than $1.20 a day.
A Thanksgiving meal at Maricopa County (Arizona) jail under former hardline sheriff Joe Arpaio cost 56 cents, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism group that works on criminal justice topics. The meal included a cup of carrots, a cup of mashed potatoes and the main course, 5 ounces (141 grams) of something called turkey soy casserole. It looks as bad as it sounds.
In its 2016 report, Prison Voice Washington revealed several labels for foods being served in facilities around the state. The ingredients in a meal called "turkey ala king" included "turkey ends," brown sugar and soy protein isolates.
"Just go compare those [labels] to, like, an organic cat food label sometime," Rafay says. "You'll see that there are a lot of nicer cat food products that a lot of prisoners would prefer to eat."
But They're Prisoners, Right?
The argument that because prisoners have committed crimes that have warranted incarceration means they don't deserve anything but the food basics ignores a basic truth: Bad food leads to unhealthy eaters. Unhealthy eating leads to health problems. And that leads to excessive health care costs.
Who pays for the incarcerated who must be treated for those types of diseases? John Q. Taxpayer, naturally. "No one is doing the math with the health care costs in the long run," Rafay says.
In the end, cutting cost corners by slapping down meals lacking any nutritional value ends up costing everyone. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care, in a report to Congress titled "The Health Status of Soon-to-Be-Released Inmates," points out the wisdom in paying more attention to what prisons are serving than what they're spending on food.
"Prisons and jails offer a unique opportunity to establish better disease control in the community," the report says, "by providing improved health care and disease prevention to inmates before they are released."
That starts, advocates say, by putting better food on the tray.
Now That's Interesting
That 2016 Prison Voice Washington report identified a lack of lean protein as perhaps the most glaring nutritional deficiency in Washington state prisons, which house upward of 18,000 people. According to the report, the food service "almost never serves lean protein, and it never serves fish, seafood or seeds. The word 'turkey' in the menu does not denote actual turkey meat, but rather an artificially processed and formed product that contains some turkey material. The only unprocessed lean protein offered is simmered beans, and that is offered only five times every 28 days."
Prison Food FAQ
Why is prison food so bad?
Budgetary limitations are a significant reason why prison food is so bad. It’s expensive to feed that many people, especially when it’s taxpayers footing the bill. Many people don’t consider the healthcare implications for feeding prisoners unnutritious food and believe that those who have committed crimes don’t deserve healthy or good food.
What kind of food do prisoners eat?
The most common food prisoners get includes bread, potatoes, beans, soup, milk and in rare instances, a piece of fresh fruit. Many “meat” dishes are cut with edible soy product. Other, more tasty foods are available at the prison commissary, but they can be costly for inmates.
Can I send food to a prison?
Many prisons don’t accept food. If they do, it must comply with the individual prison's policy. Often, it’s better to arrange to add money to the inmate’s commissary account or to pre-pay for a food package from a company that is directly tied to the prison (and therefore permitted).
What fancy food is served mainly to prisoners?
On special occasions such as Christmas, inmates may be given slightly better food, although the term fancy is a stretch. It usually includes some sort of meat, baked or mashed potatoes and a salad. When it comes to last meals on death row, prisoners get to choose whatever they'd like to eat.
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