As COVID-19 Ups the Stakes, Advocates Say Prison Food Needs an Overhaul

A new report shines a light on the low-quality food served to 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S. Healthier food is possible—and on the agenda in some prisons.

an inmate receives a fresh orange instead of unhealthy prison food

The food Emile DeWeaver ate during his two decades incarcerated in the California prison system often made him feel terrible.

“I’ve eaten things that may have given me food poisoning,” he said. “I’ve broken out in hives and not known why. I’ve been hospitalized for sharp stomach pains.”

Emile de Weaver

Emile de Weaver.

Released from San Quentin State Prison in 2018, DeWeaver saw norovirus outbreaks in prison and cooks serve to inmates food that had fallen on the floor. But the experience of constant malnourishment is what stands out to him most about doing time. “You basically live in a state where you’re always hungry,” he recalled.

DeWeaver’s story is not unusual, according to a new report from advocacy group Impact Justice. Published in December, the six-part investigation draws from surveys of 250 formerly incarcerated people in 41 states and interviews with 40 current and former correctional staff. Ninety-four percent of survey respondents said they didn’t get enough food to feel full in prison, and 75 percent recalled receiving spoiled food, including moldy bread, sour milk, rotten meat, and slimy salad. The prevalence of this problem factors into why incarcerated people are more than six times as likely as the general population to develop foodborne illnesses.

“The number of anecdotes we got about really unsanitary and disgusting food was horrifying and really sad,” said Mika Weinstein, an Impact Justice program manager. “And we heard from folks that they would receive boxes in the kitchen that said either ‘not fit for human consumption’ or ‘for correctional use only.’ That does something to your head, to read that on a box and prepare that food.”

Spoiled or rotten food isn’t the only concern advocates have raised about prison meals, which on average cost states well under $3 per person daily. With roughly a quarter of the world’s prison population, the United States struggles to cover the costs associated with keeping large swaths of the public incarcerated. To maintain this system, lawmakers in various states have lowered the price of feeding inmates by reducing the number of meals served or hiring private contractors to provide food service. In states such as Pennsylvania, incarcerated people have previously filed federal civil rights lawsuits alleging that they’re not receiving large enough portions even “to fill a 5-year-old child.”

Ninety-four percent of survey respondents said they didn’t get enough food to feel full in prison, and 75 percent recalled receiving spoiled food, including moldy bread, sour milk, rotten meat, and slimy salad.

Cost-cutting has not only led to smaller portions but also poorer meal quality. Impact Justice reviewed food service policies affecting 1.3 million people in state prisons nationally and found that prison food lacks vital nutrients and is typically high in salt, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. These ingredients are associated with type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease—conditions prisoners have at higher rates than the general public. Previous studies have reported that incarceration increases body mass, with some research indicating that women are particularly vulnerable to becoming overweight or obese in prison. The diet of the prison population is implicated in these trends, and the pandemic has intensified calls to improve the health and nutrition of inmates and ensure food isn’t used to punish them.

While one in 20 Americans has contracted COVID-19, one in five prisoners in state and federal penitentiaries have. And meals made up of low-quality foods that suppress the immune system may put incarcerated people at increased risk.

“Prisons are like these closed systems where if someone gets sick, everyone’s going to get it. With coronavirus, food and nutrition are more important than ever,” said 42-year-old DeWeaver, who is now the cofounder of the prison abolition organization Prison Renaissance and an Impact Justice fellow. In December 2017, former California Governor Jerry Brown commuted DeWeaver’s sentence for killing a man as a teen, citing his community service and personal transformation in prison.

Since most prisoners reenter society, often in poor health, and the pandemic is ravaging prisons, Impact Justice asserts that the food justice movement must include the 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S.

Securing Food in Prison

When COVID-19 forced much of the U.S. into lockdown last March, the pandemic didn’t feel quite real to Johnny Angel Martinez, then incarcerated at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF), a minimum–medium security prison in Soledad, California. But news reports and the view from his window onto a startlingly empty freeway convinced Martinez that the pandemic was now part of life. So, he sewed a mask, washed his hands frequently, and tried to improve his diet.

“I was very fearful. I thought, ‘I’m pretty healthy, but maybe I have an underlying condition,’” said Martinez, who was released from prison in September after spending a decade incarcerated due to his participation in a fatal robbery 20 years earlier. (He confessed to his involvement and legislative changes in California ultimately freed him.) “I remember learning that being overweight or obese actually puts you more at risk, so it motivated me to make sure that my body is at its optimum. I was buying vitamin C daily supplements.”

Johnny Angel Martinez

Johnny Angel Martinez.

Martinez, 43, had reason to be scared. He was released before the apex of the outbreak, but by late December, CTF was leading the California prison system in coronavirus infections with nearly 900 active cases. Martinez credits his ability to buy the foods and nutritional supplements needed to lose 40 pounds and maintain his health last year to his wife. Her financial support gave him choices beyond the prison chow hall and allowed him to buy foods like curry, rice, and noodles. He got almost all his protein from canned tuna, mackerel, and oysters.

Three in five former prisoners told Impact Justice they couldn’t afford commissary items, and many reported having to choose between food or toiletries. Some reported being so hungry that they performed sexual or illegal acts to gain access to commissary food.

As a member of his prison’s Indigenous population—Martinez identifies as Mexica, Miwok, and Costanoan—he was the rare U.S. inmate with access to a garden. Located near the sweat lodge and reserved for members of that spiritual community, the garden allowed him to grow and eat fresh tomatoes, squash, and peppers, as well as herbs like mint and mugwort. According to Eating Behind Bars, 62 percent of prisoners surveyed reported rarely or never receiving fresh vegetables, while 55 percent said the same about fresh fruit.

“We didn’t come across any facilities that had fruits or vegetables or other fresh products in the commissary,” said Leslie Soble, the report’s lead author and an Impact Justice research fellow. For instance, the report includes a partial copy of the Kansas Correctional Facility’s commissary list, and the only foods listed under “vegetables” are instant mashed potatoes and jarred jalapeño peppers.

Three in five former prisoners said they couldn’t afford commissary items, and many reported having to choose between food or toiletries.

As a practicing Buddhist and vegetarian in prison, DeWeaver would have appreciated access to fresh produce. When his facility refused to accommodate his dietary needs, he filed a complaint.

“I basically just ate beans every day for dinner,” he said. “There was a long stretch of time when I was deeply deficient in protein and iron. Even when I won my legal action, there were times when I would go to dinner, and they would give me a plate of pudding.”

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To help incarcerated people meet their daily nutrient needs, a number of prisons provide inmates with fortified powdered beverages. But both DeWeaver and Martinez said they avoided these Kool Aid-like mixes because of the cancer warnings on the packages. Soble noted that many former prisoners complained to Impact Justice about the chemical taste of these drinks and described inmates using them as hair dye.

Working in the kitchen is one way for incarcerated people to obtain a wider variety of foods, but DeWeaver didn’t enjoy the experience. It only heightened his concerns about the safety of prison meals. And Martinez, who never worked in the kitchen but had a cellmate who did, recalled how those in charge would take chunks of chicken out of the stew and create a black market by charging their fellow inmates for bits of meat. Prison kitchens are also notoriously unsanitary. Former inmates told Impact Justice that they frequently spotted rats, roaches, and mold in these spaces, which sometimes even lacked soap and water.

But some correctional facilities have transformed how they feed incarcerated people. They are integrating fresh produce and from-scratch cooking into meals.

Overhauling Prison Food

Impact Justice calls “home cooking” in prison one way to resist a system built on dehumanization. At Mountain Correctional Center in Charleston, Maine—a minimum-medium security prison—meals from scratch have largely become the norm. Fruit and vegetables from the apple orchard and gardens onsite go straight to the prison kitchen.

With a background in organic farming and the hospitality industry, the facility’s foodservice manager, Mark McBrine, has led the effort to transform what prisoners eat. That includes working with local producers to acquire fresh eggs, high-quality meat, dairy, flour, and vegetables. It took work to shift from buying mass quantities of frozen potatoes and chicken patties, but the food handlers have grown to appreciate the process.

“Fresh food takes more time and effort,” McBrine said, “but the incarcerated residents who work in our kitchens were very glad to do it because it means better meals for them and for the other residents.”

“People think they can’t make these changes [in prisons] because of cost, but I’ve been under budget, more so than any other facility in [Maine].”

McBrine had the support of Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, whose father was once incarcerated. In an effort to improve prison meals statewide, Liberty has increased prison gardening programs and the minimum quantity of fresh and whole foods correctional facilities must buy from local producers.

“People think they can’t make these changes [in prisons] because of cost, but I’ve been under budget, more so than any other facility in the state,” McBrine said. “We use more local foods than any other facility, and we provide more home-cooked types of meals.”

Across the country, efforts are also underway to improve the food in California prisons. Impact Justice recently won a California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) grant in partnership with ChangeLab and the University of California Nutrition Policy Institute to increase the use and consumption of local produce in prisons. Another goal of the grant is to conduct nutrition and cooking workshops with people recently released from the California Department of Corrections.

“They’re the largest single food purchaser in the state, so it seems appropriate that that institution would be focused on California-grown produce,” said Wendi Gosliner, who heads research at the Nutrition Policy Institute and teaches at U.C. Berkeley. “We know from what people say and the limited information available that the food quality in prisons certainly needs a lot of work.”

The $439,000 specialty crop block grant offers the partners an opportunity to learn more about food in prison, which Gosliner described as an understudied area. She would like to examine disparities in access and overall food quality, in part, by studying the institutions that have successfully improved their meals.

“We need to know what’s happening,” Gosliner said. “And we need to figure out how we can begin to influence what’s happening in these systems with the larger long-term goal being to correct the problems.”

In January, the board of supervisors in nearby Alameda County signed a resolution to begin working with the Good Food Purchasing Program, a national effort aimed at helping institutions invest in their local food economies.

A Matter of Public Interest

Due to the work of activists who’ve demanded prison abolition and criminal justice reform, public attitudes toward incarcerated people have changed dramatically since the tough-on-crime 1990s. Well before last summer’s response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, support for prison reform had already been growing. A 2015 American Civil Liberties Union poll found that 69 percent of voters agreed that the prison population should be reduced. Three years later, a survey conducted for the Vera Institute of Justice revealed that 67 percent of respondents believed that building more jails and prisons would not lower crime rates. And by 2020, a Data for Progress poll indicated that 66 percent of likely voters supported decreasing prison and jail overcrowding amid the coronavirus crisis.

Although attitudes have changed, the shift in thinking has not wholly challenged the idea that people go to “prison as punishment, not to be punished,” which is a common refrain among prison reformers and abolitionists. The adage emphasizes that incarcerated people deserve humane treatment.

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After Jacob Anthony Chansley, known as the “QAnon Shaman,” was arrested for his participation in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, social media users widely balked at his request to be fed an organic diet while in federal custody, quipping that he was in prison, “not at Whole Foods.” Television personality Meghan McCain of ABC’s “The View” responded to Chansley’s request with even more scorn. “He’s a criminal. . . . He should have dog food,” she said. (A judge ultimately denied his request.)

While organic food is inaccessible to many outside the system, such responses underscore the notion that prison food should be, in essence, inedible.

As Soble sees it, however, the prison population should have access to a well-balanced diet because “food is a human right” and incarcerated people are “human beings who are parents, siblings, partners, and friends.”

inmates sharing prison food in the dining area of a correctional facility

Inmates share breakfast in California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville, California. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Those questioning why people who have done “bad” things deserve “good food” should keep in mind that 95 percent of the prison population will eventually be released, Soble noted. “So, those people are coming back into the community, which means if we’re not feeding them well, then we’re putting them in potentially worse physical and mental shape when they get out,” she said.

Martinez said taxpayers may not be moved after learning about food insecurity in prison, but they should be concerned about the toll the poor health of current and former prisoners takes on the medical system.

“You’ve got guys going home with diabetes, congestive heart failure . . . all these underlying conditions that they develop in prison,” he said. “And the reason they develop them in prison is because of the eating habits and the traumatic experiences they have faced.”

While a percentage of the public remains indifferent to the horrific conditions people in prison endure, including food that’s hazardous to their health, DeWeaver would rather focus on the growing number of Americans who support prison abolition and criminal justice reform than try to convince those who don’t care why prisoners should be treated humanely.

“People should care because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “People should care because it’s unethical not to care.”

Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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  1. THE ROOT MATTERS
    For the life of all imprisoned humanity, I can not understand how the penal system gets away with slow and certain genocide by way of malnutrition and toxic chemical intake. Everything except the single daily piece of whole fruit (still likely tainted with pesticides, but what choice do prisoners have?): is processed, overcooked, empty-caloried wallpaper paste for the walls of the intestines, and grease... According to health statistics, 75 percent, approximately, of the society, suffers side effects from the intake of cows' milk. Yet what else are, no doubt, hungry human beings going to eat within prison walls and towers? Commissary is over priced, intentionally, and the few available food choices are junk foods, also. That is for those few who even have money on their account, or money to spare on account, period. So that is of no real benefit. Then, ever price what the cost is for loved ones to ship, the small limited weight, of allowed food into an inmate? Ever check out the short list of allowable foods that can be shipped in? Again, amounts to pure junk! No MATTER how anyone analyses the so called food forced on the imprisoned, it amounts to a slow death of the body, for a mass of human beings. Do the math: 100% human rights CRIME!!!

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