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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”