Op-ed: Prison Food Is Terrible, and the Eating Experience Inside Makes it Worse | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Prison Food Is Terrible, and the Eating Experience Inside Makes it Worse

Allowing prisoners to grow, prepare, and be nourished by healthy, flavorful food in a communal setting might just drain the prison industrial complex of much of its power.

A bleak, poorly lit prison cafeteria.

This is one of the rare times of year when the media turns its attention to what people eat in prison. The latest coverage focused on former reality television star Josh Duggar’s gravy and R. Kelly’s turkey substitute. Last year, TMZ took a hard-hitting look at what celebrities like Harvey Weinstein were eating for Thanksgiving. When the government shutdown lasted through Christmas in late 2018, multiple stories ran about the special holiday meals that were served while federal prison guards worked unpaid. Jacob Chansley, the QAnon Shaman, and his famous request for organic prison food also attracted a lot of attention.

Yet while the immediate concerns about what prisoners eat during the rest of the year aren’t trifling—meat infested with maggots, and meals contaminated with “dust, rocks, glass, and human waste” are just two of the complaints that have appeared in the canon of legal decisions regarding prison food—a much larger conversation beckons. And it’s a conversation that might have the potential to reform the criminal legal system, namely the idea that part of rehabilitation is reshaping people’s relationships with food.

The way people in prison relate to food is often dysfunctional in ways that resist clinical diagnosis. I had never wanted for sustenance in my life before going to prison. But I had a disturbed relationship with food that I needed to repair. Food is evidence of humane attention; I got plenty of the former, but not enough of the latter. And I wasn’t alone in that my relationship with food mirrored my relationship with my community, a group of people who exiled me to Connecticut’s only state women’s prison for over six years.

Prison is a place where eating is naturally disordered. Wardens allot about six minutes to consume an entire meal. The six-person tables are essentially troughs with timers. Conversation happens only when someone isn’t consuming what’s on their tray.

And yet, how incarcerated people eat gets much less attention than what they eat.

In 1985, a federal appeals court ruled “[a] well-balanced meal, containing sufficient nutritional value to preserve health, is all that is required” to feed incarcerated people and not run afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. As long as inmates receive 2,600 calories a day, servings can contain foreign objects and undergo substandard preparation. In these places, food’s only undertaking is to keep incarcerated bodies alive until departure. That’s why hunger strikes attract so much attention; they frustrate the whole mission of having one authority take dominion over others and put their lives on pause until they’re deemed to be safe to leave. Strikes take back power and show how close custody is to death. People don’t like to admit that.

On an even deeper level though, the exclusive focus on calories and nutrients—an approach called nutritionism—in prisons divorces food from meaning. One need only look at a molded plastic prison tray to understand how carceral spaces rob meals of their potential; the tray’s layout is one of regimentation and distance. Its logic says separateness is the only way to achieve order and order is the only thing that can save us.

Add in the fact that incarcerated diners have so little time to eat, so they can’t ever really share a meal, and it’s the perfect recipe for a further—perhaps even permanent—strain on the relationship incarcerated people have with their food. When it gets stripped of identity, sociality, pleasure and community, food doesn’t get to do its job.

Advocates are focused on assuring that prisoners don’t get sick or die because of the food they’re served—often to the point of legal action. And while this work is essential, it can also deprioritize other key functions of meals, which are community-building and sharing. Research demonstrates that it’s not people bonded together who eat together, but rather that people who eat together bond in prosocial ways.

We tend to underestimate the combination of healthy, satisfying food, company, and shared ideas. Memories of the times when I stole a few extra moments at a table of six on Thanksgiving, the one decent prison meal that, incidentally, doesn’t respect the divisions of prison trays, are actually some of the only positive memories I have of the time I spent incarcerated.

In a 2020 survey of formerly incarcerated people conducted by Impact Justice, an advocacy organization, found that 85 percent of respondents said chow halls were unsocial. Seventy percent said they had no choice about what they were served, and some reported getting as few as five minutes to eat.

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The report also uses data that shows feeding people whole foods makes them healthier, and makes a case for prison farming and gardens.

Assuring that food is unprocessed and nutrient dense is necessary but it perpetuates a return-on-investment type analysis that plagues much of prison policy, namely the idea that the higher cost of better food pays off in healthier individuals who are less likely to reoffend and burden healthcare systems later on.

If justifying better food depends on cost savings then that leaves open the question of what we do if it doesn’t save money? If we can’t prove economic efficiency, does that justify serving Nutraloaf, that ‘food product’ that combines “whole wheat bread, non-dairy cheese, raw carrots, spinach, seedless raisins, Great Northern beans, vegetable oil, tomato paste, powdered milk, and dehydrated potato flakes”? Certainly not. But that’s where that way of thinking leads us.

Prison reform that concentrates only on what the food can do for the body is short-sighted. Eating some fresh tomatoes in prison doesn’t make a difference in anyone’s physical health if she’s restricted to microwave mac and cheese and Dr. Pepper when she spends a year in a halfway house after being released: Changes to diet can change back, but changes to how she relates to food can endure. Eating that same tomato with a chance to marvel at its freshness and allow the life of the garden to infuse everyone at the table they’re seated with seizes an opportunity for connection, and therefore assimilation.

However, if reform concentrates on an individual’s relationship with food and leads them to behold food’s power—if it simultaneously induces vulnerability and provides a type of safety, if it unites and sustains communities and culture and even individual personalities, then that’s a hopeful solution. Even if released prisoners are breaking Wonder Bread, having people at the table with them, being able to trust those people enough to share opinions and ideas, to connect, may provide another form of rehabilitation that can last.

Most criminal justice reform focuses on policies extrinsic to the person: sentencing reductions, prevention of crime, and deferring or directing prosecution away from crimes rooted in organic causes like mental illness.

When reform addresses personal accountability, it encourages an introspection that some people aren’t capable of; it’s too painful. It’s true that some people do need a good look inside. But a good meal—defined as one where food is enjoyable and healthy and the atmosphere and company is edifying—is a type of self-reflection in itself, one that doesn’t spotlight one’s mistakes. Community meals can heal us by acknowledging flaws and even egregious mistakes while still offering acceptance.

And I’d argue that now may be the time to center food in the fight for freedom. Assure that prisoners eat whole food, yes, but also in healthy circumstances so that they can build communities where they feel they matter.

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This won’t be easy for as long as the battle between abolition—the movement to remove the prison industrial complex entirely and find wholly non-punitive ways to address lawbreaking—and carceral humanism—“the call for ‘kinder’ and more ‘humane’ forms of punishment”—rages on. For abolitionists, acts like improving food quality, living conditions, and rehabilitative programming are considered “reformist reforms,” meaning they improve smaller aspects of the bad parts of the system, thereby strengthening it overall.

While abolitionists would never oppose feeding incarcerated people good food, they may not invest much effort into it either. Their priority is to release the person from all conditions of confinement, not to selectively improve their conditions.

But some abolitionists fail to see how a humane approach to eating together stands to help dismantle systems and structures. Mass incarceration depends on a certain type of culinary deprivation and disjoins human beings from real culinary delight. And allowing prisoners to grow, prepare, and consume healthy, flavorful food in a communal setting might just drain the prison industrial complex of much of its power. It might be the first step in turning the criminal legal system into something unrecognizable, something that lets us recognize ourselves in others. In other words, something that might just work.

Chandra Bozelko was incarcerated at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut for over six years. She is now a columnist for The National Memo, a political newsletter, and a senior facilitator at The OpEd Project. Read more >

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