“In the prison setting, prisoners lose everything – their rights, belongings, their ability to move freely, and they’re at the complete mercy of prison guards. So food is amazingly important,” says Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News who served ten years in prison. “Start serving lower quality food, serving smaller quantities – then you are creating significant safety problems.”
Tim Thielman, a lieutenant at Ramsey County correctional facility in St Paul, Minnesota and the president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates (ACFSA) which brings together prison officials and food providers for an annual conference, echoes this view saying, “A lot of people are still in the mentality of bread and water. We are past that in this country. A lot of people don’t understand the importance of taking care of inmates and giving them proper nutrition. Food service is one of the most important things in an institution. Inmates don’t have a lot of things to look forward to – they have their mail, their visits, and their food. If any of those things aren’t right, there will be a problem. If the quality of the food is really poor, it can sure set things off.”
The US prison and jail population is the highest per capita in the world with a record 2.2 million inmates, which costs over $8.5 billion a year. When budgets need to be cut, the menu is usually the first thing that suffers. Some correctional facilities have allocated less than $1.20 per day for food. This is often done by cutting meals from three to two and using margarine, fortified mineral powders, and vitamin drinks to meet minimum nutrition and calorie supplements. At some institutions, dairy, meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables have been removed altogether, and eggs are rare. In 2013, Sheriff Joe Arpaio switched meat with soy products at jails in Maricopa County, Arizona to save $100,000.
In California, newer prisons are built as “cook-chill” facilities, where food is delivered, stored just above freezing, and reheated like a TV dinner. This is supposed to help prevent foodborne illness but is also cheaper since a full kitchen doesn’t have to be built and staffed. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spends more than $140 million annually to feed 124,000 inmates. A prison is allotted $3.32 total per day for meals, or $1.10 per meal, for each general-population inmate without diet requirements, which must cover a hot breakfast and dinner and a cold sack lunch. California spends two to three times more on inmate food compared to some states. To put it in perspective, the average cost of a meal at the Los Angeles Unified School District is $1.70 and they have more meticulous restrictions and nutritional requirements than other areas in the state and nation. For local charter schools, food cost averages $3.50 per meal.
Prisoners who require a kosher diet often fare better than others. Kosher meals require higher-quality meats without cheap fillers, making them up to four times as expensive as regular prison food. The allure of better tasting food has known to motive gentiles to profess a belief in Judaism. In the past, gang members have declared themselves Jewish in order to sit apart in the kosher meal section and discuss business. The meals can also be used for bartering.
The high cost of kosher food along with inmates who falsify their beliefs make correctional facilities hesitant to grant kosher meals. When the issue has been challenged in court, most rulings have favored inmates, as long as a sincere belief in Judaism was demonstrated. Some states, like New York, don’t have any checks in place to determine who is pretending to be Jewish for the sake of better food. In California, inmates talk with a rabbi who will gauge their interest. They must also consistently eat kosher. For example, a prisoner eating kosher meals in California for religious reasons cannot turn around and buy pork rinds from the commissary. In addition to kosher, prisons also accommodate vegetarian and other medically necessary diets such as low fat and gluten-free, which all cost more than general-population meals but not as much as kosher.
An ethically questionable cost-cutting measure, called the “re-rack system,” is to save 95 percent of uneaten food, freeze it, and serve it again, up to seven days after it was first distributed to the inmates. Perhaps the most significant way to decrease expenses is to outsource food service to private companies, but privatization has been known to be rife with problems.
Aramark is the world’s largest institutional food conglomerate and provides food to over 500 correctional institutions, but is consistently getting fined improper actions involving meals and inmates. Aramark has a long history of skimping on food, but protests can be ignored because officials look at what is listed on the menu instead of what is actually being served, which prisoners say is much less than what is indicated on the menu and causes significant weight loss. Employees have been caught serving cake that was eaten by rats as well as meat products that were taken out of the trash. Rodent droppings and maggots have been reported in prison meals multiple times in several states, including one incidence in Jackson, Michigan that resulted in 30 sick inmates being quarantined. In Kent County, Michigan, 16 inmates have filed suit against Aramark in federal court, claiming the company knowingly served rotten chicken tacos and 250 inmates got sick. Over the last ten years, Aramark’s operations have been linked to so many riots, hunger strikes, violence, and protests that it has become a symbol for everything wrong with prison food and basically labeled a security threat.
Besides poor food handling, Aramark employees have also smuggled drugs in their cellphones and humped prisoners. A former Michigan employee is even facing charges for putting out a hit on an inmate. The Philadelphia-based company, which also supplies hospitals, schools, and event arenas worldwide, made a profit of $236 million and chief executive Eric Foss was paid $21 million in 2015.
Hawaii inmates have complained of weight loss because of small serving sizes and unhealthy food, even though the state claimed meal portions were unaffected by budget cuts and food was designed to provide 2,600 to 2,900 calories daily. A complaint filed by the ACLU in January 2017 alleges that overcrowding of Hawaii’s prisons and jails is resulting in health and safety risks, including food carts “littered with roaches,” according to an inmate at Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC).
To combat hunger, inmates who are allowed to work or who have loved ones who send money can use those funds at the commissary to buy snacks, candy, and food items such as oatmeal, refried beans, instant ramen, spam, and seasonings. If a prison is using a private company such as Aramark to supply food, even the commissary items are from the same company, so prices can be twice as high as normal.
Many believe the whole prison food system is designed to keep people hungry and docile. “You’re not out researching the law, you’re not out filing lawsuits, you’re not filing complaints, you’re not doing a lot of things, because you’re too cold and too hungry – so it’s a form of control,” said an inmate at Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana.
Indeed, writer Sarah Olson put herself on a prisoner’s diet to write an article, and found herself not feeling right after just one week. “Mimicking the diet of incarcerated inmates had taken its toll on both my body and mind. The entire week I gave my food dirty looks, stare downs, and fork pokes. I felt like a snob. The food drastically affected my ability to concentrate, exercise, sleep, and eat. And there was something deeply degrading about my inability to choose. Even the thought of limitation unnerved me,” Olson wrote.
Although Michigan claimed savings of around $14 million annually with prison food operations under Aramark, Gov. Rick Snyder terminated its three-year, $145 million contract with the food conglomerate in July 2016 (only to sign with another private vendor). A state poll found that 62 percent of Michigan residents had wanted the Aramark contract cancelled, but it was actually Aramark’s demand for a pay raise, not the maggots or rotten food, that prompted the termination.
Mike Brickner, the senior policy director at the Ohio ACLU, believes public awareness is going to be the most effective route to change. To be clear, we’re not talking about serving steak and lobster, but simply making sure the food isn’t going to make them sick or starve.
“We want to make sure they’re in an environment that supports their rehabilitation, and that’s not going to happen in a place where there’s constantly chaos and people fighting over food,” Brickner says. “It’s smart to make sure these people are treated humanely while incarcerated.”