Food Policy

Prison Food Is a National Tragedy

Jails and prisons are punishment enough without throwing dangerous and unhealthy food into the mix.


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Earlier this month, a 7-year-old Guatemalan migrant, Jakelin Caal Maquin, died while in federal government custody. Reports suggest she may have died from a lack of food and water. Her family, their attorneys, and the public want answers.

Maquin's death is just the latest case to highlight—among many other things—the failure of government to provide adequate and proper nutrition to people in custody.

Earlier this year, Corey Fluker, a recent inmate in a Cuyahoga County, Ohio, jail, sued the state, arguing that the water he's served in jail made him sick. (Foodborne illness is rampant in prisons. "Incarcerated people are six times more likely to contract foodborne illnesses than people on the outside," Governing reported earlier this year.)

Fluker, whose charges were dismissed, claimed county jail officials knew the water and food served to inmates were dangerous but failed to act. The jail did so only after guards complained about conditions. According to the lawsuit, reports, the guards and Fluker alleged "staff members served inmates food on broken trays that smelled like sewer water," that dining trays contained black mold, and that some food served to inmates was "rotten and slimy." A subsequent federal investigation found "inhumane" conditions in Cuyahoga County jails.

Elsewhere, a federal lawsuit against wealthy Montgomery County, Maryland, over the paucity of food served to prisoners in jail recently secured class-action status. Class representative Perry Hill claims he lost more than 16% of his body weight during his jail stay.

"His meals at the jail consisted of oatmeal, a breakfast cake, or cereal for breakfast; a sandwich and vegetable, and maybe fruit for lunch; and a chicken patty or beef stroganoff and a vegetable for dinner," reports the Daily Gazette. The paper also notes he was so hungry he resorted to eating toothpaste he bought at the jail commissary.

The media is focusing increasingly on prison food. In 2015, VICE took a long look at the uses and consequences of substandard food as punishment. The investigation looked particularly at Nutraloaf, "a blend of several different kinds of food mashed together and baked into a flavorless loaf." It appears to be universally reviled. The Economist took at deep look at the awful state of prison food last year.

And earlier this year, South Coast Today looked at jail food in Massachusetts. The paper described a dish dubbed "Chef's Special (Chicken)" as consisting of "three steamed chicken hot dogs, without buns, served over rice… with two slices of untoasted wheat bread, unfrosted brownish-yellow cake, a scoop of flavorless mixed vegetables and a packet of mustard." After an earlier investigation, inmates at the jail had only recently been allowed fresh fruits or vegetables—two apples each week.

Controversies over the quantity and quality of prison food have a long and ongoing history. In 1965, while performing live at Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash famously asked a guard to hand him a cup of water, which he sipped and threw out in disgust. Many prison riots have arisen out of unheeded pleas for higher-quality food. One of the chief demands of prisoners during the deadly Attica Prison uprising in 1971, for example, was for better food.

If this scant history of government-supplied prison food details some of its problem, then is privatizing the prison food supply the answer? Despite some early success stories, many efforts to do so appear to have failed to date. Private prison foodservice providers have been plagued with many of the same problems as their publicly operated counterparts.

Why? The reason appears largely the same one that exists with government foodservice in prison: prisoner-consumers either don't have the choice to shop elsewhere or can't afford the offerings at prison commissaries. Whether a prison foodservice provider is public or private, the paying customer for general foodservice is the state, the prison, and, ultimately, taxpayers—none historically sympathetic to incarcerated people—rather than the prisoners who must eat the food.

If neither public nor private monopolies provide nutritious choices, one solution is to introduce more choice. That might come from outside charitable providers—churches, culinary schools, or restaurants and grocers seeking to prevent food waste outside the prison walls (akin to what I proposed here to improve the nation's school lunches), say—or from competing vending machine operators. Another possible solution? Better oversight of prison foodservice, perhaps by prisoner-advocacy groups.

America's prisons and jails do a terrible job feeding people behind bars. What's the solution? Of course America should imprison far, far fewer people than it does. But the nation must also provide those it need imprison with basic human needs. That starts with safe and nutritious food.