Federal Prisons

America's Prison Food Is Still Criminally Awful

And COVID-19 has made it worse

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The food served to inmates in America's prisons continues to be a national embarrassment. Thankfully, more and more people are trying to do something about it.

This week, Impact Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, released a report on the state of foods served to prison inmates across the United States. The first-ever national report on prison food, Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison, shines a critical light on "the quality and consequences" of food served in America's prisons.

The report, which clocks in at more than 130 pages, is based on surveys, interviews with prisoners and experts, and a review of state policies. It reveals some sobering figures. Three out of every four prison survey respondents said they'd been served spoiled or rotting food in prison, while more than nine out of 10 prisoners surveyed said they weren't provided with sufficient food while incarcerated.

It concludes that food served to incarcerated people "and the conditions under which it is served are harmful to physical and mental health and can erode self-esteem, with immediate and long-term impacts."

The report also notes the COVID-19 pandemic has made lousy prison food even worse.

Indeed, prisons quickly became hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks. More than 1,500 prisoners across the country died from COVID-19 in just the first two months of the pandemic, The Marshall Project, a nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice issues, reported in May. Prison staff have also contracted the virus at work.

In some cases, these COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons have hammered the facilities' ability to prepare and serve food—because of staff illnesses and because inmates at some prisons also serve as prep cooks and foodservice workers. 

"Their food now arrives at odd hours in paper bags, cold, mushy and without a hint of green (except perhaps for some iffy-looking hot dogs)," The Marshall Project reported of food served during the pandemic in Texas prisons. "Mostly it's stale white bread and mystery meat, with the occasional helping of raisins or prunes."

Some prisoners who complained found their food got worse, not better.

A recent investigation by the food website Eater found that prison food in Massachusetts had also worsened since the pandemic began.

"The quality of food served to people inside prisons operated by the Massachusetts [Dept. of Corrections] has deteriorated since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation," Eater reported this week.

Eater spoke with people who reported a host of issues, ranging from smaller portions to fewer vegetables, a lack of hot meals, and meals that don't comply with court mandates.

These problems aren't limited to Texas and Massachusetts. A quick search reveals prisoners around the country have complained in recent weeks and months about everything from a lack of vegan or gluten-free options to food that's moldy or cold.

The federal government knows these and other problems plague its prison food and foodservice. In March, before the pandemic hit, the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report on the state of food served to the 180,000 or so inmates housed in federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities. The OIG report, reissued in June, highlighted the problem of spoiled and moldy food and concluded BOP has no way to "ensure that food products procured by the BOP meet the specifications outlined in BOP contracts, the standards set forth in BOP's national menu, industry standards, and legal requirements." BOP spends more than $400 million each year to feed federal inmates the agency houses. 

Changes aren't just possible. They're happening right now.

The Impact Justice report discusses ways to implement lasting improvements, highlighting ongoing efforts to provide prisoners with opportunities to garden, linking local farmers and prison foodservice providers, implementing architectural design changes to foodservice areas, and holding cookouts for inmates and visiting family members.

In Texas, a prison aquaponics farm is helping inmates at the Michael Unit, one of the state's largest maximum-security prisons, learn a new trade while feeding themselves, as the Houston Chronicle reported last month.

"America's prisons and jails do a terrible job feeding people behind bars," I wrote in a 2018 column. In that column, I proposed introducing more choice and instituting better oversight as ways to improve prison food.

There's no good reason to wait to implement these and other necessary changes—which can help reduce waste and fraud, lower recidivism rates, and improve human rights, health, and dignity.

"Even as we work to dismantle the structures that drive mass incarceration, this is a change that can be made now," says Leslie Soble, a research fellow at Impact Justice who is the primary author of the new report, in an email to me this week. "People's lives are at risk."

NEXT: Singapore Is Not the Model for a More Libertarian America

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  4. *Ahem*
    That’s the problem with privatization of prison services. Lousy food is a punishment and that’s not what prison is about. The government must do something. Top Men need to be aware.

    “These problems aren’t limited to Texas and Massachusetts. A quick search reveals prisoners around the country have complained in recent weeks and months about everything from a lack of vegan or gluten-free options to food that’s moldy or cold.”

    Horrifying.

    1. It’s like they are in prison or something.

      1. Well yeah… Hopefully most of them are there for REAL offenses, not pot-smoking or blowing on a cheap plastic flute w/o permission…

        Excerpt from the final report, reported above: “and the conditions under which it is served are harmful to physical and mental health and can erode self-esteem, with immediate and long-term impacts.”

        Did these PhDs in sociology, psychobabble, etc., ever consider this WILD idea here: Many of these assholes are in prison BECAUSE OF their EXCESSIVELY high self-esteem! They esteem themselves SOOO highly, they think that they are entitled to steal your shit, beat you up, kill you for kicks, rape you, yada-yada!

        1. Only socialists think they are entitled to steal. Criminals know it’s wrong.

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          2. OMFG. This is a prison people. Not a luxury resort.

            Three out of every four prison survey respondents said they’d been served spoiled or rotting food in prison, while more than nine out of 10 prisoners surveyed said they weren’t provided with sufficient food while incarcerated.

            Oh ok...

            …because inmates at some prisons also serve as prep cooks and foodservice workers.

            Oh - so the prisoners are making the food - and it's spoiled/rotting? Ok.

            The report, which clocks in at more than 130 pages, is based on surveys, interviews with prisoners and experts, and a review of state policies.

            Oh... ok. So the prisoners said the food was bad. Surveys and interviews with prisoners. So the prisoners want better food quality - don't we all right???

            The food served to inmates in America’s prisons continues to be a national embarrassment. Thankfully, more and more people are trying to do something about it.

            This is a prison we are talking about right? Not like a hotel or a day care. A prison?

            This week, Impact Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, released a report on the state of foods served to prison inmates across the United States. The first-ever national report on prison food, Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison, shines a critical light on “the quality and consequences” of food served in America’s prisons.

            Oh ok - so a non profit advocating for criminal justice reform says the food is bad. Get me get out my shocked face.

            Three out of every four prison survey respondents said they’d been served spoiled or rotting food in prison, while more than nine out of 10 prisoners surveyed said they weren’t provided with sufficient food while incarcerated.

            So, prisoner surveys and interviews are the evidence of rotten food. Hmm, ok. And it seems, they want better food. What a surprise.

            It concludes that food served to incarcerated people “and the conditions under which it is served are harmful to physical and mental health and can erode self-esteem, with immediate and long-term impacts.”

            Prisoners with low self esteem. I guess we should get right on that!

            A quick search reveals prisoners around the country have complained in recent weeks and months about everything from a lack of vegan or gluten-free options to food that’s moldy or cold.

            vegan food? Gluten-free?? Cold??? You gotta be FUCKING KIDDING ME. This article has to be a comedy or satire.
            This shit cannot be real.

            In Texas, a prison aquaponics farm is helping inmates at the Michael Unit, one of the state’s largest maximum-security prisons, learn a new trade while feeding themselves, as the Houston Chronicle reported last month.

            I think it's good they're feeding themselves. Does it really matter that they are learning a new trade though - in a maximum security prison?

            “America’s prisons and jails do a terrible job feeding people behind bars,” I wrote in a 2018 column. In that column, I proposed introducing more choice and instituting better oversight as ways to improve prison food.

            They probably need silk sheets and genuine goose down pillows as well.

            There’s no good reason to wait to implement these and other necessary changes—which can help reduce waste and fraud, lower recidivism rates, and improve human rights, health, and dignity.

            Right. So higher quality food at the prison is going to help with lower recidivism rates, and don't forget dignity! LOL

            “Even as we work to dismantle the structures that drive mass incarceration…

            Are you talking about crimes? Crimes drive incarceration.

            This whole article is ridiculous.

            1. Yes and with all that bad and insufficient food, they can still spend their entire day in the gym pumping iron and building muscle. Amazing!

            2. I have reserved a half-hour — 10:00 to 10:30 AM — on April 27, 2033 to worry about this. Till then, prison inmates will just have to suffer.

  5. Joe Biden will make sure all prison inmates are served filet mignon daily (as that’s Hunter’s favorite).

    1. But meat is murder!

      Sounds like a way to trick inmates into committing additional crimes, and extending their incarcerations.

    2. Currently about half the boxes in the cafateria are labeled not for human consumption

    3. I thought Hunters favorite was Chop Suey!

  6. This is shocking. I thought Aunt Bea came down to the jail to feed the prisoners fried chicken and dumplings, green beans, and a slice of her famous peach pie.

    1. Oh that pie. I’d fornicate a goat while puffing a meth pipe in the centre of Mayberry park, for another slice of Aunt Bee’s tasty pie.

    2. I would just go for courtin’ Aunt Bea. That was one fine woman there. Anyone marrying her would be one happy man.

        1. Good find there.

          A terrific actress who played a powerful role in the show.

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  8. yeah….. no. i want to see less people in prison for victimless crimes and generally see criminal justice reform…… but i can’t bring myself to care if they have five star vegan options when they are in there.

  9. The question is not, does prison suck. The question is, should prison suck.

    A logical truism: if we want people to prefer not being in prison, it has to suck. Every effort to make it less sucky decreases the negative impression it makes, and the reluctance for people to be in prison.

    Who deserves to be in prison, and why, are other questions. As is why some people compulsively try to make everything less sucky, even when that is desired.

    1. But that only applies to Americans right. All the other countries that have better prisons and lower recidivism and crime, their humans are just different.

      1. How are you (or more accurately, whatever source you’re relying on) defining “better”?

        1. Vegan meals
          Bread and water is vegan, right?

          1. Yeah, but not gluten-free. Eliminate the bread, and it’s all OK.

      2. Let me guess, you believe the sort of nonsense propaganda that makes up the Wikipedia entry on the subject, rather than actually trying to read the literature yourself?

        Anyone who asserts that there is any reliable data on US recidivism rates, much less comparative recidivism rates between countries, is either utterly ignorant of the subject or a deliberate liar.

  10. It is a thing for prisoners to claim they are Jewish and demand kosher food which is brought in. I have read that the prisons often suspect they are faking it so they bring in a rabbi to check it out.

    1. I knew a fat Mormon cop who would complain that the Utah State prison had a kosher kitchen. He enjoyed locking up Marijuana smokers.

      I really hope he got killed, but probably not because he worked behind a desk mostly because he was a fat asshole.

    2. I’m not Jewish, but if I have a choice between kosher and non-kosher food at the grocer, I go kosher, usually. Pickles, hot dogs, etc.

    3. Former CO at a closed custody prison here-Inmates can ask for all kinds of special diets (vegan, halal, low calorie) and some diets have better food than others. The low calorie diets usually have real, as opposed to processed meats, but they don’t get any of the “treats” like occasional cake or other sweets that come with a regular diet. The vegan option also wasn’t too bad, a lot of noodle dishes. If an inmate chooses that kind of diet the prison monitors their canteen purchases to see if they are cheating.

      When inmates go to the chow hall to eat they can have what is on the menu or an alternative to the main course (often cheese), and they get to socialize while they eat, but I think if I were an inmate I might prefer to eat in my cell. They can buy stuff from the canteen that they might mix with what comes on their tray to add some flavor and they also order what were called “Christmas boxes” four times a year that have foods that can be prepared by adding hot water which they are allowed to keep in their cells. Inmates can be pretty creative on preparing food on the cell blocks using this stuff and sometimes will make meals on their own for special occasions.

  11. The prisoners shoulda thought of that before possessing those three marijuana seeds. Hopefully when they get out and have voting rights restored per Texas law, they will remember the Libertarian Party wants to free all but the small percentage who actually violated anyone’s rights–AND expunge their records. German National Socialists never lifted a finger to remove tattoos from Jewish former prisoners’ forearms. God’s Own Prohibitionists also want their victims indelibly branded like cattle. Say, didn’t they just lose?

  12. I took the Alcatraz tour about eight years ago. The last stop was the dining hall, where we were told that the BOP at the time decreed that the prisoners were entitled to nutritious food, attractively presented. And these prisoners were the worst of the worst.

  13. Oh no. No vegan food in prison? 0th world problems for sure.

  14. You could always, you know, not commit crimes or something.

  15. Violent crime rates are at lower levels and incarceration rates are higher.

    Chicken and egg or proof. Was it abortion or lead paint. Broken windows policing or the economy. Higher levels of gun ownership. Bad prison food? I’m not ever certain on criminology but we did have escalating violent crime this year with more incarceration. Of course it was a pandemic coupled with far left progressive violence.

    1. Far right facist violence too. The lefty’s destroy property, but the righties kill.

  16. Although I don’t doubt that prison food is lacking, I wouldn’t take much stock in surveys of prisoners. I am certain that if that same survey was given to my high school or college, people would have responded similarly, even though the food was fine.

  17. Institutional food is typically poor, and yes, people complain about it as a habit. But as this article cites outside sources noting potential issues, perhaps there is something to it. The rote, ‘it’s jail/prison’ answer doesn’t cut it; inmates are already deprived of freedom, they need not be subjected to poor meals in addition to petty tyrants.

    1. An interesting question is why institutional food has to be poor? This would be a great question to turn over to a group of chefs. Maybe some who have over their life done time in prison and ask them can we make a better meal?

      1. You can’t even buy decently made prepared food at a grocery store, and there is competition for your food dollars. Good food at a prison has never and will never be a thing.

        1. When I was in university I lived on a 22kg bag of rice, a bottle of soy sauce, and Flintstones chewables for two months, with ramen packets on Saturdays.

          I would’ve loved to have a meal like in the picture.

          1. I used to go fishing and hunting.

  18. This article reminds me of a question that has arisen about where in the vaccination protocols do prisoners stand. I know that for much of the public doing anything for prisoner is looked down upon, that said it seems that prisoners should be high up on the list of those vaccinated. I think we have to balance are dislike of those who commit crimes with the practical need to clear up this virus in these facilities.

    If we do they can go back to the lunch room.

    1. I think they should be first.
      I will not be.

    2. They can have my vaccine

      1. Awww c’mon sailor, soldier, whomever.

        (Looks at car calendar on the wall)

        Is that a Plymouth baraccuda or a challenger? Do you like cars?

        Done. You get a snoopy band aid.

        1. It was a cherry red ’62 Plymouth Fury convertible with chrome trim and white wall tires.

  19. Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.

    Brillat-Savarin 

    1. You eat lard. Describes you exactly.

    2. “Brillat-Savarin”

      The cheese or the politician?

  20. It should be pretty simple to have doctors examine a few hundred just-released prisoners and give us an objective report on how many are suffering malnutrition. If the “sobering figure” that nine out of ten are not given sufficient food is true, such examinations would quite easily establish that fact.

    Of course, you, I, and every last person in the country know that, in fact, the result of such a study would be that the prisoners get all the food that they need when incarcerated.

    Thus, my response to the entire article is falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. When your “sobering figure” is an utterly obvious lie, the rest of your claims are discredited accordingly.

  21. Poor unreason.

    Joe biden conceded to trump today after democrats lost SCOTUS case leading to millions of mailin ballots being tossed.

  22. No gluten-free options? It’s eroding their self-esteem?

    Yeah, sorry, I don’t care at all. Did you ever consider not publishing this advocacy piece devoid of legitimate cause for advocacy?

  23. “Three out of every four prison survey respondents said they’d been served spoiled or rotting food in prison,”

    How many have been treated for food poisoning? That’d probably be a more accurate measurement than self-reporting from people who have an incentive to exaggerate how bad their living conditions are.

    1. Next up: Prisoners’ access to medical treatment for minor illnesses virtually nonexistent

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  25. Rapists, murderers and thieves complaining that the food in prison is lousy? You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t lose too much sleep over this one. The simple solution? Don’t commit crimes. The food in prison should suck. I hope the mattresses are lumpy and the toilet paper can double as sandpaper too. It supposed to be a bad place you don’t want to go to. It can’t be all that bad anyway. They just release a terrorist because he was TOO FAT!

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