The American prison system is an overcrowded, sometimes draconian maze that houses more than 2 million people in more than 1,700 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, more than 3,100 local jails, some 1,700 juvenile facilities, military prisons, immigration detention centers, psychiatric facilities ... and on and on and on.
The many problems inherent in the setup are deep and disturbing. Often overlooked but still a critical issue: The food in most lockups is horrible.
What the system provides to those millions now incarcerated in the American prison system is, to many, nothing short of a public health crisis. Some might consider it a crime in itself. Cruel and unusual.
"When we're talking about the quality of the food, we're not concerned with how the food tastes so much. Prisoners are not asking for tasty, luxury food. They just want food that's nutritious," says Loretta Rafay, a policy researcher for the advocacy group Prison Voice Washington. "People think that prisoners are asking for filet mignon. That's not it. They're just wanting food that's not processed with a bunch of texturized vegetable protein and unhealthy oils and white flour. They just want fresh vegetables and fruit and a sufficient amount of protein."
Feeding the Imprisoned Masses
The challenges in feeding a prison population that large, and doing it cheaply enough that the taxpayers who foot the bill don't revolt, can't be downplayed. It's expensive to feed that many prisoners. Estimates range in the millions of dollars a year, per state.
It's complicated, too. As it is on the outside, one type of meal doesn't fit all. Some inmates require special diets on religious grounds (kosher or halal, for example) or for health reasons (gluten- or dairy-free). The rules on special requests vary from state to state and even facility to facility. Many prisons will accommodate requests where they can, Rafay says. But it's not always easy or effective.
An inmate in New York went to court in 2018 to force state prisons to recognize his right to meals that did not set off a dairy allergy and that were suitable for his diet as a Nazarite Jew. A federal judge sided with the state, ruling that the prisoner's demands would place an undue burden on the state. An appeals court overturned that decision.
The New York case noted that the Upstate Correctional Facility has a kosher kitchen and a kosher meal plan, though that wasn't suitable for Nazarites. But many prisons throughout the nation do not have specialized kitchens because more and more have their meals pre-packaged and shipped in from off-site vendors to cut costs.
From a 2016 report by Prison Voice Washington:
Even if the food is prepared in a way that meets religious or dietary requirements, that doesn't mean it's nutritious, or that the meal is balanced. Often, Rafay says, if an inmate is, say, gluten-intolerant, the gluten from a meal is simply removed. Nothing replaces it.
Aside from special-needs meals, an average meal at an average jail or penitentiary is about what you'd expect: often skimpy, lacking in nutrition and entirely unappetizing. And, of course, cheap. According to The Guardian, in some prisons inmates are fed on less than $1.20 a day.
A Thanksgiving meal at Maricopa County (Arizona) jail under former hardline sheriff Joe Arpaio cost 56 cents, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism group that works on criminal justice topics. The meal included a cup of carrots, a cup of mashed potatoes and the main course, 5 ounces (141 grams) of something called turkey soy casserole. It looks as bad as it sounds.
In its 2016 report, Prison Voice Washington revealed several labels for foods being served in facilities around the state. The ingredients in a meal called "turkey ala king" included "turkey ends," brown sugar and soy protein isolates.
"Just go compare those [labels] to, like, an organic cat food label sometime," Rafay says. "You'll see that there are a lot of nicer cat food products that a lot of prisoners would prefer to eat."
But They're Prisoners, Right?
The argument that because prisoners have committed crimes that have warranted incarceration means they don't deserve anything but the food basics ignores a basic truth: Bad food leads to unhealthy eaters. Unhealthy eating leads to health problems. And that leads to excessive health care costs.
A Department of Justice study in 2011-12, the last year the National Inmate Study was conducted, reported that 74 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons and jails are overweight, obese or morbidly obese. Health conditions that are tied to obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. A Prison Policy Initiative analysis found that "correctional agencies spend almost six times more on health care than on food."
Who pays for the incarcerated who must be treated for those types of diseases? John Q. Taxpayer, naturally. "No one is doing the math with the health care costs in the long run," Rafay says.
In the end, cutting cost corners by slapping down meals lacking any nutritional value ends up costing everyone. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care, in a report to Congress titled "The Health Status of Soon-to-Be-Released Inmates," points out the wisdom in paying more attention to what prisons are serving than what they're spending on food.
"Prisons and jails offer a unique opportunity to establish better disease control in the community," the report says, "by providing improved health care and disease prevention to inmates before they are released."
That starts, advocates say, by putting better food on the tray.