|A food tray at an Alabama jail|
In recent years, the dreadful food served at correctional facilities has sparked riots in at least three states. The unrest has come as multiple studies show the poor fare served at prisons and jails comes with high economic and social costs that could easily be reduced.
The issue is big news in Alabama, where several sheriffs have been exposed for essentially starving inmates to help pay for their personal projects. It hits close to home because I had to survive on jail food for five months (Oct. 2013 to March 2014) after being "arrested for blogging" and tossed in the Shelby County (AL) Jail.
I lost roughly 25 pounds on a jail-food diet, and I tended to clean my plate at most meals -- there just wasn't much to clean. According to a recent report at Mother Jones, inmates around the country know hunger is a major part of the incarceration experience:
Jose Villarreal remembers going to bed hungry most nights during his 10 years in solitary confinement at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Dinner might consist of mashed potatoes, bread, and a slice of processed meat—never with salt, and always cold. Shouting through air vents between their cells, his neighbors would count the number of vegetables on their trays: eight string beans one day, 26 peas the next. “It became almost a joke,” Villarreal recalls.
This low-nutrient fare is typical of many corrections systems, which calibrate menus to meet budget demands and minimum calorie counts. Prices per meal range from about $1.30 to as low as the 15 cents that Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio once bragged about spending. The high-starch meals are often served up by scandal-plagued private companies. Meats are typically processed, and fresh fruit is rare, in part because it can be turned into booze.
To supplement tasteless grub, prisoners turn to the commissary, says Kimberly Dong, a Tufts University assistant professor researching prisoner health. This behind-bars bodega stocks items like Fritos and ramen, which inmates mix together to concoct dishes such as “spread,” a San Francisco County Jail specialty often made from noodles topped with hot chips, cheese sauce, and chili beans. “It’s like a carrot and a stick,” Villarreal says of the choice between commissary and facility-provided food. “But even the carrot is dipped in poison.”
I've already noted that my own health has not been the same since, on the evening of Oct. 23, 2013, Alabama deputies unlawfully entered our home, beat me up (without showing a warrant, stating they had a warrant, or even stating their reason for being there -- over a 100 percent civil matter), doused me with pepper spray, and hauled me to jail. Inmates around the country have felt the impact of jail and prison food. From Mother Jones:
This uninspiring diet is likely taking a toll on inmates’ health. It’s not just that prisoners are 6.4 times more likely to be sickened from spoiled or contaminated food than people on the outside, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined in 2017. Prison food can damage their long-term wellness. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 44 percent of state and federal prisoners have experienced chronic disease, compared with 31 percent of the general population, even after controlling for age, sex, and race. Chronic illnesses common among prisoners—high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart problems—are linked to obesity, which is in turn associated with highly processed, high-carb jailhouse fare. And because inmates disproportionately come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, they’re already more likely to experience chronic disease than the general public, so prison grub can exacerbate preexisting conditions.
Prisoners aren't the only ones who pay for being exposed to crappy food; taxpayers pay, as well:
Corrections facilities often cut corners on food in an effort to save money. But this may cost taxpayers more in the long run. According to a 2017 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, after staffing, health care is the public prison system’s largest expense, setting government agencies back $12.3 billion a year. Outside prisons, there’s ample evidence that improving diets can shrink health care spending: One study of food stamp recipients found that incentivizing purchases of produce while reducing soda consumption could save more than $4.3 billion in health care expenses over five years. Extrapolating from these numbers, similar changes for America’s 2.3 million prisoners could save taxpayers more than $500 million over the same time period.
As for Jose Villareal, he is now out of prison, but he does not feel well, and he can't do much about it:
A year and a half after his release, Villarreal still isn’t sure what is medically wrong with him. Lacking health insurance, he hasn’t seen a doctor since he got out, but he traces his damaged eyesight and trouble sleeping in part to a prison diet that made him physically less resilient: “If I had better, nutritious food, I think it would have helped me.”