Social Justice Matters: Food and the Prison System

Last year, a multi-prison strike in Georgia captured national attention and raised overall awareness of condition in US prisons, where inmates cannot access health care and other routine services, may not get enough to eat, are placed in dangerous situations, and labour for little to no pay in prison work programmes. The strike was impressive for its organization and one of the points made by the strikers seemed to hit home for many members of the general public: Among many other things, the strike was about the food.

Nationally, privatisation of the prison system is an ongoing issue. As private firms take over prisons and run them on a for-profit basis, individual states start to think about how they can cut costs, and contract out more and more prison services when they cannot fully privatise a prison. Food is one of the casualties. Food services companies routinely provide substandard meals that do not meet basic nutritional guidelines to people in a position where they cannot refuse it and seek out alternatives.

Morgan County, Alabama Sheriff Greg Bartlett was jailed by federal authorities on January 8, 2009, after he admitted to pocketing over $200,000 allocated for meals for prisoners in the county jail. A federal judge found Bartlett had failed to provide the prisoners with “a nutritionally adequate diet.”

It’s not just the food service companies; public officials are involved as well. People directed to cut costs at any cost do so, and food is one of the areas where it is extremely easy to cut down on costs quickly. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be thin on the ground, let alone kosher, vegetarian, or other meals for prisoners who may have particular dietary needs for religious, ethical, or health reasons. Even with a clear prescription for a specific diet, a prisoner may not be provided with the necessary food to survive, or a dietary condition can go fatally undiagnosed. Prisoners may have to make the choice between starving and eating food that will cause illness.

Some prisons are attached to working farms and in exchange for their labour in the fields, prisoners ‘get’ to keep the proceeds. This can mean a mixture of fresh produce at various times of the year. Creative prison cooks are very, very good at stretching what they can get, but it’s often not enough to supply the full needs of the prison. Added to that is the stress of mealtimes, where inmates may need to eat in shifts and do so under constant heavy guard; even in prisons where the food is adequate, the eating conditions are not pleasant.

In some cases, prison food is actually deliberately used as a punishment. As is food denial. The notorious ‘nut loaf’ used in some prisons is supposed to meat basic dietary needs while being utterly unappetizing and uninteresting. In fact, the nut loaf is deemed so unpleasant that some states have regulations restricting its use. In Vermont, for example, prisoners cannot be fed nut loaf for more than seven consecutive days.

The ACLU points out that the United States is in a state of incarceration crisis, with record numbers of people in prison at the same time that budgets are shrinking and the ability to care for prisoners is on the decline. When prison services are already limited and prisoners have enough trouble as it is getting the nutrition they need, the outlook in the food department is grim. There is no reason that prison or other institutional food must be of poor quality, must taste bad, except that this is cheaper, and the poor quality is often justified by arguments that prison is not supposed to be ‘cushy.’ Some prisons even claim that their standard of nutrition is ‘at least better than that on the streets,’ as though this is an excuse for the poor quality.

This is not about people wanting to eat caviar and lobster while frolicking on silk sheets. This is about the need for basic nutrition; adequate food, enough food, food that does not make you sick, food that does not violate religious or ethical beliefs.

Leading a prison strike, especially one that spans across multiple facilities, takes a tremendous degree of organisation. The strikers had to coordinate with to time the strike well, create talking points, and work in solidarity with each other for the most effect. They also relied on assistance from the outside, including from advocates who publicized the strike and made sure the media were aware of it. That same publicity, prisoners knew, could come back to haunt them at the end of the strike, when interest would wane and guards could begin to mete out punishments.

For their efforts in Georgia, prisoners were subjected to retaliatory beatings, a reminder that the prison system does not like it when prisoners draw attention to welfare issues. The strike was so well organised and so widespread that it became impossible for the media to avoid, which meant that the prisoners involved had to be punished; far be it from the prison system to address the actual problems being brought up by the prisoners. Angered by the presence of human rights advocates and prison welfare activists in their facilities, guards savagely abused the same prisoners they’d cut off from hot running water and other basic amenities during the strike.

Despite knowing that they would probably face physical violence, the prisoners struck for living conditions that many people on the outside take for granted. The strike was an example of a grassroots attempt at justice; these prisoners could not afford legal representation, could not sue for better living conditions, could not wait through the long legal process to get access to things like health care. When prisoners have to strike to get enough to eat, you have a prison system with significant problems. The failure to provide adequate nutrition to prisoners is a historic issue that is getting worse with the privatisation of the prison system. Unless individual states are willing to crack down on conditions, it is likely that strikes like this will continue into the future, and that poor nutrition will continue to cause health problems and deaths in prisons across the United States.