Prison Food: Unfair for the Unjust?

By Mac Bettersworth, Reporter

Prison food isn’t known for being the best, but just how bad is it?


There are more than 6,000 prisons in the U.S., all with different stories behind them. But there’s one thing that most of them seem to have in common: horrid prison food.

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Leaked photo of Mississippi prison meal.

Prisons are correctional facilities funded by taxes paid by citizens. More than 140 million people in the U.S. pay taxes every year, and each person pays about 24% of their yearly income for taxes. That sounds like a lot of money, yet the average imprisoned person may eat on only $1.20 a day, maybe less.


Low quality food leads to health problems, which leads to excessive health care costs. On average, prisons will spend almost six times more on health care yearly than food: about $12.3 billion for health care and only $2.1 billion on food. 


Of the (estimated) 2,298,300 people incarcerated in the U.S., 74% are overweight, obese, or morbidly obese, putting them at a risk for type 2 diabetes, stroke, and fatty liver disease, along with many others. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), inmates are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from food-related illnesses than those who are not imprisoned.


A menu analysis from a county jail in Georgia found that prisoners were being served foods that were too high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and too low in fiber, all things linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Similarly, prisoners in Washington do not receive the required amounts of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, or dairy. However, they are fed over the recommended amounts of refined starches, added sugars, and sodium, due to the fact that foods made with these additives tend to be cheaper. 


The two main providers of food for prisons in the U.S. are Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group. While under contract with Aramark, kitchens in Ohio and Michigan were reported to be serving food “tainted by maggots, rotten meat, food pulled from the garbage, and food on which rats nibbled.” 


A class action suit was filed against the Oregon Department of Corrections in May 2017 on behalf of inmates, claiming that the state-mandated food being served was cruel and unusual punishment. In recent years, the prison has been reported serving food similar to that served under Aramark. A Michigan judge dismissed a suit that had been brought forward by an inmate who claimed he had been repeatedly served moldy bread and spoiled meat.


Lacking nutrition can affect a person’s physical and mental health, which would reduce a prisoner’s ability to contribute to and rejoin society after being released. The rate of crime and imprisonment is highest among communities of people with the least access to nutritious food.


In 1997, a California community prison offered inmates the option to go on a vegan diet (called the “New Start” project), and 85% of prisoners chose to take part. The 15% who chose to opt out of the project received the same food as always and the prison saw the same number of fights, unruly behavior, and low spirits. The 85% who took part saw few or no fights. The newly vegan inmates reported feeling happier, and within 10 days, all of them were expressing improvements in their overall mood. 


The prevention of possible health problems through nutritious food is cheaper than medical treatment, so why are prisoners still fed so cheaply? The less money spent on food is more money kept by the prison itself. Since the law was put in place in 1930, sheriffs have been pocketing thousands of dollars a year that they didn’t have to spend feeding inmates. One Alabama sheriff collected $110,458 in the span of three years.


Prisoners did something to be put where they are, but every person should have a right to healthy and nutritious food.