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Opinion | The ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food | Press "Enter" to skip to content

Opinion | The ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food

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Arthur Robinson, 63, who was incarcerated for 40 years in California, considered the food a plus when he arrived in the 1970s, recalling a fresh half-chicken or menudo (a traditional Mexican soup made with cow stomach) for dinner. That changed when the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s precipitated a sevenfold increase in the state’s prison population. “They got dietitians to say, ‘This is what a person needs to survive, right?’ They didn’t take into account feeding the people. So you were getting the bare minimum,” Mr. Robinson said.

Sam Lewis, executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, an advocacy network, performed a grim science experiment on one prison’s prepackaged lunches: watering the chemical-smelling bread to see if it would develop mold (it didn’t) and trying to get the cheese to melt (it wouldn’t).

The public health ramifications of a poor diet are profound: Incarcerated people suffer from higher rates of costly chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. “Lifestyle changes are a significant tool for these conditions, and diet is a huge part,” noted Dr. Shira Shavit, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine and the executive director of the Transitions Clinic Network, a constellation of 44 health clinics for formerly incarcerated patients. In addition to a lack of daily fresh fruits and vegetables, Dr. Shavit pointed out that in prison, “people don’t learn needed skills about healthy eating because there are very few food choices.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” she continued. “It’s yet another example of how we don’t prepare people to come back to the community.”

Yet even beyond Maine, the culture is changing, albeit at glacial pace. At the Noble Correctional Institution in Ohio, for instance, the desire to foster positive family visits led officials to organize a cookout so that inmates and their families could grill and share a meal together. The prep, eating and cleanup “symbolize the effort involved in any healthy relationship,” said Tim Buchanan, the former warden.

And in Maryland, the nonprofit Farm to Prison Project is piloting a program with the Maryland Institute for Women to replace standard canned and frozen fruits and vegetables with fresh locally sourced produce.

Peter Allison, the executive director of Farm to Institution New England, a six-state network that helps to create markets for farmers and fishermen through institutional procurement, said the pandemic prompted a shift in thinking. Many schools and colleges, long regarded as steady sources of income, have closed temporarily. Correctional institutions, Mr. Allison noted, can potentially play a vital role as stable outlets for farmers, fishermen and other producers.


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