The inhumane reality of prison food

The inhumane reality of prison food

“Prison food in the United States is a public health and human rights crisis,” the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project states on their website. “By weaponizing the experience of eating, the state transforms one of our most basic needs into an everyday form of violence. The short- and long-term effects of poor food conditions on incarcerated individuals’ health also constitutes a form of ‘premature death’—oftentimes damaging a person’s physical and mental health and well-being for the rest of their life.” In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Mansa Musa, who spent nearly 50 years eating prison food himself, speaks with Kanav Kathuria, co-founder of The Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project, about the institutionalized cruelty of the system that keeps incarcerated people malnourished and fed barely enough to stay alive.

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Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Charles Hopkins: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. Before we get started, I want to thank everyone for your heartfelt concerns for Eddie’s health and your well wishes. We continue to urge you to continue to pray for Eddie. We also ask you to continue to respect the family’s need for privacy as Eddie goes through this difficult process, and we look further for you to continue to listen to Rattling the Bars and supporting Rattling the Bars. In the April 2022 edition of In These Times magazine, published an article entitled, “Bad Prison Food can Cause Problems that Linger After Release,” reporting on how the food being served to prisoners in the prison-industrial complex not only lacks nutritional value, but is responsible for high numbers of physical and mental health problems that prisoners suffer during their imprisonment. Here to talk about bad prison food in the prison-industrial complex is Kanav Kathuria from the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project. Welcome to Rattling the Bars.

Kanav Kathuria: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Charles Hopkins: As I said earlier, your group has been primarily looking at the food landscape and the lack thereof, and the lack of nutritional value, in Maryland in particular, but it can be used as a template for how food is being served in the prison-industrial complex. In your observations, how much money is allocated for food in prison, if you have any knowledge of that?

Kanav Kathuria: So I think just to begin, we have some numbers, but just to even contextualize those numbers, I want to just start by saying that food in prison is not really defined by its capacity to nourish. The purpose of prison food, really, is to keep people alive on as small of a budget as possible. So the food is really ultra processed, hyper industrialized, et cetera. So these numbers come from 2018 and just for the state of Maryland. But as of 2018, on average right across all Maryland state prisons, the state allocated about $3.83 for one person for all three meals in a day. So that comes out to like $1.27 per person per meal, which is just an absurdly low number. And that’s on average. So the prisons, I believe it was MCIJ, that had the lowest per person per meal count came out to about $0.80 per meal, or about $2.40 for all three meals per day.

So the food that’s procured on this extremely small budget is food that people most commonly refer to as unfit for human consumption. People say, I wouldn’t even feed this to my dog or a pet whom I love. But this is what people are being given to eat. So I just really want to center that prison food is really inhumane and it’s more than just a question of poor nutritional value. It’s really a human rights and a public health crisis, too.

Charles Hopkins: Right. Right. And that’s interesting because we’re looking at $1.15 or $1.20, but in terms of what they’re actually saying. But let’s look at what industry supplies the food for prisons and the main foods, the foods that are supposed to have nutritional value, such as the bread, the milk, eggs, and the meats, and the vegetables. From your observation, your studies, what industries supply these food substances?

Kanav Kathuria: Yeah. So, prison food service is kind of run differently throughout the US. A lot of states fully privatized their food operations to companies like Aramark, Crystal, Trinity, et cetera. So Maryland actually is fully self-operated, which means that these companies aren’t the main sources of food provision, the state of Maryland itself is responsible. But within that, they contract out to different companies, or as you’re saying, for specific items.

So, for example, I have a list here – And again, this is from a few years back prior to COVID, so things might have changed – But, Dory Foods, Hill Foods, Shenandoah Foods for milk. Most of the food, if not actually the vast majority, if not all, of produce is fully canned. So a lot of the produce that’s coming in is really of D- or F-grade quality. And then something else, just to touch on when we’re talking about meats – And this is written into Maryland state law – There’s an arm of DPSCS called MCE or Maryland Correctional Enterprises. Which is, when you think of prison labor on the inside, it’s housed at Maryland Correctional Enterprises. And each state kind of has this arm. One of the items that MCE, or one of the activities they engage in, other than having folks make furniture and license plates and road signs and print shops, et cetera, is also meat production.

So all of the meat that’s processed and then sold to every single Maryland state prison comes through MCE, which uses incarcerated labor. And the quality of that meat is just… It’s just horrendous. People call it slop, they call it dog food, they call it mystery meat. It’s really inedible. And prisons are contractually obliged by state law to buy from MCE. So, yeah, that’s just a smattering of some of the companies. And in 2015, I’ll just mention this real quick, Baltimore was actually privatized in terms of food. There’s this company’s Trinity, and this other food service corporation, Crystal, got into this huge bidding war. And what that brought to light is just how inhumane food conditions are in Baltimore prisons. So since then, Baltimore went self-operated or publicly run as well.

Charles Hopkins: And that’s an interesting point of view, because I was incarcerated in Maryland, and I worked for MCE – I was pressing tags. But I remember when they privatized, I remember when they got where they took and absorbed the food contract. And as you say, I was in the super max, and that’s when they had a contract with a different agency. And we’re talking about a dollar a meal, it seemed like they were trying to see how they could give us $0.25 for all three meals, because we were getting a lot of processed food. We were getting a lot of bulk food. We were getting a lot of beans, we were getting a lot of mystery meats, and we were getting a lot of soups that were unidentifiable.

But let’s stay on this course about the foods that are being given to prisoners in the Maryland system. And we recognize that MCE is the major source of supplying the meats and the meat products, and we know that they’re making this a multimillion dollar corporation. Because, like you say, they’re also involved with all industries within the Maryland prison system. But in terms of the dietary department, who oversees the serving of the food and as far as the processing of the food? While we recognize that poor food is coming in, but then when it’s being prepared, who is responsible for oversight on the preparation of the food?

Kanav Kathuria: So there’s a few different regulatory bodies and then correctional associations that come together for oversight, inspection, et cetera. So the state had a statewide dietary services manager that oversaw dietary for all prisons. But within that, each region of Maryland also had its own regional dietary services manager, at least in theory. There’s a lot of staff shortages, et cetera. But the nutritional standards that prisons use to determine what they should serve come through COMAR, so the Code of Maryland Regulations, as well as the Maryland Commission of Correctional Standards. And that’s on the regulatory side. But those standards are just so incredibly vague. All they say is a “nutritionally adequate meal” or a “well-balanced meal.”

And they’re really unenforceable. What they do is they say, okay, you have to have a nutritionally well-balanced meal, but it’s going to be up to DPSCS to create these food service manuals to talk about how food should be prepared, served, procured, et cetera. And that really falls under the purview of institutional wardens. So the wardens and the institutional dietary services managers, they just have so much power over what food in their facility looks like. And in some places, like in Baltimore, there’s one central facility that has a kitchen, MTC, that creates food, or prepares food, and then ships it out to like five or six other prisons in the city.

So we have state regulations, we have wardens, we have these service manuals, and then we have these associations like the American Correctional Association that has guidelines around what food service on the inside should be. And then prisons adopt these guidelines. But the thing is, they’re fully unenforceable. They’re not written into law, they’re just guidelines written by former correctional folks. So some of the prisons in Maryland that we’ve been into – And we’ve seen cockroaches, rats, insects in the kitchen – They receive a 98% approval rating from ACA, which is just nonsensical. And then in terms of oversight specifically, supposedly local and state health departments come in to do very infrequent inspections. The thing is, those inspections are voiced very far in advance. And then on top of that, there’s no real power to do anything other than maybe like some type of loose mandate, if they do find something wrong. So it’s really just vague and unenforceable on almost every single level in terms of how prison food is actually governed.

Charles Hopkins: And I want you to elaborate on the dietary department, because I know when I was incarcerated, they had a five cycle menu, and on the menu they had portion size. And according to them, in theory, the portion size was representative of a nutritionally balanced diet. From your observation and your investigation, how does this play out? Are prisoners, in fact, given a nutritionally balanced diet on a daily basis? Are they being given three nutritionally balanced meals per day?

Kanav Kathuria: I can’t stress enough of how nutritionally bankrupt all of these meals are. So I think one, we can look at what’s written on paper. And even if that is nutritionally adequate, which a lot of times it’s not, what happens in practice is if you look at what’s on the plate, as you’re sharing as well, the biggest category of food item that’s going to be on a tray, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, or bag meals, et cetera, is going to be starch. So pastas, rice, potatoes, just all carbs just to fill people up. And then on top of that, whatever’s remaining, maybe you have canned produce, that’s supposed to be four ounces. It’s definitely less than four ounces, and the quality of that produce is just really poor.

You have meats from MCE, or some type of protein. But the vast majority of the food you’re given in terms of, as we were talking about quantity, Which is, again, people are saying it’s not even enough to feed a child much less a grown person, is that the health impacts – Which I think we’ll talk about in a little bit too – Of receiving such nutritionally inadequate meals, means that a person who’s leaving incarceration is going to be in much worse health, likely to be in much worse health than when they entered because of how nutritionally insufficient these meals are.

And I think just to end on this, to go back to what I was saying in the beginning, the goal of food service on the inside is not to say, how do we make sure a person is physically, emotionally, spiritually nourished through food, it’s really, how do we just keep sew alive on as cheap of a budget as possible? And because the food is just hyper processed, just hyper industrialized, the food items that you do get a lot of times are also spoiled or rotten or moldy, or the list goes on and on and on. So the nutritional value in conjunction with how this food is stored and prepared means that people can barely eat what’s on a tray, and people are just eating to survive, which is why folks turn to commissary, which is also so exploitative too.

Charles Hopkins: Right. And to go back to your point about food being spoiled and who they contract with. I remember Cloverland, which was supplying milk, like 60% of the milk that came in was spoiled. And when they served it on the line, every fourth person was like, man, my milk is sour. And then they pull the milk off the line, bring another, and it becomes the same process.

Kanav Kathuria: Yeah. There’s such a long list. And I think I’ll share this with y’all too, but we put out this report in the fall of 2021, this six-part report that talks about each aspect of eating on the inside. And there’s an entire section that’s focused on prison food as a form of violence, dehumanization, and punishment. So I think for folks who want to learn more, I want to bring that up. There are so many ways that food is used as punishment. We can divide it into sanctioned, as in what’s written in the rules, versus unsanctioned, too. If you look at COMAR, one of the opening lines is “Food should not be used as punishment on the inside.” It’s written in the regulations, but that doesn’t mean that that’s actually what’s happening.

So for some examples… Okay. I’m just trying to think of where to start. One is, let’s say movement. So much of the food is inedible, when there are rare fresh produce items, and if you try to take something from the kitchen back to your cell, the punishment if you’re stopped by a CO can range from being strip searched, to being thrown in solitary confinement, to not receiving a meal the next day. Especially if you’re being fed in your cells like folks are during COVID.

Another one is using food as a form of retribution. So let’s say you receive a bad meal or a spoiled milk, and you write up a grievance against the CO who served it to you and you said, so and so did this. I’m not getting actual nutrition or food that’s edible, that CO might withhold food from the whole tier for some time, or play around with meal times and serve food much later than when it should. So your gaps are like 14 to 20 hours from one meal to the next. Or they might not serve you specifically. Or if they send you to solitary, literally for any reason at all, they might not just give you food in solitary itself, or they might give you a bag lunch, or just food of considerably lower quality.

So I think when we’re talking about food as this form of violence and dehumanization and punishment, we can really think of prison food as almost a form of currency that COs look to in order to manipulate behavior. If someone’s acting up, acting out, what they call acting up or acting out, they just might not give them any food at all. Or again, as I was saying, the food might just be of drastically reduced quality.

Charles Hopkins: Okay. And that’s a good observation, because I know that when they have incidents where they lock the jails down, and I’ve been in one jail where they locked it down for nine months, we were fed bag lunches three times a day. And there was no way in the bag lunch was any equivalent of a nutritionally balanced diet. And the number one thing that was given that had any nutritional value was when they offered fresh fruit. But let’s examine the health factors associated with the prison-industrial complex and this bad food that’s being served in prisons. Talk about the health problems that come out, that prisoners suffer from eating bad food while they’re in and when they’re released.

Kanav Kathuria: Yeah. So I think one thing that we’re really trying to center, even when we talk about punishment – A lot of folks say all of the food is punishment. Just eating on the inside is punishment – Is that prison food is not defined, again, by its capacity to feed someone or to nourish someone. But it’s really defined by its capacity to kill you or to contribute to premature death. Because as I was saying, a person who’s leaving prison is most likely going to be in worse health than when they came in, and a lot of that is because of food. So if we’re talking about physical conditions, there’s such a long list of abuses that folks have shared. For example, acid reflux and indigestion, because folks have such a short amount of time to eat, people are just scarfing foods down in case COs just take the food and throw it in the trash. So people are vomiting after, or they just can’t keep it down in any shape or form.

Another is constipation or diarrhea. When you come in, just the shock to the system that prison food induces means that your bowel movements are just so irregular and inconsistent for weeks on end. We can also talk about diabetes, chronic heart conditions, hypertension. There’s a person on the inside who we’re working to get out, his name is Mr. Williams, he developed ulcerative colitis because of prison food. And their treatment of him was just so inhumane that he needed a walker to get around. And they took away his walker, and he had ulcerative colitis on top of that, which meant that he had no control over his bowels because of what prison food did to him. Other folks have developed hepatitis B on the inside from eating food that was contaminated with fecal matter. People are finding cockroaches, rat droppings, maggots, not just in the kitchen, but in the trays themselves. And the health impacts of that are obviously obscene.

People are also developing cysts. The other side of this is, as you touched on in the beginning, are the mental impacts. The food is creating depression, it’s creating anxiety, it’s leading to drastic weight gain or weight loss as well. And especially during COVID when people are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, people are just eating just to eat. And that kind of exacerbated the already depressive environment, deeply depressive environment of being incarcerated by yourself for so long and having one hour, maybe one hour a day, to leave.

Charles Hopkins: Yeah. And I know when I left prison in 2019, when I got a physical, when I finally got – And medical’s another issue – When I finally got a physical, I came to find out I had hepatitis B, I had high blood pressure, I had cholesterol, I had diabetes. Now, mind you, I’m in good physical shape, I’m always running in the yard, but it was only then that I was made aware of these things when I got out. And the other part of this debauchery when it comes to food is a lot of prisoners have actually died in prison. But let’s look at, take us to society when a prisoner comes out. How much does it cost when a prisoner comes out to help him or her to resolve these health problems that they acquired while they were in prison? Have y’all looked at that?

Kanav Kathuria: Yeah. That’s a great question. And I think the answer is we don’t know. I think we as a society don’t know what the health impacts of this are. So I think one thing that we talk about a lot is that it’s the same neighborhoods in Baltimore, for example, that are hyper incarcerated that also exist under food apartheid. So the same people who are denied access to fresh, wholesome, nutritious foods on the outside are being cycled between these spaces, between prisons and their home neighborhoods. So food in both cases is used as this form of oppression. It extends far beyond the wall.

So when people are coming home to, as we know, just a deeply oppressive healthcare system, too, we don’t know what the toll really is on people’s bodies and minds, and on caregivers. The average length of incarceration in Maryland is about seven years. And studies show that even one year or two years of being incarcerated takes away a certain amount of time from your life expectancy. So people, again, are being cycled through both these spaces, we don’t know what the true impact of the violence of prison food or the violence of eating under food apartheid really is, but the two systems work in conjunction to really deprive someone of their, again, their mental health, their physical health, and their emotional and spiritual health, too.

Charles Hopkins: Thank you. As we close, what’s your last words on this? And give us your information how people can contact you and some of the things y’all got coming up.

Kanav Kathuria: Yeah. So I think just to close, I think now that the issue of prison food is kind of gaining more momentum on a national scale, I just want to be very clear, as we’ve been talking this whole time too, is that there’s really no such thing as a humane eating environment on the inside. That the only way to really ensure that a person remains healthy is to not incarcerate them in the first place, and for folks who are on the inside to decarcerate. So what we’re really trying to do is mitigate the inhumane or the dehumanizing conditions of eating on the inside while building power on the outside. Especially looking at urban farms working towards Black food sovereignty, such as Black Yield Institute. So yeah, I just kind of wanted to center that. And for folks who want to get in touch, hit us up. Our website is Instagram is @foodandabolition. Or if you want to send us an email, just [email protected] as well.

Charles Hopkins: And there we have the real news about inhumanity as it relates to food. Thank you Kanav for joining us at Rattling the Bars, and we look forward to your good works and continued work in this area. Thank you very much.