The Surprising Benefits of Serving Prisoners Better Food

Mother Jones

By Madison Pauly

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.”

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.

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