The Internet had a good collective laugh a few weeks ago after rapper Ja Rule quipped on a radio talk show that he planned to release a microwave cookbook inspired by his two-year sentence in federal prison. While he has since set the record straight, clarifying that he has no intention of writing the book, the attention sparked by his faux announcement makes clear that for many, disgusting prison food is great fodder for comedy. The #JaRulePrisonRecipes hash tag trended for a fleeting Twitter moment and then, as puns like “peanut butter and celly sandwiches” should, disappeared into the ether.
Ja Rule may have been kidding about the cookbook, but his time spent getting creative at the microwave just to avoid consuming the food in the prison cafeteria was real. And the genesis of the joke hints at an important story about food in American prisons and jails. Sustenance in these spaces has been the subject of numerous lawsuits, budget-trimming legislation, and horrific tales of correctional officers using food as currency or punishment. As the saying goes, you can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its weakest, most marginalized members. What about how it feeds them?
A few years ago, I taught a creative writing class at a women’s prison. The body of work generated by the class touched on every subject imaginable, but one woman’s anecdote about her relationship with prison food stuck with me. “A time limit is set on breakfast foods here,” she explained. “Every day I take a muffin from my friend because she doesn’t like them. Then I eat it secretly after 7:30 [a.m.] when breakfast hours are over.” This small act of dietary defiance was the highlight of her day, and she shared her transgression with the enthusiasm of someone describing an elaborate heist. In a place that regimented her every move, eating at the wrong time was a way for my student to momentarily reclaim her sense of autonomy.
While my student enjoyed her belated breakfast, most prison meals are notoriously horrific. A recent exhaustive look at the state of prison food in Prison Legal News explains the “choices” for those dining inside:
When confronted with jail or prison cuisine, prisoners have only three options: eating what is served or buying overpriced food items from the institutional canteen or commissary, assuming they have sufficient funds, or stealing prison food and preparing it themselves.
Prison food has always had an abysmal reputation, but the article notes that eating what is served has become increasingly problematic as more officials turn to privatization in an often misinformed attempt to save money. In reality, studies on the economic benefits of privatization have found that in some states, private prisons have ended up costing more than state-funded facilities.
For-profit prison providers have cashed in across the country as states have struggled to manage increasingly tight budgets. As this shift has occurred, health care, sanitation, and food quality have all suffered. The utter lack of oversight in private prisons, coupled with the perverse monetary incentive to warehouse as many prisoners as possible, has repeatedly proved to be a disastrous combination. Private food service providers such as Aramark have failed to meet food safety standards, resulting in food poisoning in Florida, increasingly scant portions in Indiana, and at one Kentucky prison, a riot in protest of food quality.
In a place where appealing (or even just tolerable) options are few and far between, it is unsurprising that food can be used as leverage. A particularly ugly example of this was revealed last month, when correctional officers at York County Prison in York, Pennsylvania were caught challenging prisoners to fight each other and passively succumb to physical blows from the officers in exchange for lounge food and coffee. “Lounge food” is food from the prison staff’s cafeteria. David Wright, the prisoner who provided a written statement about the experience, fought another prisoner and then allowed an officer to spray “pepper-foam” in his face—all for a little bit of higher-quality food.
Lawsuits addressing inhumane prison conditions generally evoke the Eighth Amendment, but those that challenge the quality of food consumed by prisoners rarely succeed. While the food may be unpalatable, courts have hesitated to call it cruel and unusual. The Supreme Court has noted that the Eighth Amendment must “draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
As our society has matured, the dialogue about what we eat has reflected the court's Eighth Amendment observation; we pay more attention to where our food comes from, the workers who grow and harvest it, and the chemicals and hormones we consume. Ja Rule’s would-be cookbook made for a funny joke, but perhaps it’s also an indication that it’s time to evolve. One out of every 100 American adults is behind bars—shouldn’t our sense of basic “decency” be extended to their tables?