Is Good Food a Human Right for Prisoners?

Recent cases of prisons serving meals with maggots, green bologna, and pet food–quality meat spark a debate over whether inmates should be eating better.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Jul 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Convicted criminals are well aware that when they go to prison, they’re not checking into a luxurious resort complete with restaurant-quality meals. Nor should they be—it’s prison. But maggots on inmates’ trays? You bet.

Since January, at least five appearances by maggots in food or in the kitchen have been reported in Ohio prisons, according to the records of food service operator Aramark Correctional Services. Other problems include chow halls running out of food, employees not showing up for work, and prisoners nearly rioting in response to the subpar meals.

With prison cafeterias’ blotted quality-control history—including recent cases of prisoners being served expired bologna and live maggots—some prisoner advocates say there should be a baseline standard for the food served behind bars, similar to the nutritional standards guiding food service in public schools.

“Everyone should have the right to decent food—adequate, nutritious food,” says Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, an independent publication of the Human Rights Defense Center. “It’s not just that the [prison] food is bad, which generally it is. Food is used as a punitive measure.”

Friedmann knows about this firsthand. From 1987 to 1999, he served a total of 10 years in Tennessee state and county jails for armed robbery, assault with attempt to commit murder, and attempted aggravated robbery. While incarcerated, he saw the stereotypically abysmal trays of overboiled vegetables, mystery meat, white bread, and soda, but he also saw food being leveraged as further punishment by prison officials. For instance, inmates were occasionally served “food loaf,” which contains an entire tray of food—meat, dessert, bread, vegetables—mashed together and baked.

“It’s a terrible, awful thing, and they serve it,” he says.

Exceptions exist. Many prisons offer alternative menus for inmates with special dietary preferences, including vegetarians and those who require kosher or halal foods.

But in other systems, chow-hall conditions have gotten worse over the years. A number of prisons now only feed inmates twice a day. In Phoenix, Sheriff Joe Arpaio is proud of the terrible and unsafe food he serves the prisoners in his Maricopa County Tent Jails, bragging about the “green bologna” he makes them eat. There are no fresh vegetables in any prison. Fresh fruit is scarce because officials are afraid of inmates fermenting it into alcohol, Friedmann says.

As Prison Legal News reported earlier this year, few prisons accommodate food allergies, a reality that can have devastating effects. In July 2012 in Washington state, minor drug offender Michael Saffioti, who had a severe dairy allergy, received no medical attention after eating cross-contaminated oatmeal and died alone in his cell.

To Friedmann, being incarcerated is punishment enough; being served bad or unsafe food is unfairly punitive, similar to hard labor or solitary confinement.

Cheap, low-quality prison food may even contribute to bad behavior. University of Oxford nutrition and criminology researcher Bernard Gesch found that young prisoners who were given a nutritional vitamin daily had significantly fewer violent incidents behind bars, suggesting that improving inmates’ diets could help rehabilitate prisoners more quickly.

Issues surrounding food are magnified in prison, Friedmann says, because meals are more important to those who are incarcerated than to those in the general population. With many serving decades to life, food is one of the few things prisoners have to look forward to.

“Loss of good food is a bigger deal than the loss of sex,” says Friedmann, who worked in the kitchen at one of the prisons where he was housed. “You start fantasizing and dreaming about the food you’re going to eat when you get out.”

The Human Rights Defense Center offers its legal services to prisoners who feel their rights have been violated. Because prisoners’ rights apply only to food, not good food, Friedmann says inmates have little legal recourse when served low-quality meals. Change will need to be enacted voluntarily by the heads of private correctional facilities or laws altered at the state level, he says, but prisons’ need to keep costs low—Arpaio’s meals cost around 56 cents per inmate—will keep quality low as well.

Still, he adds, 95 percent of those who are incarcerated will one day be released, so how they are treated behind bars—including what they are fed—may affect the rest of us after all.

“They will be your neighbors once they are released,” Friedmann says. “What kind of people do we want coming back to our communities?”