In the midst of all that was horrible and strange in 2020, a disturbing story about a court case in New York’s Montgomery County got lost in the shuffle. In July of that year, local news outlets reported that the county jail had reached a $1 million class-action settlement with its inmates, who had alleged that the food provided to them was so meager and nutrient-poor that it constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The jail had been providing no more than seventeen hundred calories a day, sometimes fewer—an amount far below what the FDA recommends for adult men. According to the testimony submitted to the court, those with medical or religious dietary restrictions received no substitutions for items they were unable to eat, paring the insufficient rations down even further. Men recalled their hair falling out, their gums bleeding, their teeth coming loose at the root—all symptoms of serious nutritional deficiency. One man reportedly lost so much weight that he was no longer able to use his prosthetic leg because it had become too large for him. Perry Hill, a plaintiff in the case, recounted that the hunger sometimes became so intolerable that he resorted to consuming lotion and toothpaste just to put something in his empty stomach. “As a direct and proximate result of starving for nearly five months,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in their complaint, “plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer physical and psychological pain, humiliation . . . and mental anguish.”
To conservatives and liberals who still view punishment as the proper outcome of the legal system, the matter of prison food might seem irrelevant: of course it’s bad. That’s the whole point. To others, meanwhile, the discussion might appear to be a misallocation of limited attention and resources: Given all that is cruel, all that is unjust, all that is wrong with mass incarceration, why talk about lunches? As the Montgomery County case demonstrates, a decades-long decline in prison food’s quantity and quality has reached crisis levels, exacerbating America’s race and class health disparities—all with little to no ameliorative action from the government. Quite the opposite, in fact: it is precisely because food may be seen as trivial that lawmakers have been able to exploit it as a Trojan horse for the steady rollback of prisoners’ rights across the board.
Despite the dismissal of prison meals as a trifling concern, they are enormously consequential. For incarcerated people, the lack of control over what they eat is an infantilizing cruelty with which they are confronted multiple times a day. Given the deep and complex connections between identity—religious, ethnic, familial—and food, the inability to make dietary choices while in prison also means losing a key way of expressing one’s sense of self and maintaining connections with the outside world.
As well as diminished control over what they eat, incarcerated people also lose control over when they eat. Learning to suppress your needs and desires in deference to the will of authority is a fundamental part of acculturation into any environment where your time, movements, and thoughts are not fully your own, and in a carceral setting, this is taken to an extreme—“dinners” served in the afternoon and breakfasts as punishingly early as three or four in the morning. As a result, each new arrival must recalibrate their bodily clock in order to survive, learning to endure the unnatural schedule and the long, hungry stretches between meals. In the process, write Gill Valentine and Beth Longstaff in their 1998 study of British male prisons, “the prison regime . . . [is] inscribed upon the bodies of the inmates.” In its way, this process is a microcosm of what one might expect of prison life as a whole: indignity, unfreedom, and cultural deracination.
But the topic of prison food also hits upon a central discomfort at the heart of conservatives’ views on imprisonment: it puts them in the awkward position of having to provide necessities to people whom they would much rather see go without. The notion of prison as a place where anyone is guaranteed “three square meals a day and a roof over your head” has long played into broader paranoia that incarceration incentivizes crime by virtue of the meager necessities they provide. In the 1820s, physician James Mease advocated floggings and capital punishment instead of prison sentences for precisely this reason, claiming that in Pennsylvania crime spiked in the winter because the poor were enticed by the promise of hot food in jail. More recently, a sensational 1994 New York Times story reported on a man who supposedly shuttled between the free meals he got by dining-and-dashing and those he received from his resulting prison stints. “It costs taxpayers $162 a day,” the reporter harrumphed, “to feed, clothe and house Mr. Mahes at Rikers Island.”
While there is grim research to suggest that some unhoused people do indeed feel their only means of securing stable food and housing is to get arrested, it’s important to note that, by and large, American mainstream news outlets wheel out these tropes not to criticize the cruelty of the system but to sharpen it. A 2012 CBS story about a man so desperate to get off the street that he threw a brick through a courthouse door had no space to consider the grinding brutality of homelessness in the United States; instead, the emotional center of the story was the poor district attorneys who must “weigh whether to devote scarce resources to prosecuting a lower-level offense [against] the burden that comes with upholding the law and deterring others from breaking it.”
As tough-on-crime policies caused incarceration rates to balloon in the 1990s, taking prison budgets with them, lawmakers responded not by reducing the numbers of guards or walking back their carceral approach but by taking aim at perceived “indulgences” like food. Across the United States, prisons shaved down the number of daily meals on offer from three to two, and massive for-profit catering contractors like Aramark started muscling their way into more and more prison kitchens (as of 2017, they have over five hundred correctional contracts nationwide). In keeping with broader austerity trends outside, costs have been increasingly offloaded to incarcerated people: so-called “pay-to-stay” systems, legal nearly everywhere in the country, allow prisons to charge massive fees for “room and board” (a report from the Brennan Center found daily rates as high as $142.42 in Riverside, California), while incarcerated people searching to supplement insufficient dining hall offerings have been hit with commissary price hikes. In Arizona’s Maricopa County, then-sheriff Joe Arpaio boasted about serving prisoners “the cheapest meal in the United States,” with a reported cost of as low as fifteen cents in 2008. His prisons even stopped providing salt and pepper, a move that the Arizona legislature’s website claims saves the state $20,000 each year.
As prisons across the United States strive to pare down spending on food, a new job has risen to prominence: prison dietitians, whose job it is to aid wardens’ race to the barest minimum of “nutritional” value. Chandra Bozelko, a journalist who covers prisons following her own experiences with incarceration, reports that she has seen “soups . . . thickened excessively with starch, and hot cereals loaded with margarine to increase their caloric value. A half cup might provide 10 percent of an inmate’s daily intake, but it’s still only a half cup of soup or cereal. Even inmates who have consumed three prison meals want to supplement their daily intake with more food.” Packs of instant ramen, Bozelko notes, have replaced cigarettes as currency in many prisons.
Trade publications portray people in prison as mendacious, sly, and constantly acting out for attention. One article lays out how to tell when prisoners are lying about allergies to avoid being served food they dislike; prisoners, the author claims, can be ceaseless manipulators who are not to be trusted when they report their medical history. Indeed, many states only “accept” allergies to certain foods, meaning that those with an “unapproved” allergy, however severe, must tough it out. Another describes stripping produce out of menu offerings in order to deprive prisoners of ingredients they might ferment into alcohol. A 2020 survey conducted by Impact Justice found that 62 percent of respondents reported rarely or never being served fresh vegetables while incarcerated, and 55 percent said the same of fresh fruit. The more one reads, the more it becomes clear: the professionals tasked with determining what will sustain prisoners—perhaps for the rest of their lives—view their charges not as patients to be cared for, nor even as customers to be served. They are, quite simply, the enemy.
What does a prison meal look like? Department of Corrections websites are not usually as forthcoming as Sheriff Arpaio; a glance at publicly available menus is likely to turn up a list of healthy, fresh-sounding options—a rosy image of salubriousness and variety that prisoners and advocates say rarely comports with reality. Lawsuits give a different idea: one suit brought by a Michigan man alleged that dining staff had deliberately and repeatedly given him food containing ingredients to which he was severely allergic. Another lawsuit from the same state arose after spoiled chicken tacos served by Aramark in 2012 left 250 men with food poisoning.
A review of CDC epidemiological data has shown that foodborne illness outbreaks disproportionately occur in carceral settings, a statistic which perhaps comes as no surprise when one considers the dearth of regulations that exist to protect prisoners from inedible or unsafe food. The rules set out by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in their Food Service Manual often contradict those given by the American Correctional Association, a private accreditation body for correctional institutions—yet both sets of guidelines reference each other, seemingly oblivious to their incoherence.
It’s therefore unclear, for example, whether a service worker who has been experiencing diarrhea or vomiting may be permitted to work in the kitchen (paid sick leave, it should be noted, is not guaranteed, incentivizing ill workers to go in anyway), or what training in food safety is required, or even how often prisoners must be fed. Amanda Chan and Anna Nathanson, organizers with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, detailed these and other systemic failings in an article outlining what they call the U.S. government’s “mass neglect of prison food.” When it comes to the question of where to look for clear federal guidelines on such matters, the authors search in vain:
To the FSM? To the National Academies? To the FDA? To the ACA itself, which is a private non-profit and not a governmental body? Nothing seems established except for a few scattered rules. . . . the BOP rules imply and point to a body of “established . . . codes” which does not exist.
Complaining, meanwhile, carries a high personal risk: a sociological study of prison food politics found that those who raised the issue with guards were typically met with responses ranging from indifference to retaliation, up to and including being transferred to higher-security facilities.
But even if extensive and clear federal regulations were in place, prisoners would still face an enormous uphill battle when it comes to ensuring that their rights are enforced. This is because of Clinton-era restrictions on prisoners’ access to the court system—measures in whose adoption discourse around food played a critical role.
In 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, conceived of as a way to quash what its supporters claimed was a flood of “abusive” suits from prisoners against their prisons. Puffed up with entitlement and with ample time on their hands, they were overwhelming the courts for their own amusement. Still on the books, the PLRA requires prisoners to exhaust every avenue of their facility’s grievance processes before they may bring suit, thereby seriously delaying if not outright blocking many potential claims from ever being heard by a judge. It also leaves prisoners on the hook for the filing fees associated with their case, no matter their financial situation. The result, predictably, was a precipitous drop in suits against prisons.
In the lead-up to the vote on the PLRA, food-related complaints, widely perceived as especially silly and undeserving, became the poster child of its sponsors’ cause. A list of the “top ten” most absurd prisoner lawsuits was read into the record that included a number of complaints about cafeteria peccadilloes: melted ice cream, smashed cake. One case in particular was the subject of ire: that of Kennith Parker, who allegedly sued after being given the wrong kind of peanut butter. From Bob Dole to Harry Reid, congressperson after congressperson trotted out the peanut butter story—the details, tellingly, changing slightly from telling to telling—and news outlets were likewise quick to run with it. The New York Times, for instance, referenced the peanut butter case in an article that decried the “sorry state of jailhouse jurisprudence” and said that “all but a handful” of prisoners’ claims are summarily dismissed, never considering the barriers and biases that may contribute to a high dismissal rate.
By leaning hard on the kinds of examples that call to mind a toddler pitching a fit over their dinner, the PLRA’s supporters were able to simultaneously portray the incarcerated as wasteful manipulators deserving of no sympathy and petulant children in need of the state’s strict discipline. The success of their campaign, meanwhile, has consequences that reach far beyond the domain of food—complaints related to every aspect of prison life, from health care access to abuse from guards, are now far more difficult to take to court, and prison management therefore has increasing latitude to act cruelly without fear of repercussions.
But just as popular tellings of the infamous McDonald’s coffee case—the public face of supposedly frivolous consumer litigation—cruelly distorted the facts, the reality of the iconic peanut butter case doesn’t match up with what supporters of the PLRA so breathlessly claimed it to be. What the plaintiff in the case was actually suing over was not the fact that he’d been given the wrong kind of peanut butter but that the prison was refusing to give him a refund after he returned the faulty order—in other words, they’d stolen his money. In fact, on closer scrutiny, a number of the “frivolous” lawsuits recounted in Congress don’t seem so frivolous at all: like Parker, many were suing because their possessions had been damaged, destroyed, or stolen by prison management. Other examples held up as objects of ridicule concerned the rights of queer prisoners, such a case revolving around the refusal of prison chaplains to perform same-sex marriages and two inmates whose requests to have gender-affirmation surgeries covered by prison health care were refused. If being grievously injured by guards is inadequate grounds for legal action, what, one might ask, would be considered meritorious?
Even if we assume that some of the sillier examples mentioned in Congress did, in fact, happen as described, it’s notable that those calling for tort reform always present these prisoner lawsuits as an idle pastime rather than as a means of earnest political expression—one of the few left available to those behind bars. After all, if the criminal legal system has harmed and is harming you, doesn’t gumming up the works, mocking the system, draining its time and its resources, become a form of protest about something much bigger than melted ice cream?
The irony here is that prison wardens in fact understand food’s relationship to power and politics very well—and regularly clamp down on access to food as a way of indirectly eroding other rights. When Arpaio gloated in 2014 that any prisoners who “disrespected the flag” would be given only bread and water, he was restricting not merely their diets but their political speech. And when guards threaten to cut off commissary access—the only way for prisoners to supplement the insufficient fare provided at mealtimes—for those who don’t fall in line, they are using hunger to quash the ability of prisoners to dissent and organize.
While the Montgomery County case is a shocking extreme, it is indicative of systemic, nationwide abuse: Impact Justice has documented routine hunger and malnourishment, spikes in diabetes and heart disease caused by poor diet, failure to accommodate medical dietary requirements, racial discrimination when it comes to portion size, and other conditions that are not only dehumanizing but dangerous to health. On the chow hall meal tray, among the Frito-Lay snack packs and the cup of pink “vitamin beverage” and the grayish slices of bologna purchased second-hand from military canteens, we see the intersection of so many pernicious themes that have come to characterize the modern prison-industrial complex: punitiveness, privatization, and the ruthless pursuit of the bottom line even at the expense of human suffering.