We are proud to announce a new project working to improve food quality in Pennsylvania state prisons.
We’ve been paying close attention to this issue since our survey on food service in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections facilities found that portions have gotten smaller, meals aren’t served at the proper temperature, and rotten food frequently ends up on trays.
Prison food matters. Taxpayers foot the bill for the unintended consequences.
The notion that prison food is meant to be disgusting is deeply ingrained in our culture. A prison sentence is a punishment, the reasoning goes, and the food should reflect that. But even for those who don’t believe incarcerated people deserve the basic human dignity of having access to decent, nutritious food, there are good reasons to support a culture change.
For starters, prison food is making incarcerated people sicker, costing taxpayers more money. The Pennsylvania DOC plans to spend $365 million on medical care in the coming fiscal year–about 12 percent of its overall budget. Elevated rates of acute and chronic illness contribute to the bill. A CDC study found that incarcerated people contract foodborne illnesses at over six times the rate of the general population. An unhealthy diet can also lead to long-term health problems. People confined to prisons are one-and-a-half times as likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma.
“I entered county jail 134 pounds, fit and healthy,” commented one formerly incarcerated person. “I was 206 pounds ten months later in prison, and I had high blood pressure for the first and only time in my life.”
Incarceration may continue to take a toll on health years after release. One study found that formerly incarcerated people were 60 percent more likely to develop high blood pressure in young adulthood.
“I had a heart attack and a triple bypass 17 months after release, and I was one of the fortunate ones to have made it and to recover,” another formerly incarcerated person said. “There was a direct correlation with the 23 years of poor diet I had while incarcerated–a prison sentence can turn into a death sentence for many.”
Poor Families Foot the Bill Too
Inadequate nutrition in prisons also adds to the financial burden borne by incarcerated people and their families. Nearly three-quarters of the incarcerated people who responded to our survey on food in DOC prisons reported spending more on food from the prison commissary to supplement their diets as the quality of meals declined. Incarcerated people make such low wages that the extra expense often falls to their families. It adds to the hundreds of dollars a month these typically low-income families pay on phone calls, prison visits, clothing, and other support for their incarcerated loved ones.
Making a Change
The Prison Society is working with a dietician to review policies, menus, and Department of Corrections kitchens. We are interviewing procurement and kitchen staff, and incarcerated people who receive department food. Our goal is to provide the department with the multi-perspective analysis needed to provide real nutrition and sustenance to the 37,000 people in its care.