May 9, 2024


Hungry and Malnourished in Prison: our new report is live
We are proud to share our new report on food service in Pennsylvania state prisons, the product of our year-long research project.

We are proud to share our new report on food service in Pennsylvania state prisons, the product of our year-long research project. We found that meals in state prisons do not meet the nutritional needs of incarcerated people, leading to widespread hunger behind bars.

“Food in prison is more than just a meal–it has major implications for health, safety, and rehabilitation,” said the Prison Society’s executive director, Claire Shubik-Richards. 

“The information in this report is an important first step toward changing the culture of prison food in Pennsylvania. We are encouraged that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has already begun to take action based on these findings,” Claire added.

The findings in the new report, “Hungry and Malnourished in Prison: Food Service in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections,” include:

  • Food served in state prisons leaves incarcerated people hungry. Meals do not provide enough calories to meet incarcerated people’s needs, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), the nutritional benchmarks that guide U.S. government policy. In a new survey of people in Pennsylvania state prisons, 80% of men and 70% of women reported being hungry every day between meals.

“The food is always cold and the servings are so small sometimes I go hungry all day,” wrote an incarcerated man at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Greene.

  • Menus likely contribute to diet-related illnesses. They contain twice the recommended amount of starchy vegetables and refined carbohydrates and half the fruit and vegetable servings recommended by the DGAs, exacerbating disease risk for a population disproportionately affected by chronic illnesses.  

“There are way too many carbohydrates on trays, there should [be] less fillers and more good quality food,” said an incarcerated woman at SCI Muncy.

  • Hunger forces incarcerated people to buy expensive junk food from the prison commissary. Seventy percent of incarcerated people surveyed said they rely on commissary items, such as instant ramen, honey buns, and potato chips, to get enough to eat. These foods are high in sodium, added sugar, and refined carbohydrates, adding to the risk of chronic diseases. 

“​​If you can't afford or are unable to buy commissary you'll be severely hungry,” reported an incarcerated person at SCI Forest.

After the Prison Society shared the results of the evaluation with the DOC in February 2024, the department promptly developed new menus that increased calories and addressed deficiencies in fiber. More improvement is needed, however, as the new menus still leave most of the nutritional deficiencies unaddressed. The cooperation of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was essential to this work, and the Prison Society continues to work constructively with the DOC to improve food service. 

The report recommends steps the DOC should take to address hunger and nutrition, including increasing calories, providing more fresh fruits and vegetables, adjusting meal times, reopening prison dining halls, and a number of other changes to food service practices and policies.

The Prison Society worked with a registered dietician to conduct the research, which included a nutritional analysis of state prison menus, interviews with food service staff, tours of kitchens, and a survey of incarcerated people distributed in all 23 state prisons.

"’Prison food’ has become shorthand for ‘inedible’ in popular culture," said Noah Barth, the Prison Society’s prison monitoring director. "But for incarcerated people, it has a real impact on their health, safety, and dignity. This report is the culmination of a year's worth of effort, most significantly by the incarcerated men and women of Pennsylvania who shared their experiences and knowledge with us."

An unhealthy prison diet contributes to disproportionate rates of chronic disease behind bars. Incarcerated people are one-and-a-half times more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma than the general population, and 40% more likely to have any chronic illness. The Pennsylvania DOC plans to spend $358 million on medical care this fiscal year, while it spends only a fraction of that amount, $70 million, on food. Given the role of food in promoting health and preventing chronic disease, investing more in healthy, nutritious food could bring significant savings on one of the department’s largest expense categories.

In addition, food is important to maintaining a safe prison environment. When meals don't meet the nutritional and energy needs of incarcerated people, it may contribute to disorder, conflict, and violence in prison. Scientific research on hunger has found that it can make people more impulsive, irritable, aggressive, anxious, and likely to use drugs.

“We will continue to partner with the Department of Corrections to ensure that people in custody have access to enough fresh, nutritious food,” Claire said.

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