A new Prison Society survey finds that a majority of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons are dissatisfied with the shift to in-cell dining, a COVID-19 mitigation measure that the Department of Corrections is considering making permanent. It also uncovers widespread problems with prison food since dining halls were closed at the beginning of the pandemic and meals began to be delivered to the housing units of people in custody.
“It's as if we are being treated as animals contained in a stall,” a man in State Correctional Institution (SCI) Phoenix wrote. “The current practice has the feel of being in solitary confinement.”
Reports suggest the DOC is violating its own food safety policy
Survey respondents reported a number of serious issues with prison food services. Dishes that are supposed to be hot are often cold by the time they arrive. Portions get jumbled together in transit, resulting in mish-mashes like “pizza completely soaked in red beet juice.” Meals are smaller than before and frequently include rotten fruits and vegetables.
“At best the food is room temperature,” said a man in SCI Albion, and “everything is soggy.”
Overall, 73 percent of respondents reported receiving fewer hot meals; 74 percent were served rotten fruits, vegetables, or other food in the last month; and 72 percent said portions were smaller compared to before the pandemic. The failure to keep food at the proper serving temperature appears to violate the DOC’s own food safety policy specifying that hot meals be maintained at a temperature of 140°F or above until served.
The DOC remains non-committal about reopening dining halls
Closing prison dining halls was one of the first steps the department took to maintain social distancing and mitigate COVID-19. While this was a smart measure to slow the spread of the coronavirus behind bars, the DOC’s leadership indicated last year that it was looking to adopt meal delivery as the new standard even after the pandemic faded.
“Frankly we intend to keep that forever, other than a couple old prisons,” the secretary of corrections at the time, John Wetzel, said while testifying before the state legislature in March 2021. Wetzel also said that incarcerated people preferred having their meals delivered overeating in dining halls.
When Wetzel made these statements, the Prison Society had already received a flurry of complaints about meal delivery during the pandemic, which prompted the new survey effort. The results show that the DOC was mistaken about the dining preference of people in custody and provide more evidence of issues with food quality since the shift to meal delivery. Sixty-two percent of the 429 people who completed the surveys from all 23 SCIs operated by the Department of Corrections said they preferred eating in prison dining halls.
The surveys were completed between April and August of 2021. During that time, the DOC acquired new, insulated food trays and carts which may have helped mitigate some of the problems with food temperature and mixing. But surveys that came in after the new equipment was deployed continued to testify to those problems.
Two years since the pandemic began, meals are still being delivered to incarcerated people in the relative isolation of their cells or housing units, and the DOC continues to weigh whether to keep prison dining halls closed permanently. The Prison Society shared the results of the survey with the department, and its position has evolved since Wetzel’s comments last year. In conversations with the Prison Society, the new acting secretary of corrections, George Little, has acknowledged the importance of dining halls as a social outlet and the fundamental human desire to share a meal with one another. Little also gave recent testimony before the legislature indicating more of a willingness to reinstate "mainline” food service in dining halls. Still, the DOC has yet to make an unequivocal commitment to reopening the dining halls.
While other state departments of correction have limited the use of dining halls to mitigate the spread of COVID, the Prison Society is not aware of any other state that intends to keep them closed beyond the pandemic.
Feedback from the minority of survey respondents who said they preferred eating in their cells or housing units pointed to problems with the group dining experience in prisons that the DOC could address. They said that meals in the dining hall can be stressful and chaotic, that they are not given enough time to eat, and fights sometimes break out.
In light of the survey findings, the Prison Society calls on the DOC to:
The Prison Society’s full report on the survey is available HERE.
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