Should edible food be a human right?

In prison, the food is so bad, inmates eat it only to live

The coronavirus has made prison food even more gross (photo credit: The Marshall Project).

By Pam Bailey

For most people, a high point of the winter holidays — actually, of life in general — is food. Think about it: So much of the way we socialize, mark special occasions and even comfort ourselves is centered on food. There’s a reason why certain dishes are called “comfort food,” after all.

But in jail and prison, says Anthony “Pete” Petty, “we basically eat to live. The food is that bad, both in taste and nutrition.”

Pete in the DC jail

Today, Pete walks free for the first time in 30 years; imprisoned since he was 16, he was granted reprieve by DC’s leadership law, the Incarceration Reduction Amendment act. One of the things he most looks forward to is his sister’s home cooking. What’s at the top of his request list? “Fish and chips,” he says immediately. “Or….wait, the meal I really want is breakfast. I want pancakes, real maple syrup, scrambled eggs with cheese and some turkey bacon, and some fresh orange juice. That’s what I want right there.” (Pete is starting from scratch to build a new life. Want to help set him up for success and happiness? Contribute to our “Help Pete Start a New Life” fund!)

Sure, pancakes are served in prison. “But they aren’t ‘real,” Pete tries to explain. “I don’t know what they do to them; they probably come in a box or something. Plus, they’re served cold.” (And forget real maple syrup, honey or anything else along those lines. Thinking they can be used to be distilled down into alcohol, they are banned in prison. The same applies to fresh fruit.)

Pete’s complaints are not just a spoiled “whine.” Impact Justice just released a reported titled, “Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison,” documenting that food behind bars is not just a quality-of-life issue, but also a serious contributor to ill health. According to the report, food in prisons and jails are “typically high in salt, sugar and refined carbohydrates and low in essential nutrients — a diet that for decades everyone else has been advised to avoid…The consequences of these prison practices are clear. Research shows that just one month of unhealthy meals can result in long-term rises in cholesterol and body fat, increasing the risk of diet-related diseases. A recent report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that incarcerated people suffer from higher rates of diabetes and heart disease than the general public, conditions caused or at minimum exacerbated by the typical prison diet. A poor diet also suppresses the immune system, making incarcerated people even more vulnerable to viruses such as COVID-19 and other contagions.”

Pete is a “food victim” himself. “The majority of people in prison in America are African American and we are prone to high blood pressure, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol. Even me, I got high cholesterol and I work out all the time.”

One contributor to what amounts to a violation of a basic human right is both a lack of funds and simple lack of regard for the incarcerated masses (almost 2.3 million people). According to Impact Justice, most states now spend under $3 a day on food per incarcerated person and as little as $1.02 in one state. The result: “fewer hot meals, smaller portions, lower-quality protein and more ultra-processed foods that can be quickly heated and served.”

Michael Griffen, who also has spent more than 30 years behind bars, mostly on Florida’s death row, writes, “They’re not spending the amount of $ allocated by the state legislature to feed us. Our food portions are half of what they are supposed to be. They’re purposely leaving out basic ingredients from specific meals just to cut costs, which is in violation of the state-certified menu. Quite often, there are empty sections on our food trays, sometimes more. Now, [during the COVID-induced] lockdown, we have three empty food sections on our food trays. We’re getting just bologna and noodles every day. Even when we get meat, it’s almost raw, so they can cut down the time it takes to prepare our food. We receive our beans that way, semi hard, for the same reason. Oh, and our potatoes are always rotten; they buy them that way deliberately, at a fraction of the cost. And get this: Our food is NEVER HOT. I MEAN NEVER! NOT EVEN WARM. That’s because they don’t wanna fix the portable food carts that have to be plugged into an outlet to heat up the trays.”

Michael isn’t just speculating about the food being rotten. The Impact Justice report says, “Three out of four formerly incarcerated people we surveyed reported receiving trays with spoiled food (e.g., moldy bread, sour milk, rotten meat, slimy bagged salad mix, and canned or packaged products years past their expiration date).”

The report adds that formerly incarcerated people report that prison kitchens often lack even soap and hot water, with roaches crawling out of the drains and rats scurrying across the floor. “It’s no surprise that incarcerated people are six times more likely than the general public to become sickened by foodborne illness,” it notes.

Pete reports the same deficiencies in the federal prison system: “We get grade-F type of meat. We get the scraps and stuff like that. And the food is not cooked real good. They don’t care about taste, quality or health. They only pay attention to calories, what you need to live in terms of calories.”

According to Impact Justice, fresh fruits and vegetables — central to a healthy diet rich in nutrients and fiber — are “exceedingly rare in prison.” Most prisons now rely on refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, biscuits and cake) to reach the mandated calorie count, and many rely on fortified powdered beverage mixes as the primary source of essential nutrients.

Sure, vitamins are sold in prison commissaries, but items in the prison store are expensive for inmates (who mostly rely on families who already struggle with low incomes to deposit into their accounts).

Impact Justice cites this statistic: “Three in five formerly incarcerated people we surveyed said they could not afford commissary purchases, and many people are forced to choose between buying food and purchasing necessities such as toothpaste or making costly phone calls to loved ones. We heard stories about people going to great lengths, including engaging in gang activity or sexual relationships, to gain access to commissary food because they were so hungry. We also learned that food inequities in prison mirror those on the outside, with people from low-income backgrounds (often people of color) less likely to have the finances to afford commissary items.”

Michael explains further just how hard it can be to afford to buy from the commissary, especially long-termers like him, who often don’t have family members still willing or able to send money in: “If you have the $, you can blow $50 a week in the blink of an eye. Most of the prices are high, and even with buying the cheaper items, I barely make it on $25 per week. And that’s only because I don’t buy hot food or vitamins, which are sky high. Oh, and forget ‘comfort’ habits like chewing tobacco, coffee, bag candy or juice packs. A single-serve coffee pack is 14¢ each. And two cans of tobacco cost $11. Luckily, never developed those habits. Just to give you an idea, if I bought all that stuff I just mentioned, it would run up to $100 in one weekly order.”

Still, being able to buy even the very limited (and equally unhealthy) items from the commissary can make the difference between food that is palatable and a decision to simply skip the food tray and go hungry (or “hangry,” as some inmates say — a cross between hungry and angry).

“What I do is buy a lot of condiments, like hot sauce, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing or siracha sauce, things like that just to season the food to make it taste better,” says Pete.

With deprivation comes amazing creativity. Delonta Williams, a D.C. friend now in a federal prison in Louisiana, says he mixes unsweetened coffee creamer with Koolaid to make a kind of dough, then rolls it into a ball and kneads it until it is like taffy.

Michael adds his own ideas: “We’ve come up with and mixed every concoction known to man back here on the row. I’ve mixed tiny packs of POM juice with creamer and then let it sit for about 10 minutes, or in front of a fan. We’ve made fruit roll-ups that way. Oh, and have you ever heard of pies or pastries made with Ramen noodles as a base ingredient? We add different types of cookie dust. This is how we do it: We take cookies and pulverize them, then do the same with the Ramen noodles. We make it all stick together with chocolate or vanilla pudding cups. We can also make all types of icing out of hot cocoa mix, chocolate pudding, candy bars or M&Ms, creamer, milk, butter, (synthetic) pancake syrup, etc. I can make three different types of pies that are so good, you’d think they were made in a bakery. I’m really sharp with the taste and artistry of my icings. I’ve even melted down lemon drops and mixed them into a lemon-flavored icing. I’ve become known for that. Once, I told the guys to send me the canned pineapple on their dinner trays. I crushed them up in a bowl and melted down some cherry-flavored candy, then added some pancake syrup to get a sticky consistency and a pink lemonade powder and BAM! That pineapple/lemonade topping was talked about all up and down the wing and outside on the yard.”

Their own ingenuity is all inmates have. People on the outside aren’t allowed to help. Michael recounts this: “When I first got here, we had this church group who came to visit us the first week of December to give us a Christmas bag of food and candy and a soda. But last year, the prison told them they could no longer bring us purchased food items/candy from the free world, and that they now have to buy the stuff from the prison canteen. Well, that is Fucked Up! I normally don’t use profanity but that’s the best way to describe it. Fucked Up! They just force those good people to buy from the prison canteen.”

This holiday season, savor the real turkey, fresh cranberries and fresh green beans on your table. Consider donating money to an inmate’s commissary account. (Want to give to Michael? I had been depositing monthly, but now have had to stop that due to my own, COVID-induced unemployment. If you’d like to help, email me at And write to your senator and representative to demand that the BOP follow the lead of the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, Maine, where onsite gardens and a seven-acre apple orchard provide fresh produce that goes directly to the facility kitchen for use in meals. (Facility food service manager Mark McBrine has established partnerships with local producers to source high-quality meat, dairy and whole-grain flour, as well as more fresh vegetables — a win-win for the prison and the local farming economy.) It can be done; where there is a will there is a way.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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