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Navigating the Complexities of Today’s Correctional Food Service
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 08/29/2016

Food Corrections professionals know that food matters—a lot. Consistently bad food is a fast track to inmate unrest and the security problems that come with it. It also spawns plenty of lawsuits, as officials in just about any state can attest. Pennsylvania, for example, has experienced federal civil rights lawsuits over the quantity and quality of food. Chicken contaminated with salmonella at a federal facility in 2011 produced hundreds of sick offenders and dozens of lawsuits. Aramark, a major food service contractor for many state prison systems, has been sued repeatedly, as have its competitors.

The first problem, of course, is budgets. On average, most facilities spend between $2 and $3 a day per inmate. Some states go above and beyond; the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is widely regarded as having one of the best food service operations in the nation. It has been recognized by both Vegetable Times Magazine and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for its menus, which always include a vegetarian protein alternative. It also monitors the trays returned by inmates and removes from the menu cycle items that consistently don’t get eaten. This quality comes at a cost, of course: Pennsylvania fed 51,000 offenders and staff at a cost of $61.8 million in 2014, compared to Florida’s budget of $62 million for 90,000 inmates. This is despite the fact that Pennsylvania, like most systems, relies heavily on inmate labor, typically compensated at rates from 19 to 42 cents per hour. In terms of food cost, Pennsylvania spent about $1.12 per meal in 2013 and 2014—significantly above the average.

Public perception is another challenge. As Jennifer Storm, a Pennsylvania victim’s advocate, told the Washington Times in early 2015, “Some victims want to see their offender suffer and see them receive the worst treatment possible. Then you are going to have victims who hope their offender is going to come into the institution to get well and come out a better person.” Generally speaking, selling the taxpayers on more money for inmate meals is a challenge, to say the least. This prejudice often extends to suppliers as well. A produce vendor, for example, who is faced with two pallets of product, one older and one fresher, will probably send the older one to a correctional facility. After all, they think, it’s just for “prison food.”

Yet public perceptions (sometimes reinforced by Hollywood) aside, food is not a punitive element. Granted, in some systems an offender who ends up in the special housing unit for disciplinary issue may receive meals that are different from (and less pleasant than) what’s being served in the dining hall, but food is a basic need and must be provided at an acceptable level of quality. Food that is practically inedible and produces widespread weight loss or even hunger strikes among inmates—and both have happened more than once—is likely to run afoul of the Eighth Amendment if challenged in court.

Some systems have outsourced their food service in hopes of containing costs. Naturally, outsourcing to private vendors is a sore subject for many interest groups; various prison privatization watchdogs and public employee unions such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have strongly criticized vendors such as Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group. In fairness, private contractors have had a spotty track record. For example, Aramark took over food service for the Michigan Department of Corrections in September 2013 under a three-year, $145 million contract that ended 18 months early after widespread complaints about food quality and quantity, sanitation, and employee misconduct. Michigan stated publicly that the contract termination, though a “mutual decision,” resulted from discrepancies between Aramark’s meal counts and the department’s tracking numbers. Those discrepancies were about a 4.5% variance yielding $200,000 per month in billing above the contract. Aramark was replaced by Trinity at a three-year cost of $158 million.

Containing costs also means meals that are rarely a dietician’s dream. Yes, menus must meet certain caloric and other content minimums, and again some systems go beyond the minimums—Pennsylvania uses the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics diabetic diet and provides about 2,500 calories per day. But minimums mean lots of simple carbohydrates and low-grade meats and little in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables. A reporter who followed the 2012 Federal Bureau of Prisons Certified Food Menu for one week found much of it barely palatable and noticed palpable effects on her energy levels and cognition. Indeed, a review of the menu for that week shows three slices of white bread at every single meal and some meals that seem rather slim, such as a lunch of sardines, potato chips, vegetable juice, two packets of salad dressing and two packets of mustard (though exactly what those accompany is uncertain) along with a fresh orange, a “kosher beverage,” and the inevitable three slices of bread.

Such menus mean lots of processed foods—a Kansas DOC spokesman in January 2015 unwittingly reinforced this fact when he explained to a journalist that “The food is so processed, there’s not really a food safety risk”—along with few leafy greens, whole grains, or heart-healthy fats and little fiber. Granted, no one proposes that inmates should have five-star meals, but the bottom line is that such diets lead to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other health concerns. Those healthcare costs in turn fall on the corrections system, and frankly healthcare is more expensive than, for example, Pennsylvania’s $1.12 meal cost.

As we discussed on this site in September 2013, large-scale prison agriculture is in most cases no longer cost-effective. In addition, there are other drawbacks, such as the increased opportunity for the introduction of contraband by inmate workers and the fact that agricultural experience is rarely helpful for post-release job placement. However, some systems are still using offender-maintained gardens, augmenting their menus with the outputs. Smaller-scale gardening avoids the need for extensive mechanization, which has been one significant challenge for large prison farms. It seems that any opportunity to introduce more variety and nutritional value into prison menus with little extra cost is worthy of consideration by corrections officials.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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