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Eating Behind Bars: Food as Punishment in Prisons

By Elinor Behlman


This week’s Health and Wellness Blog is inspired by Anabel's first event of the semester in collaboration with Prisoner Express. If you are interested in volunteering for Prisoner Express, I encourage you to check out this link or stop by the Durland Alternatives Library next door any time.


Prisons are an essential front in the fight for food justice. Today, the United States incarcerates more people than nearly any other nation. Nearly 2 million people live in prisons, jails, and detention centers, where food is often lacking in essential nutrients, indigestible, or absent altogether. The United States’ modern prison system began after the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” legalizing a new form of slavery in the convict lease system. Over the past century and a half, white politicians continued to expand prisons, even when crime rates fell. As Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow, “The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.” It is in this context that one must face hunger in America’s prisons.


In 2020, the Impact Justice Institute published a first-of-its-kind report on the scale of starvation in prisons called Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison. The researchers investigated both the quality and the consequences of prison food through surveying formerly incarcerated people as well as prisoners’ families. Overall, 94% of formerly incarcerated respondents said they did not have access to enough food to feel full. Most reported a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables and nearly all found the food to be unappetizing. Some reported not eating for extended periods due to the lack of digestible food.


This food scarcity can cause devastating ripple effects. Poor nutrition is linked to a decreased capacity to fight disease, which is especially dangerous in prisons’ often overcrowded conditions. Malnourishment has been shown to worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety. As an anonymous, formerly incarcerated survey respondent put it, “The food there was designed to slowly break your body and mind.” Starving inmates is a way to divide and isolate people, to attempt to dehumanize them, and to impede rehabilitation.


Activists, including many who were once incarcerated, are currently lobbying the government for more nutritious and humane food as part of the fight against mass incarceration. Click here to learn more about the prison industrial complex and what we can do to end it.


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