Bad Prison Food Is More Than a Punchline

The quality of food in prisons and jails across the country is notoriously poor. What happens when there is an incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding incarcerated people?

Breakfast at Etowah County Jail.

Across Alabama, sheriffs contend that a state law authorizing them to “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails allows them to take any money they don’t spend on food as personal income. This dubious interpretation of state law has been clearly rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it only for official purposes. Despite this, the practice continues. In January, SCHR – along with Alabama Appleseed – sued 49 sheriffs who refuse to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from money allocated for feeding people in their jails.

It’s long been understood that food served in correctional facilities across the United States is far from gourmet. Incarceration has a “gastronomic dimension,” and unappetizing food is often seen as part and parcel of the punishment incarcerated people are meant to receive. But bad prison food is more than just a punchline.

According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incarcerated people are 6.4 times more likely to contract a food-related illness than the general population. SCHR receives countless letters from people incarcerated in Alabama, detailing the meager and/or inedible meals served to them.

A new article by AL.com’s Connor Sheets highlights the gravity of the situation at Etowah County Jail, a facility which has come under scrutiny after it was revealed that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin (one of the 49 sheriffs being sued by SCHR and Alabama Appleseed) kept hundreds of thousands of dollars meant to feed people incarcerated at his jail. Entrekin has pocketed well over $750,000 from the food money account over the past 3 years.

Not Fit for Human Consumption

Benjamin Hunter was incarcerated at Etowah County Jail for roughly a year. During his time there, he frequently handled boxes of food headed for the jail kitchen. Hunter tells AL.com:

“The meat patties they feed you and call it either chicken or Salisbury steak or whatever, it’s literally for dog food. We called them starfish patties because they look more like a starfish than anything. They literally said in bold red letters plain as day on the top, bottom and sides of the box, ‘Not Fit For Human Consumption.'”

Hunter also told AL.com that he frequently handled visibly rotten chicken that was donated to the jail. “I helped load these boxes of chicken that was culled because of tumors and abscesses and deformities or it was past its time to be shipped,” he said.

As Sheets reports, those who can afford it supplement (or replace) their meals with food items purchased from the jail commissary. Those who can’t afford it face extreme hunger, food-borne illnesses, or both.

The impacts of malnutrition and starvation go beyond the physical. According to Hunter,

“Every ‘riot’ I’ve seen was because of some bulls**t they fed us. Every single one I’ve seen was because of the food. It’s not like a violent prison riot or nothing. Everybody just starts raising hell and screaming and hollering.”

Chris Bush, who had worked in the jail’s kitchen for several months, also told AL.com that once, while in lock-down, one man attempted suicide to draw attention to the fact that they weren’t getting enough food. The guards responded by bringing each man in the lock-down unit two cookies, a cup of juice, and half a peanut butter sandwich. After 3 nights, the extra food stopped coming. Hunter corroborated that during the course of his incarceration there were a number of suicide attempts in response to the dire food issues. “If they were feeding everyone enough,” Hunter said, “you wouldn’t be waking up in the middle of the night thinking your throat’s been cut because the hunger pains are so bad.”

This isn’t the first time that substandard jail food has led to unrest. In May of last year, seven inmates at Alabama’s Marshall County Jail rioted in response to the food being served at the facilities. Incarcerated people in multiple states have organized protests against Aramark, a corporation with food service contracts in correctional facilities across the country.

“Access to enough nutritious food is a human right. When sheriffs have an incentive to spend as little money as possible on feeding people in their jails, it leads to appalling deprivations like those reported by detainees at the Etowah County Jail. When officials across the state are profiting off the starvation of people in their custody, the public has a right to know, and a duty to put a stop to it,” said SCHR attorney Aaron Littman.

Read more about our lawsuit here.

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