By Chasity West
In prison, justice is served over mashed potatoes, pasta, rice, or between two slices of white bread. It might fill us up, but at what price for the incarcerated and at what cost to the public? Healthier meal choices in correctional facilities would not only improve the health of the imprisoned, but would ultimately be more cost-effective for taxpayers and create positive community relations.
Poor nutrition and obesity-related diseases are often among the privations that come with prison life. As a whole, non-incarcerated people neither know nor care what happens behind prison walls, and there seems to be even less awareness and concern about the health and nutrition of the imprisoned. However, since what a person eats can directly affect her health, and health has become a public concern, anyone who pays taxes should care about what correctional institutions are serving.
The primary objective of the Department of Corrections (D.O.C.) dietician is to meet the minimum daily caloric intake required to sustain a human being. Doing this cheaply is a paramount concern. This means procuring and producing large volumes of foodstuff at minimal cost. Cheap, easy-to-prepare meals generally consist of simple carbohydrates served alongside a processed meat product drowned in gelatinous gravy. And correctional institutions are smart when it comes to stretching a buck: larger slices of cornbread and bigger scoops of rice mean fewer vegetables. In the book, “A Woman Doing Life: Notes from a Prison for Women,” Erin George, a resident at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Virginia, makes a similar observation. She notes, “The staples of the prison meal are foods that fill you up but don’t substantially enhance your nutritional intake: watery, unpeeled boiled potatoes; gummy spaghetti noodles; rice the omnipresent bread... [and] unidentifiable meat known as the “patty": meatloaf patty, pork patty, chicken patty, or sausage patty. Vegetables are scarce and frequently range from merely aged to the obviously moldy. The same goes for the fruit” (88-9).
Oftentimes, the felon’s fare is so disagreeable that people will bypass the dining tables and make a beeline to the trash receptacle. In the same book, Robert Johnson, Professor of Justice, Law, and Society in the School of Public Affairs at American University observes: “The food is bland and starchy, measured in small portions and served in unappealing ways. In these days of cost cutting, prisons are becoming less hospitable by the day, sometimes serving food that is inedible by free world standards” (85). No one (not even the people who have to eat it) expects prison food to be overly appetizing, but it should be an identifiable member (or close relative of) one of the five food groups and contain more food than chemicals, fillers or byproducts. This way, we know not only what we are eating, but also what we are not.
In Connecticut prisons, hunks of cake are served for breakfast. Syrupy drinks fill Styrofoam cups at dinner. Even otherwise nutrient-rich foods like vegetables and legumes are boiled down to mush and, along with fillers, added to sauces, roux or thickened stocks and served over any given starch. These types of foods and the way in which they are prepared create spikes in blood glucose levels, elevate the blood pressure, clog arteries, and increase adipose tissue, including belly fat - a known contributor to heart disease. A prisoner’s provisions can create and/or exacerbate these conditions. However, rather than averting illnesses, the preference seems to be to treat them with expensive medications once they occur. This does not save taxpayers money when comparing the cost of medication and medical treatment to healthy vegetables or fruit choices.
The problem of obesity in prison has become endemic. Often with weight gain, especially among women, come body image issues and depression - yet another condition that may require costly treatment. In her essay, “Fat is a Feminist Issue,” Susan Orbach empathizes with the overweight woman, "Being fat isolates and invalidates a woman. Almost inevitably, the explanations offered for fatness point a finger at the failure of women to control their weight, control their appetites and control their impulses” (4-49). In prison, it is not so much a matter of self-control as it is limited options and accessibility to healthy foods - key factors in managing one’s diet so that obesity and obesity-related conditions never develop in the first place. Jonathan Cohn emphasizes the costly physical and financial effects of unhealthy foods in his essay, Body Politics. Cohn writes, “Economists agree that the treatment of these conditions - whether through prescription drugs to treat high blood pressure or angioplasty to open up clogged arteries - is very expensive." He continues, “As taxpayers, we all bear the burden of higher medical costs. So, when some people choose to eat poorly, we all end up bearing the financial burden for their decisions" (6). Chances are, most incarcerated people would eat healthier if healthier foods were available. After all, we eat what is provided to us.
In “Remarks to the NAACP,” addressing the epidemic of childhood obesity, Michelle Obama proposed four practical solution that we can translate to correctional facilities, as obesity is not just a problem in schools but an institutional issue.
1) Take responsibility and make manageable changes
2) Find ways to increase exercise during everyday living
3) Replace sugary drinks with water
4) Be more thoughtful about food preparation (428-9)
Adopting these small changes can make a significant difference in incarcerated people’s long-term health and taxpayers’ long-term savings. Skeptics may wonder how this can be accomplished. But the answer is simple: citizens need to urge the government to employ an agricultural development program in every prison statewide that would teach incarcerated people how to grow fruits and vegetables right on prison grounds,
Volunteers can be found in the community and in local colleges that participate in agricultural training programs. Encouraging the incarcerated to grow their own food would not only solve the issue of poor nutrition and nutrition related-health issues, but creating gardens would also:
1) Increase self-esteem
2) Provide exercise
3) Alleviate certain forms of depression
4) Instill a positive work ethic
5) Supply a job skill
6) Defray the cost of food that would otherwise be purchased from an outside vendor
Moreover, by developing good nutrition patterns, incarcerated parents will be able to start a new health trend for their children, thereby breaking the cycle of poor eating habits that cause weight gain and health problems. As Obama said, “And this isn’t just about the example that we set as individuals and families, but about the lifestyle we’re promoting in our communities as well" (430). Statewide on-ground prison gardening programs could be that simple, cost-effective change to “establish strong community partnerships” (430) Gardens would build a link between the inside and outside community by creating an avenue through which incarcerated people could donate produce to soup kitchens, food pantries and other organizations that assist disadvantaged members of society. The economic aspects of this program lie in the fact that seeds are recyclable, vegetation waste can be composted, and labor could be supplied simply by reallocating incarcerated workers. A program such as this would quickly pay for itself. And it is possible: Back in 1917, before attitudes shifted from rehabilitative leanings to punitive, the renamed Janet S. York Correctional Institution was a successful work farm.
Radley Balko, in “What You Eat is Your Business," shares Michelle Obama’s sentiments in the matter of personal responsibility. He writes, “Our government ought to be willing to foster a sense of responsibility in and ownership of our own health and well-being” (396). Shifting the same concern and responsibility to prisons would synthesize personal responsibility with governmental accountability. The good thing is obesity - and most of the medical problems that go with it - is reversible. Undoing obesity-related diseases start with awareness and action. A good place to begin is by pressuring state-funded institutions to eliminate unhealthy menu items and insisting that the current staples served in these facilities be substituted with foods of a higher nutritional content. Swapping harmful foods with foods packed with vitamins and fiber can make a world of difference when it comes to both disease and the almighty dollar. Holding the government responsible for elevating the nutritional standards in prison will save money and lives.
I have been thin my entire life. I have tried my best to manage my weight, to eat healthy and to exercise regularly; still, over time, the weight has crept up on me. Although I am not obese, the scale now registers twenty-five pounds more than it did when I came to prison fifteen-years ago. I look around at the bloated women with multiple chins, puffy faces and swollen bellies pregnant from carbs and fat, and I wonder in another fifteen-years from now if I will have my own double chin. Will I look as if I have a bun in my oven? Will I have hypertension, diabetes, plaque-coated arteries or be cancer-riddled from ingesting chemicals and preservatives; problems that could have been avoided simply by eating differently? When these prison doors open for me, will I walk or wobble out of them? After being done in by prison food, how much will it have cost me? How much will it have cost you?
If we readjust our thinking and recognize how indifference, unawareness and the current management of diet and nutrition within correctional facilities are costing taxpayers, perhaps people would begin to care more about what goes on in prison and what goes into our prisoners. Prison food does not have to be delicious, but it should not be deadly either. As long as the state and federal government are allowed to serve unhealthy food to the incarcerated, we will be getting far more than our just deserts. And you will be the one picking up the tab.
Balko, Radley. f‘What You Eat is Your Business.” Cato. Institute, Cato. Org, 23 May2004. Rpt. Graff, Gerald, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2" Edition New York: W.W. Norton & Company (395-399). Print.
Cohn, Jonathan. “Body Politics.” The New Republic, 8 August 2005. Academic Search Premier. Web 10 March 2013.
George, Erin. A Woman Doing LW: Notes from a Prison for Women. Ed. Robert Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Johnson, Robert. “Hard time: Understanding and reforming the prison.” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002. 85. Rpt. in A Woman Doing LW: Notes from a Prison for Women. By Erin George. Ed. Robert Johnson. New York: Oxford University / Press. 2010.
Obama, Michelle. “Remarks to the NAACP” National Convention, Kansas City, MO. 12 July 2010 Rpt. in Graff et al. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2"d Edition New York: W.W. Norton & Company (417-433) Print.
Orbach, Susan. “Fat Is a Feminist Issue.” (1978) Rpt. in Graff et al. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2nd Edition New York: W. W. Norton & Company (448-453).
Fish Patties (makes apx 18)
3 packages of fish cakes: mackerel or tuna fish-do not drain (any kind of packaged fish can be used)
2 tbsp dried onion flakes
2 tbsp hot sauce
1 tsp oregano
1-bag potato chips
apx 6 crackers finely crushed (any kind)
1/2 bar provolone cheese (shaved)
2 tbsp squeeze cheese
I tbsp Sazon
Crush potato chips in bag. Set aside. In a bowl, empty fish packets and break apart with fork. Add in all ingredients. Mix well. Spoon fish into the chip bag and combine. Check consistency. Since this depends on how much liquid the fish is packed in (tuna tends to have much less liquid than other packaged fish) you might have to adjust the content in order to attain the right consistency. It should hold together nicely without being wet or dry and crumbly, If it`s too wet, add in more cracker crumbs, if too dry add in small amounts of hot water until it holds together without crumbling. Smooth mixture flat in bag. Split chip bag along the seam and cut flattened mixture into equal squares (apx 18-20). Form each square into a patty and return to opened chip bag. Once patties are formed, slide chip bag into an insulated brown paper bag and cook 25 minutes on each side (or until crisp) with a hairdryer. Great with buttered rice or cheesy grits!
No-fry Fried Rice and Cabbage Rolls (serves 4)
1 bag of rice
1 hot sausage (cubed-small)
1 package pepperoni (cut into pieces)
1 package of chicken (may use chicken parties. If you use chicken patties, you`ll need apx. 3.diced small)
1 tbsp butter
Apx 4 tbsp dried onion flakes
2 hot & spicy packets or chili (from Ramen Noodles)
Chili powder (unsalted)
(* recipe can be modified for those who don`t like spicy food. Just substitute hot sauce for bbq sauce and spicy packets for chicken or beef and use a milder sausage instead of hot).
For Cabbage Rolls you'll need:
2 cups coleslaw (rinsed and drained)
3 tbsp chipotle seasoning
2 tbsp lemon pepper
apx. 2 tsp each of garlic and onion powder
apx 3 tbsp. mustard
l package chicken (drained)
Drain liquid from packaged chicken (set aside to add to rice) and place chicken in a plastic bag. If using diced chicken patties, just place in bag. Pour hot sauce over chicken to cover. Be generous. Sprinkle sugar over chicken (apx 6 tbsp. May use sugar substitute). Add sausage and pepperoni. Place in hot water to heat while preparing rice.
In a separate plastic bag, empty bag of rice. Add in seasoning packets, onion flakes, butter, chili, garlic and onion powder and reserved chicken stock. Sprinkle a small amount of hot sauce on dry rice and a little sugar, apx. 5 or 6 tbsps (or 2-3 packets of sugar twin). Add in hot water per cooking instructions. When rice is cooked, add chicken mixture to bag and toss well. Divide into servings and drizzle with honey. Cabbage rolls compliment this dish well.
For Cabbage Rolls:
Set aside 4 tortillas
Place coleslaw in bag with chicken and all wet and dry ingredients. Mix well. Divide mixture into apx 1/2 cup servings and place into tortillas. Roll tightly. Butter outside of tortillas and place into an insulated brown bag. With a hairdryer, cook apx 15 minutes on each side. (Helpful hint: lay cabbage rolls down on seam side during firs rotation so that they will seal shut before flipping them). A delicious dipping sauce can be made by combining 8-tbsp grape jelly, 2 tsp sugar (or l sugar twin) 4 tsp hot sauce or just honey and a little mustard.
Both the fish patties and the fried rice are dishes that I “invented” (although I’m sure others before me have come up with similar recipes) and are the most requested and enjoyed foods that I make for myself and for my friends.
Chasity West 266589
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357
My name is Chasity West and I’m a lifelong native of Connecticut. Prior to my arrest I worked as a licensed nurse. In 1998 I was sentenced to life without parole on a first offense. Since my imprisonment I have written dozens of short stories, memoirs, essays and poems. I have immersed myself in many projects and programs, including writing workshops, dance and yoga classes, college courses, gardening and agriculture and drama classes. I think that prison can be a catalyst for self-reform.