Report criticizes nutrition of inmates in the state prison system

Lynette HazeltonPhiladelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Even as Pennsylvania's prison population grew rapidly in the 1990s and prison sentences grew longer, the state's food costs fell rapidly. By 2018, the state's Department of Corrections reported one of the largest declines in prison food costs in the nation.

A recent report by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, “Hungry and Malnourished in Prison Food Service in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections,” said the cost-cutting was due to the use of low-quality food that often did not meet inmates’ basic nutritional needs, leaving them hungry, malnourished, prone to diet-related diseases, and dissatisfied.

After spending a year analyzing the Department of Corrections' main menus, Prison Corporation Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards described the culinary nightmare facing some 39,000 inmates in the state's 24 prisons as “nutritional neglect.”

“I can tell you that in 2023 and 2024 there simply weren't enough calories (for the inmates) and the calories that were there were based on starchy fillers,” Shubik-Richards said.

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The Department of Corrections has contested the prison corporation's findings and taken appropriate action.

The pandemic

The prison society routinely handles hundreds of complaints a week about prison life, but when the pandemic forced inmates to have food served in their cells to contain the spread of COVID-19, the number of complaints about food increased dramatically.

A 2021 survey by the prison society found that nearly three in four inmates reported receiving spoiled food and smaller portion sizes. Others said dishes sat for hours before being served and that hot items on the menu were often served cold – a violation of the department's food safety policies. Less than a third said they preferred eating in their cells, but that was because it was better than dealing with the problems in the dining hall.

Decline in food quality

The Brennan Center for Justice said mass incarceration actually means that “the United States locks up more people than any other nation in the world.” In 1980, the total prison population in the United States was 329,000. In the 1990s, the prison population exploded, but states' food costs also rose. Pennsylvania's prisons, which now provide 41.5 million meals a year, have dramatically reduced their food costs.

According to the Prison Society, daily food spending per prisoner in 1996 (in 2023 dollars) was $11.09 and in 2023 it was $5.08.

Ivy Johnson, an outreach coordinator and community responder for the reintegration organization Why Not Prosper, has witnessed the declining quality and quantity of food in the state.

She was sent to the Muncy State Correctional Institution, 15 minutes from Williamsport, in 1998 and remained there for just over 18 years. There, she received nearly 20,000 prison meals – at a time when the state was drastically cutting its food costs.

“When I got there, they always had meat for breakfast – bacon or sausage,” Johnson said. That was one of the first things she said disappeared. “The food was better. It was better prepared and initially looked like it was on the menu,” Johnson said, adding that the food gradually “got worse and there was less of it.”

The availability of fresh fruit and vegetables decreased and she was no longer able to identify food by smell.

The portions on her tray were no longer recognizable. Johnson said if she wanted raw vegetables like peppers, lettuce and onions, or chicken instead of the “mystery meat” patties, she had to buy them on the prison's black market – and risk punitive measures.

Her attempt to keep kosher during her conversion to Judaism resulted in such severe anemia that the prison doctor advised her to stop.

“People think that when you commit a crime, you get what you get. But my sentence was not death. And even if it had been, it was not death by starvation or malnutrition,” Johnson said.

State reaction

When asked about the state of hot, healthy and nutritious meals, Harry told lawmakers at the Justice Department's budget hearing in February that the agency had hired another dietitian, bringing the total to two, and was undertaking a $3 million menu redesign, the agency's first in two years. The nutritional goals of the menu redesign are to increase access to fresh fruit, fiber, dairy, whole grains and legumes while decreasing the amount of processed carbohydrates.

“This comes at a price,” Harry also told lawmakers.

“We've been having discussions about our food for some time now and we've also spoken to the prison community because we know it's been a problem for them too. We've met and looked at where we need to make improvements.”

Shubik-Richards said: “The core of their report was looking at calories and nutrition and where the DOC was not producing national guidelines.” Although the department is doing better, Shubik-Richards said improvements are still needed, including fully adhering to the recommended calorie amounts for men.

“Prison culture is inherently an oppressive, dehumanizing place. Food can play a role in that, or it can provide a small respite from humanity,” Shubik-Richards said.

The USA spends dizzying amounts on its prison system: the individual states together shell out 80 billion dollars per year.

Anna Harden

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