There is a hidden public health crisis going on in prisons across the United States. A study by the American Journal of Public Health has shown that inmates suffer from foodborne illness at a rate of 45 per 100,000 people annually, a rate five times higher than the general population. Inmates are not only getting sick while incarcerated, but many are also leaving prison with negative long-term health effect caused by poor nutrition. The large number of inmates becoming sick across the country shows that the problem is systemic, and not just the problem of one prison or one state. For example, in May, inmates in Oregon’s State Penitentiary were fed spoiled food and even bait fish, which was clearly labelled, “not for human consumption.” Back in 2012, inmates in Michigan’s Kent Country Jail were served spoiled chicken in tacos, leaving 250 inmates sick. Then, in Upper Pennsylvania, the Kinross Correctional Facility fired kitchen employee Steve Pine because he refused to serve inmates rotten potatoes. However, the problem with rotten food is also just a small portion of the issue at hand. Many of the outbreaks are not even related to a case of bad food, but often just a lack of ability on behalf of the prison to train workers in food safety. Prisons are also often ill-equipped to handle feeding thousands of inmates in overcrowded prisons. Meanwhile, private prisons and outsourced kitchens inside federal and state prisons also complicate the issue, causing safety standards to often go unregulated. For instance, when private prisons and private food-service companies are paid per meal provided to inmates, they are incentivized to take shortcuts that oftentimes harm the lives of inmates while in prison and after.
“I can tell you one thing … Nobody has food-safety training,” Earnest Rich said about his time in multiple kitchens throughout the California correctional system. Rich’s experience is one example of the many inmates who are serving thousands of people without proper training, something that would never occur at a restaurant or in a public kitchen. While the issues are consistent and irrefutable, little has been done to change the failing food system in prisons. That being said, when the private food service company, Aramark, was accused of serving inmates spoiled food on dirty plates, U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist claimed that the Eighth Amendment doesn’t require inmates to receive, “tasty or aesthetically pleasing” food, but only enough food to “maintain normal health.” Judge Quist then contradicted himself when he stated that the inmate’s allegations were, “at most, isolated incidents of being served cold or spoiled food or unsanitary conditions.” Being served spoiled food or food in unsanitary conditions poses a threat to inmates health and should, therefore, be illegal, however, Judge Quist threw out the case against Aramark claiming that, “These circumstances are unfortunate, but did not pose a risk.”
Furthermore, according to Prison Voice Washington, food costs make up around four percent of the daily cost of incarcerating a prisoner. So, moving forward, one important step will be spending the money to provide inmates with safe and healthy food to eat, which will ultimately reduce health care costs in the future, thus saving money. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and prevention has shown that the increasing amount of processed food in prisons has made the average diet of an inmate contain three times the healthy level of sodium, and for inmates staying months or years in prison, this may be a death sentence, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions. As a result, many will end up leaving prison on medications paid for by the public, all because prisons would rather profit from serving cheap meals to inmates, rather than provide them with healthy food.
Moreover, the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population, and 20 percent of its prison population. Prison kitchens are tasked with feeding thousands of inmates three meals a day, a task that is unsustainable, even for the most efficient kitchen company. As such, a permanent solution to the food safety problem in prisons might be to end the ongoing campaign of mass incarceration. In addition, for the inmates who are currently incarcerated something must be done immediately to secure them safe and nutritious food. One solution to the problem also provides a unique opportunity for inmates to gain a healthy diet, a future career possibility, and even money to provide for their families outside or when they are released. Many workforce-training programs exist in prisons, and some of them are in kitchen services.
With that said, it is time prisoners are properly trained, and by doing so they will be able to serve safe meals to their fellow inmates and gain skills that will allow them to pursue a career in a kitchen, should they desire to, after being released. For instance, many inmates are paid under two dollars an hour or nothing to work, and this often financially harms families. The disgraceful hypocrisy that exists within the prison labour industry must end. Firstly, this is related to humanitarian reasons, and secondly, because it will help the economy by sending inmates out of jail ready to enter the workforce and allow inmates families to rely less on or not at all on welfare. The injustice of low wages in prison is also a missed opportunity to give inmates a chance to get a head start on the difficult process of release, and a better chance of not returning to jail. Therefore, it is time for the contracts held by private prisons and private kitchen services are terminated, and inmates are provided with a fair job in prison kitchens.
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