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Report by Impact Justice Details Harmful Consequences of Prison Food Policies

Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison

Good food nourishes and sustains the body— and does more than that. What we cook and eat affirms who we are as individuals and connects us to people, places, and cultures. Yet a positive relationship with food—an essential part of being human—is denied every day to incarcerated people when the food made available to them functions as another form of punishment.

A person sentenced to prison in the United States serves three years on average. That’s more than 3,000 meals behind bars (far more for people serving longer sentences), all typically high in salt, sugar, and refined carbohydrates and low in essential nutrients—a diet that for decades everyone else has been advised to avoid. The food itself and the conditions under which it is served are harmful to physical and mental health and can erode self-esteem, with immediate and long-term impacts.

The damaging and degrading prison food experience is a symptom of a larger systemic malady: our dependence on a dehumanizing criminal justice system to address harm. Like every other aspect of mass incarceration, this is an issue of racial and economic injustice: Lower-income communities of color, where affordable healthy food is scarce, disproportionately lose members to prison and then struggle to support them when they return home in worse health. In this way, prisons function as out-of-sight food deserts, perpetuating patterns of poor health in communities that already experience profound inequities.

This six-part report, the first national investigation of its kind, explores these and other troubling trends in prison food. Resulting from 18 months of fact-finding by Impact Justice, our report centers the perspectives of people who have been incarcerated while also examining food service policies and practices that affect 1.3 million people incarcerated in state prisons nationwide. The report also highlights some promising emerging efforts in a handful of prisons where nourishing food is becoming a priority, illuminating the potential for change.

To read the full report, click here.

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