“Let Them Eat Dog Food”: Nutrition and Health Behind Bars

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Meghan McCain, the Republican Party’s resident Marie Antoinette, casually said this on “The View” recently: “He’s a criminal – he should eat dog food!”

She was talking about Jake Angeli, the so-called “Q-Anon Shaman” who hails from her home state of Arizona, and was arrested after leading the siege of the Capitol on January 6th. The food in lockup isn’t much to his liking, apparently, and he’s requested a more organic diet. His mother has reportedly lobbied the jail on behalf of his dietary needs as well.

I certainly don’t agree with anything Angeli did at the Capitol on January 6th, or his political views. In fact, I think he’s utterly reprehensible. That said, McCain’s attitude is both callous and dangerous – the kind of heartless indifference that allows corrections officials all over this country to act with impunity and abuse the inmates in their care. That attitude gave Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio leave to humiliate and endanger Maricopa County inmates for years, forcing them to live in tents in the desert heat and wear pink jumpsuits. I wonder if McCain supported that too.

This view is even more reprehensible when directed toward those not yet convicted and sitting in jail awaiting trial – we have a presumption of innocence in this country. You’d think conservatives like McCain who claim to support law and order would understand that. But the truth is that both pre-trial jail inmates and post-conviction prison inmates are subjected to miserable conditions of confinement – to include food that’s less healthy and palatable than many people feed their pets.

I know it’s kind of cliché to complain about the food behind bars. “Don’t break the law, then,” is what most people may think when they hear this kind of dialogue. But if it were your brother, son, father, wife, or daughter behind those walls, you’d probably care whether they were eating decently. And they aren’t.

I know some will also say that there are plenty of people going hungry in the world – in this country even – who didn’t break any laws, but that’s a specious comparison. We are a wealthy nation that can afford to feed all our citizens – guilty, innocent, or awaiting trial – if we want to. Our failure is a dereliction of compassion, not economics. And the more inmates we lock up, the worse the food gets.

77 million people with criminal records in this country have all experienced the gastronomic cruelty that passes for jail and prison food. And tens of millions of family members who care about loved ones behind bars send them enormous amounts of money to supplement the unpalatable rations with commissary purchases. So, commercial food service companies profit on the front end, and commissary companies like Keefe benefit on the back end. In some facilities, they’re one and the same vendor.

Multinational corporations like Aramark and Cisco compete to underbid each other for food service contracts with county sheriffs and state corrections agencies, and win those bids by providing the cheapest meals possible. Dieticians sign off on menus that sound better in theory than in practice, where portions are child-sized, and milk and margarine count as calories. Sheriffs are incentivized to spend less money on inmate food, often reserving any cost savings for pet projects – or pocketing the savings outright.

Prison and jail officials certainly get points for creativity – the same mystery meat and noodles served multiple times a week goes by many names: taco casserole, Texas hash, yakisoba, Hungarian goulash, Creole mac.The meat is usually what we call “meatrock” – actually low-grade ground chicken that says “for institutional use only” on the side of the box. Beans and soy (“textured vegetable protein”) are often the other dietary staples, served for either lunch or dinner almost every day some weeks. Fresh fruits and vegetables are in short supply, and a spoonful of gray boiled cabbage or squash usually passes for a healthy side.

The inadequacy of the facility menu means that many inmates rely on commissary purchases to fulfill their dietary needs. The staple food for inmates everywhere is a package of ramen noodles often called a “soup” – costing anywhere from a quarter to a dollar – many times the price you’d pay for ramen sitting on grocery store shelves. All you need is hot water and a bowl, and you’ve got a “butt naked” soup containing roughly 1500 milligrams of sodium ready in minutes. Throw in some beans, spread cheese, summer sausage, or pickles, and you’ve got a “bowl shot” that’s sure to spike your blood pressure and eventually lead to heart disease. Chips and cookies round out the list of popular food items inmates regularly order.

You’re probably getting the picture – it’s virtually impossible to eat responsibly here. The few healthy items on the commissary list are also some of the most expensive ones by weight: low-grade watery packs of tuna (4 ounces for $1.90), trail mix (a few ounces for $1.30), sweet corn kernels ($1.61). But there are nine kinds of potato chips, seven kinds of cookies, and fifteen types of candy on the list. Most of the items have brand names on them you’ve never hear of and won’t see on store shelves: Fresh Catch, Cactus Annie’s, Brushy Creek, Moon Lodge, and the like. That’s because they’re brands owned by the commissary companies themselves.

And what’s the end result of all this profitable dietary malpractice behind bars? Inmates with chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity. Taxpayers are then on the hook for treating these state-inflicted medical conditions, producing healthy bottom lines for drug companies and for-profit jail and prison health providers.

Feeding inmates the equivalent of dog food has clear corporate winners – but the losers are inmates, their families, and taxpayers who foot the medical bills for this short-sighted menu cost-cutting. If Megan McCain has pets, I’ll bet they eat healthier food than many inmates do.

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