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Pennsylvania Jail Offers Prison Food to Tourists

Pennsylvania Jail Offers Prison Food to Tourists

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Looks like one Philadelphia prison is taking cues from Japan’s prison food cafeteria; the AP reports that Eastern State Penitentiary will be serving a sample of prison food from the 1830s, 1940s, and today to visitors.

The tasting menu, available at the defunct prison that Al Capone used to call home, will be served June 8 and 9 to folks who visit the now-empty prison, which was abandoned in 1971.Nowadays, it’s open as a museum of sorts of tourists hoping to see what prison life is like.

On the menu? Broiled salted beef with "Indian mush" (a polenta of sorts topped with molasses) from the 1830s; hamburger with brown gravy and beets from 1949; Nutraloaf, a bland concoction of rice, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, oatmeal, chickpeas, and margarine. The Nutraloaf, AP notes, is often served as punishment to prisoners (some of whom have filed lawsuits over it, calling it cruel and unusual punishment).

Of course, not every prisoner gets served Nutraloaf; a sample meal from Graterford prison, AP reports, includes waffles, pork barbecue, poultry, and gravy, plus vegetarian options. But Sean Kelley, Eastern State Penitentiary’s director of public programming, hopes that this tasting menu will open discussion about the perception and treatment of inmates over the years, including how food service has changed.

"We hope to have a discussion all weekend long about what these policies mean to accomplish and whether they're effective," Kelley told AP. Tickets are available online for $14 — not bad. But then again, you are paying to eat like a prisoner.

Crime and nourishment: An inside look at jail food in Bristol County

Editor's Note: This story was amended on Dec. 21, 2018 to correctly identify that Arizona State University is the school where Professor Jose Ashford is affiliated.

DARTMOUTH &mdash A block of instant ramen makes you rich here.

Inmates buy it by the armful from the mail-order commissary, because salty noodles taste better than jail food.

In a lunchroom at the Bristol County House of Correction, inmate Gordon Davis scoffs at the menu on the wall. For the day&rsquos lunch, it reads, &ldquoChef&rsquos Special (Chicken).&rdquo

The &ldquospecial&rdquo is three steamed chicken hot dogs, without buns, served over rice. It comes with two slices of untoasted wheat bread, unfrosted brownish-yellow cake, a scoop of flavorless mixed vegetables and a packet of mustard.

"There's no chef special," he says. "There's nothing special."

More than monotony lies behind the complaints that sparked food protests at the jail this summer, a Standard-Times investigation has found.

Most Bristol County inmates &mdash including people presumed innocent while they await trial &mdash received no fresh fruits or vegetables in their diets until after The Standard-Times began to investigate. The jail has since changed its policy to allow each person two apples a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Standard-Times also found expired food in the pantry and meals some inmates consider inedible or too small, pushing them to rely on high-priced snacks from the commissary.

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson says his low-cost menu protects the taxpayers, and the food is not intended as punishment.

But if the purpose of jail is to stop crime and deter it, should the food make inmates angry?

The men in Unit 2 West were eager to talk. Sam Rodriguez complained of &ldquohockey-puck&rdquo meat and of cartilage in the turkey burgers. Hot dogs are the best meal, he said.

&ldquoA lot of people, they . give their trays away because they can&rsquot eat some of this stuff,&rdquo he said.

The shape of one particularly reviled entree earned it the name &ldquoD meat.&rdquo

&ldquoWe don&rsquot even know what it is,&rdquo he said.

And if anyone needs help remembering food from the outside, all they have to do is witness the very same kitchen making delicious food for correctional officers who work overtime. Inmates working in the kitchen get to eat it.

&ldquoChicken on the bone,&rdquo Davis said, emphasizing the words like he&rsquos holding a knife and fork, napkin tied around his neck. And real burgers, he said.

&ldquoI bet you they have better conditions than my husband who is deployed,&rdquo one commenter wrote on Facebook after The Standard-Times reported this summer that inmates were protesting over the food.

&ldquoThey can suck it up or not commit crime,&rdquo she said.

The Bristol County jails include three facilities on the Dartmouth campus &mdash the House of Correction, the Women&rsquos Center, and an immigration detention center operated in cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement &mdash plus the 19th-century Ash Street Jail in New Bedford.

The House of Correction held an average of 1,010 people a day in the 12-month period that ended in September 2017, according to a state report. The Women's Center held 90, and Ash Street, which holds mainly people awaiting trial, had 186. The report did not include the ICE building.

At least 60 people in ICE detention went on a hunger strike in July. How long it lasted is unclear. The sheriff&rsquos office and the anti-deportation group Families for Freedom gave conflicting accounts ranging from less than two days to several.

After the ICE hunger strike, nearly 250 inmates in the main jail skipped at least one prepared meal the following week. Hodgson denied it was a true hunger strike, saying they ate food from the commissary instead of their prepared meals.

Many people on the outside view unappetizing jail food as part of the punishment or a reflection of taxpayers&rsquo right to keep expenses low.

&ldquoI&rsquom not paying more taxes so they can have steak,&rdquo one commenter responded to a Standard-Times story.

Hodgson said money is a big part of his decision-making about the food.

&ldquoIt&rsquos financial, and it&rsquos also nutritional,&rdquo he said.

&ldquoI always tell people, &lsquoLook, [if you want] cake, cookies, you want more ounces of orange juice or what have you, don&rsquot come here,&rdquo he said. &ldquoYou can have all you want on the outside. But we&rsquore not going to have taxpayers pay extra money for food beyond what they&rsquore already paying for the cost of care here.&rdquo

In reality, inmates do not get any juice. Nor do they get coffee. The beverage they sometimes call &ldquojuice&rdquo is a powder mixed with water. They do get a small carton of milk with breakfast.

&ldquoEat your colors,&rdquo a popular nugget of health advice, is based on the science of fruits and vegetables. At the Bristol County House of Correction, most of the color in the meals comes from plain steamed vegetables and artificially colored drinks &mdash and now the twice-weekly apple.

Otherwise, inmates are looking at a sea of beige: potatoes about six days a week, rice about five days a week, and two slices of untoasted wheat bread at nearly every lunch and dinner.

The menu follows a 35-day cycle. Often, potatoes, bread and muffin-like cake are served in the same meal, even at lunch. The carbohydrate count is significant.

For example, lunch on Day 23 includes meatloaf, instant mashed potatoes, bread, margarine and cake. The only other items are green beans and &ldquofortified punch,&rdquo a red drink that contains artificial sweetener but no fruit juice or sugar.

Hodgson allowed The Standard-Times to visit Unit 2 West, which inmate Devin Salvucci described as the cleanest unit in the jail.

Inmates eat their meals in the dayroom, an expanse of four-person tables. The walls are posted with messages about addiction recovery and self-improvement. Painted along the top are the words, &ldquoSTRENGTH HOPE RECOVERY LIFE.&rdquo

Most of the unit&rsquos inmates have a history of substance use and a co-occurring mental health issue, but not severe mental illness, a correctional officer said.

At the time of the interviews, before the addition of apples, the men in the unit said not a single piece of fresh produce was served in the jail &mdash not a shred of lettuce or a slice of tomato. The one exception was that people on medical diets received apples in place of foods they could not eat.

That&rsquos not necessarily the norm nationally, according to Sara Wakefield, an associate professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University who studies the effects of incarceration on inmates&rsquo health, families and well-being.

&ldquoIn my experience, limited to some state prisons, that is unusual,&rdquo she said.

Before the switch to apples, inmates got canned fruit or applesauce. At the time of our visit, they had not received canned fruit for a while, because the jail had plenty of applesauce in stock.

The jail buys food through a broker based on nutritional needs, availability and price. It does not restock specific items.

In addition to the monotony, inmates complained bitterly about bones and cartilage in the turkey burgers. Once, when someone filed a grievance, food service director Avelino Alves broke up a turkey burger to show the grievance coordinator, and he didn&rsquot find any bones or cartilage, Alves said.

&ldquoThey don&rsquot like the turkey burger, but I have to have a turkey burger,&rdquo he said.

He said the jail serves no pork products, partly because of religious diets and partly because &ldquoit&rsquos just easier.&rdquo

As for fresh vegetables, &ldquoWe used to serve salad years ago, but nobody was eating it,&rdquo he said.

Menus are reviewed by a part-time dietitian. In July, Darling said the dietitian was not comfortable speaking to the media but would answer emailed questions if the messages went through his office.

Not long afterward, she resigned, effective Aug. 6, two weeks after The Standard-Times requested an interview with her and 17 days after the newspaper first reported on the hunger strike. She cited increased demands at her full-time job, Darling said.

The Standard-Times was unable to reach her afterward.

Simmons University dietitian Sharon Gallagher, an associate professor of practice in the nutrition and dietetics program, reviewed the Bristol County jail menu and meal photos at the newspaper&rsquos request.

&ldquoIt doesn&rsquot seem so horrible to me,&rdquo she said.

Gallagher, who has experience reviewing menus for assisted living facilities, said more fresh fruit would be nice, but she knows institutions have to operate with their budgets.

&ldquoOf course I would love to see fresh fruit on the tray. I just don&rsquot know if it&rsquos possible based on their constraints,&rdquo she said, in an interview conducted before the jail introduced apples twice a week.

Although the trays might visually seem to hold a lot of starches, Gallagher said the carb count &ldquodoesn&rsquot seem that off&rdquo given that 50 to 60 percent of calories in a person&rsquos diet should come from carbohydrates.

A dietary analysis provided by the jail shows an average of 54.4 percent of calories in the meals comes from carbohydrates, 31.9 percent from fat and 13.7 percent from protein.

Gallagher said the three-hot-dog lunch could be high in sodium, but institutions often have to balance sodium over the course of a week to make the meals palatable. One day might be higher, another day lower.

&ldquoI would be concerned if every single day there were three hot dogs on the plate,&rdquo she said.

Hodgson said his menu meets nutritional and caloric guidelines. Its average daily calorie count is 2,710.

&ldquoMost of these people that come in here probably don&rsquot have great nutritional guidelines in their own everyday life,&rdquo he said. &ldquoSo I&rsquom not going to apologize for helping them to understand that eating nutritionally well is good for them. Most of them, if they&rsquore being honest with you, will tell you that they leave here more healthy than when they came in.&rdquo

&ldquoLook at the dates!&rdquo shouted an inmate working in the kitchen. And look we did.

In the freezer and pantry, The Standard-Times discovered numerous past dates on boxes and bags of food. But Alves said most of those dates are dates of manufacture, not &ldquobest by&rdquo dates. Paperwork in his office lists the shelf life of each item, he said.

And yet, canned peaches and bagged potato flakes were sitting in the pantry after their best-by dates. The peaches were clearly marked, &ldquoBest By 07 07 18,&rdquo a date about three weeks past.

Dates on the potato flakes were from the summer of 2016. Although those were manufacturing dates, Alves checked the paperwork and discovered their shelf life was only two years.

The potato flakes were already too old to serve when they were delivered to the jail, according Darling, the sheriff&rsquos spokesman. He said 27 bags of potato flakes were sent back to the manufacturer as a result of the Standard-Times inquiry.

So, does the Dartmouth jail serve expired food?

&ldquoTo our knowledge, that hasn&rsquot been a problem,&rdquo Hodgson said.

But after the potato-flake discovery, the jail changed how it monitors the expiration dates. Hodgson said he directed the staff to place copies of the shelf-life information in the receiving area, so employees can check the dates when food first arrives, before it gets transferred to the pantry.

Federal law does not require expiration dates, except on infant formula. States can write stronger regulations.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which regulates food labels, does not require frozen or long-shelf-life foods to carry a &ldquobest by&rdquo date, according to agency spokeswoman Ann Scales.

Dates on shelf-stable food generally mark the time when quality could start to decline. They do not mean the food is unsafe.

People who land in jail often land in more than one. A handful of Dartmouth inmates said the food compares poorly with jails in Plymouth or Dedham where they have served time, largely because of the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.

In Plymouth County lockup, inmates got lettuce, tomatoes, bananas, apples and beans, according to inmate Gordon Davis. Beans are relatively rare in Dartmouth.

&ldquoIf we got beans, there&rsquod be a little more protein in our diet,&rdquo he said.

Fellow Dartmouth inmate Wayne Nickerson corroborated Davis&rsquo account of the food in Plymouth. He said the difference was palpable.

&ldquoMy first day waking up there, to food and breakfast and everything, I thought I was in a hotel. I swear,&rdquo he said.

He got salad and fish. And the portions seemed bigger.

&ldquoThe food is hot. It&rsquos all-the-way cooked. It tasted better,&rdquo he said. &ldquoThe food is more healthy all the way around.&rdquo

In Plymouth County, the jail is run by Sheriff Joseph McDonald, who, like Hodgson, is a Republican in a largely blue state. Both were among the three Massachusetts sheriffs who signed a letter to Congress in March on immigration. But when it comes to food service, their jails have some differences.

Bristol County estimates its cost per meal at 75 cents for food only, not labor. It runs its food service operation in-house, buying food through a broker.

According to Hodgson, Bristol&rsquos per-inmate costs are the lowest in the state, and the food still meets nutritional standards. &ldquoWhich is something we&rsquore very proud of,&rdquo he said.

Plymouth pays $1.66 per meal for a contract with Trinity Services Group, which procures the food and provides employees to assist in supervision, meal preparation, distribution and cleanup, according to John Birtwell, a spokesman for McDonald. Trinity also provides certain equipment, such as pots and pans. Plymouth County Sheriff&rsquos Department personnel coordinate operations and keep watch on inmate workers.

The Plymouth County Sheriff's Department did not allow The Standard-Times to visit, so the real-life quality of the food is difficult to compare. But on paper, Plymouth does serve more fresh produce: shredded lettuce, sliced tomato and bananas, in addition to apples.

Plymouth provides buns for hamburgers and hot dogs, whereas Bristol does not. The Bristol jails give inmates wheat bread instead. Twice in a 35-day menu cycle, Plymouth serves a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, cheese and a bun. Other days, the burger comes with barbeque sauce and a bun, or with onion gravy and no bun.

The Plymouth jail receives thousands of bananas at a time and stores them in a warehouse until they are needed for the approximately 1,000 meals served at each sitting. If the bananas are too green, the jail serves apples and moves the bananas to another day. Change-ups are relatively rare, Birtwell said.

He said Plymouth does not serve fresh oranges because they can be hoarded to make alcohol. The same goes for fresh juices or any similar product that could be fermented, because of &ldquoobvious security and health risks,&rdquo he said in an email.

What makes fresh produce challenging is not cost, but washing, keeping it at the right temperature, preventing the brewing of alcohol and meeting nutritional guidelines, Birtwell said.

Bristol serves some items that don&rsquot appear on the Plymouth menu, like pudding and processed egg patties. But Bristol inmates are more likely to see frequent repetition of foods. Nearly every lunch and dinner includes wheat bread and either rice or potatoes. Nearly every breakfast includes a square muffin cut from a sheet pan.

Inmates described a particular sense of monotony about the cake served five to seven days a week. Unfrosted and brownish-yellow, it bears a strong resemblance to the morning muffins.

&ldquoAlways cake,&rdquo one inmate said.

&ldquoI&rsquom not asking to eat like a king,&rdquo said Davis.

Some said they are just asking to eat like adults.

&ldquoWe only get four chicken nuggets,&rdquo Rodriguez said. &ldquoWe&rsquore grown men. &hellip Our kids wouldn't be able to eat that.&rdquo

Unappealing cafeteria food puts products from the commissary in high demand.

Inmates in the Dartmouth jail can place their orders once a week from a printed price list. They pay using personal accounts funded by themselves or their families. It&rsquos not unusual to run out of cash.

&ldquoIf you don&rsquot make canteen, you&rsquore hungry,&rdquo inmate Devin Salvucci said. &ldquoBy the end of the night, you&rsquore going to bed hungry.&rdquo

Orders get delivered to a garage outside the main jail, in clear plastic bags, each with a printout of the order affixed to the top. Employees use wheeled carts to distribute orders to the inmates.

Inmates can buy a limited number of non-food products, such as white sneakers and small bottles of name-brand shampoo.

Most food products available through the commissary are convenience foods. Packaged honey buns and corn chips are popular. One inmate&rsquos recent order contained 30 blocks of ramen &mdash half chili-flavored and half spicy vegetable.

Massachusetts tracks commissary spending at the state-run prisons, and inmates spend hundreds of thousands a year on ramen at 40 cents per pack. The Bristol County jails charge 90 cents.

Much has been written about ramen consumption in prisons, including the 2015 cookbook, &ldquoPrison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars,&rdquo which offers instruction on how to doctor ramen with everything from meat to orange-flavored punch to pork rinds.

In 2016, a study of prison life made headlines around the world when a University of Arizona sociologist, Michael Gibson-Light, found that ramen was so important in one southern U.S. state prison, it was replacing cigarettes as an underground currency.

Driving the switch was the jail&rsquos practice of cutting the quality and quantity of food, which shifted the cost of filling bellies &mdash via the commissary &mdash to inmates and their families.

Staff and prisoners, whose identity and location were concealed in the published report, told Gibson-Light that the food had declined in quality and quantity over the past few decades.

Wakefield, the Rutgers professor, said that in her work in state prison, where prisoners spend more time than the average six months Hodgson says inmates spend in his facilities, longer-term prisoners remember a time before many prisons used food-service contractors. The kitchens tended to be &ldquosort of inmate-run,&rdquo and prisoners generally say food quality has declined since the switch.

&ldquoFor me, the food should not be the punishment. And certainly being in jail is punishment enough,&rdquo she said.

When inmates need money for the commissary, they can resort to illegal practices to get it, said José Ashford, a criminologist and professor of social work at the University of Arizona.

In his experience in more than 30 years in Arizona, he has seen a prison gang extract &ldquotaxes&rdquo from other inmates to fatten its members&rsquo food accounts. A gang can also exploit inmates who have money on their own food accounts, he said.

Arizona&rsquos controversial Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who was voted out of office in 2016, replaced all meats with soy protein and fed inmates only twice a day &mdash likely another boon for the commissary.

&ldquoThe amount of profit they must make is amazing,&rdquo Ashford said, especially with prices higher than on the outside.

Bristol County contracts with Keefe Commissary Network for its commissary. For that privilege, Keefe is required to pay the sheriff&rsquos office 33 percent of adjusted gross sales. The contract sets a minimum payment of $33,075 per month.

Hodgson has said any profit goes to inmate programs.

In January, the Bristol County Sheriff&rsquos Office addressed food complaints on Twitter, tweeting a photo of &ldquoO&rdquo-shaped cereal, a small carton of milk, and a square muffin.

&ldquoSeen Around Dartmouth Jail: Tuesday morning&rsquos breakfast,&rdquo the tweet said. &ldquoIf you&rsquore more of a bacon and eggs type, don&rsquot break the law and you can have whatever breakfast you want, every morning.&rdquo

Ashford said food-as-punishment is used for publicity more often these days. What the public sometimes doesn&rsquot realize, he said, is that in county jails, many of the inmates are being held while they await trial &mdash that is, they should be presumed innocent. Many would be out on bail if they could afford it.

&ldquoSo you&rsquore punishing them for poverty,&rdquo he said.

Susan Krumholz, a crime and justice professor at UMass Dartmouth, said public perception of jail is based on misleading information.

&ldquoAn awful lot of people who are in jails are there for doing things that most of us have done. Often what they&rsquove done is just really stupid,&rdquo she said.

When she was practicing law, many of her clients were sentenced for the same offenses for which her white, upper-middle-class friends got off in the 1960s and 70s: shoplifting, driving under the influence, possession of drugs, dealing drugs, joy-riding and simple assaults.

And once people come to the attention of the system, they are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement, she said. &ldquoIt is a difficult maze to escape.&rdquo

Sentences top out at 2.5 years in county jail. Some crimes are more serious than others.

Gregg Miliote, a spokesman for the Bristol County District Attorney&rsquos Office, said county jail typically houses people convicted of driving under the influence, indecent assault, first-time convictions for drug dealing or illegal gun possession, vehicle crashes resulting in bodily injury, and lesser domestic violence cases.

Krumholz teaches in the Dartmouth jail as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which professors teach semester-long courses to mixed groups of inmates and college students. She said she has eaten prison meals in numerous institutions where she trained for her work, and the food is &ldquotypically pretty awful.&rdquo

Continually unappetizing food can make inmates depressed.

&ldquoI know it makes them angry,&rdquo she said.

Perhaps contrary to perception, Hodgson said he does not support punishing inmates by reducing the amount of food they receive, nor the quality of the food.

&ldquoI don&rsquot believe you use food to send a message to be tough on crime,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI think what you do is . you meet your basic standards of nutrition.&rdquo

He did reduce portions in 2006, saying it was better for the inmates&rsquo health and less expensive. He and the staff nutritionist went over the menu and cut anything above the basic nutrition inmates needed to stay healthy, he said at the time.

But penalizing inmates by altering their meals is not unheard of.

Witness the infamous American jail food &ldquonutraloaf,&rdquo a typically house-made amalgamation of foods served as punishment for bad behavior. It&rsquos a nutritionally balanced meal in a meatloaf-like shape.

The Bristol County recipe for nutraloaf includes dry milk, vegetables, beef, mashed beans, egg and bread.

Spokesmen for the sheriffs in Bristol and Plymouth said they reserve nutraloaf for a narrow set of situations, and it has not been served in several years.

In Bristol County, inmates get nutraloaf if they throw food multiple times, Darling said.

In Plymouth, inmates get nutraloaf &mdash the so-called &ldquoalternative meal&rdquo &mdash only if they use food, excrement or personal items as a weapon, Birtwell said. If a staff member requests an alternative meal for an inmate, the decision must be approved by three people: the superintendent, dietician and physician.

If approved, the alternative meal may be nutraloaf or something else, he said.

The last time Plymouth served an alternative meal was in July of 2015, according to Birtwell.

No matter what they eat, most inmates are locked up for social problems that should have been addressed earlier, Krumholz said. And they don&rsquot have good job skills to help them stay out of jail.

&ldquoWe would agree with that,&rdquo said Hodgson. The jail offers adult basic education, computer literacy, civics and a career-readiness course to help inmates apply for jobs. It also has a drug treatment program.

He said he would love to offer more, but the state would have to fund it.

When it comes to food, there&rsquos nothing &ldquoextra.&rdquo

&ldquoIt&rsquos not home cookin&rsquo. This is jail,&rdquo he said. &ldquoYou&rsquore not going to get extra.&rdquo

&ldquoYou know, the taxpayers are paying for it,&rdquo Hodgson said. &ldquoProvided we&rsquore meeting your nutritional standards and keeping you as healthy as we possibly can, which we do, that&rsquos the only standard I&rsquom worried about.&rdquo

Pennsylvania Jail Offers Prison Food to Tourists - Recipes

June 2016 Issue

Nutrition Services in Correctional Facilities
By Kathy Hardy
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 18 No. 6 P. 32

Learn about the duties RDs perform, the challenges they face, and the rewards they receive from working in the prison setting.

Consider a walk to work that includes passing through a seemingly intimidating doorway system that automatically slams shut and locks behind you, having your bags searched, and being subjected to catcalls. And then there's the big ring of keys you must carry, as every cupboard, refrigerator, and storage unit is locked. This scenario describes a typical day in the life of RDs who work in public or private correctional facilities at the county, state, or federal level across the United States.

A small subset of dietitians work onsite or as consultants, overseeing nutrition services for their respective inmate populations. They create menus that meet various combinations of federal standards, dietary guidelines, and professional organization accreditation requirements, where applicable accommodate clinical and religious dietary needs and provide MNT.

While the above scenario can be daunting to some RDs, especially those new to the field, providing nutrition services in correctional facilities has its rewards.

"After working in the prison setting for a while, you get used to the inmates and accept the challenge in helping them," says Laurie Maurino, RD, departmental food administrator for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Role of RDs
Dietitians in the correctional setting serve in various roles. They are nutrition experts, dietetics professionals, health inspectors, liaisons, and trainers of dietitians new to the correctional facility setting. As a departmental food administrator, Maurino oversees foodservice operations for the 35-prison, 120,000-inmate CDCR system.1 She manages nutrition services for the healthy prison population by updating menus, planning diets to accommodate preferences based on religious beliefs, reviewing menu specifications for state food contracts, and balancing budgets. Maurino, who also serves as president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates (ACFSA), helps correctional food managers prepare for Environmental Health and American Correctional Association inspections of food preparation, storage, and serving areas. Maurino works from headquarters in Sacramento, California, so she isn't in the prison environment on a daily basis.

Handling the medical-dietary side of nutrition services for the incarcerated California population in 22 licensed medical facilities is Becky Yager, MS, RDN, chief of dietary services for California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS). Yager explains that dietary services' mission is to provide evidence-based, fiscally responsible MNT to the patient population in California's correctional health care system. The group develops and implements dietary staffing models, policies, procedures, and training tools for medically necessary foodservices, standardized menus, dietary education materials for patients, and tools for professional staff usage. RDs serve as part of the medical team, providing clinical consultations for in- and outpatients with special dietary needs.

ACFSA Secretary Linda Eck Mills, MBA, RDN, LDN, FADA, a corporate dietitian for Community Education Centers (CEC), a national provider of rehabilitative services for offenders in reentry and in-prison treatment facilities, says her role with CEC is shared between foodservice and medical care. Foodservice responsibilities include auditing meal counts, approving menu substitutions, providing staff training, and assisting with developing policies and procedures. Medical responsibilities include nutrition analysis of 71 weeks of menus, approving medical diets and supplements, auditing special diets for compliance, partnering with medical staff to provide medically necessary diets, and offering nutrition training for medical staff as their work pertains to medically restricted diets.

Mills is a seasoned RD who applies her foodservice skills across various locations CEC serves. CEC provides outsourced management of county, state, and federal jail and detention facilities, with foodservice operations as one of its services. Other services include health care, in-prison treatment programs, and correctional center operations and management. According to Mills, CEC foodservices serve more than 242,200 inmate/detainee/resident meals and 6,700 staff meals per week at 38 locations in 16 states.

While many RDs provide nutrition services onsite, correctional facilities often turn to RD consultants to fill roles within their systems, a fact Maurino attributes to the difficulties prisons have attracting dietitians to work in the challenging prison setting. Consultant Dorothea Rourke, RD, who works with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC), appreciates her consultant role as an objective, third-party analyst. She says this position allows her to focus on the technical aspects of foodservice. Dietitians present problems to her, such as how to cost-effectively increase fiber in the menu, and she looks at where they can tweak offerings. There's a balance between grams of fiber and dollars that must be met, and it takes an analytical mind to find an answer to that equation.

Flexibility is another benefit for dietary consultants involved in correctional facility foodservice. Barbara Wakeen, MA, RDN, LD, CCFP, CCHP, owner of Correctional Nutrition Consultants, Ltd, in North Canton, Ohio, specializes in correctional foodservice and nutrition for jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, treatment centers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers, food contractors, and private corrections management companies nationwide. She also consults with food distributors, food processors, and manufacturers in the development, selection, and purchase of food and beverage items to meet specific and desired needs within correctional facilities.

"Every facility is different when it comes to their foodservice programs," Wakeen says. "What you need to do depends on the governing agency (county, state, or federal) and accreditations (American Correctional Association [ACA] and National Commission on Correctional Health Care [NCCHC]) for the facility, as well as the type of facility for which you're working. If a facility is participating in the child nutrition program, these regulations must be incorporated as well. You modify the foodservice plan depending on what the client wants and on the criteria, standards, and accreditation for each type of facility."

One of the issues dietary consultants face is making sure they meet licensure requirements for each state in which they work. Wakeen says currently there are efforts to standardize licensure processes. For now, if Wakeen doesn't have a license in a state where she's being asked to work, she acquires one or subcontracts the job to someone who does, depending on the criteria of the contract.

"Dietitians must pass a security check, at a minimum, before working in or for correctional facilities," Wakeen says. "There's also a licensure requirement for RDNs to practice within a particular state, with other requirements potentially mandated by the correctional system or the contract. You also need to be current on regulations, standards for states' governing agencies, as well as the accreditations and the specific contract requirements, if they exist."

Yager says RDs with CCHCS must be registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Dietitians employed as food administrators must have one year of clinical or administrative experience.
Maurino says that RDs who want to work full-time in a nonmedical correctional facility must be registered and not have any felonies in their background.

"We have a hard time recruiting dietitians to work in prisons due to a negative stigma and fear of working around inmates," Maurino says. "We have about 25 positions with a 40% vacancy rate for RDs. Wages range from about $4,500 to $5,000 per month."

The volume of incarcerated individuals in any one facility can be intimidating. The number of adult prisoners in the United States incarcerated in state and federal correctional facilities totaled an estimated 1.6 million at the end of 2014.2 Numbers from 2010 show 70,793 juvenile offenders housed in US youth detention centers.3 With numbers like these, dietitians in correctional facilities face numerous challenges. For example, including fruit as part of a balanced meal plan is a good way to add fiber to inmates' diets. However, it also can be hoarded and fermented into "pruno," "hooch," or "prison wine."

"The institution staff does not want us serving a lot of fresh fruits, as the inmates stash them in their cells and ferment them into alcohol," Maurino says. "Drunken inmates get into fights and cause trouble. In one case, inmates tried to make 'pruno' out of baked potatoes and ended up getting botulism."

Another challenge RDs face is inmates filing lawsuits regarding their food choices. "I had one set of inmates sue because they wanted creamy peanut butter instead of chunky peanut butter," Maurino says. "There's an endless stream of lawsuits in which inmates just want a cash settlement or to be provided with something special that would give them some attention."

Inmates also try to manipulate their diets to gain access to different foods. For example, Mills says an individual may request a vegetarian meal and then attempt to get a chicken quarter or burger.

Menu Planning
According to Wakeen, nutrition guidelines vary by state, facility, and governing agency, along with any accreditations the facility may have. For consistency, she says RDs use the inmates' gender, age, and activity level as a basis for determining nutrient needs.

"Plugging this information into a nutritional analysis software program to create a 'reference person' provides nutrient recommendations for the population," she says. "The reference person selected meets the overall average range of age, gender, and activity level."

Menus are based on the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the MyPlate food guidance system, and the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs).

As for menu nutrient requirements, Wakeen says they're contingent on the governing agency standards (state, federal, contract, or court-ordered). In some cases, menu requirements simply call for a "nutritionally adequate menu approved by the RDN" there are other requirements that will define food groups, calories, and other macronutrients to be served. Calories can range from 2,200 to more than 3,000 per day.

"As an example of how requirements can vary, California jails that fall under the Title 15 Code of Regulations have a detailed meal pattern, and macronutrient requirements and limitations Minnesota jails have meal pattern requirements and Ohio jails require nutritionally adequate menus," Wakeen says. "As a consultant, you work with your prison's requirements."

At CDCR, Maurino starts with an eye toward meeting the DRIs on a weekly average basis. DRIs, developed and published by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, represent the most current scientific information on the nutritional needs of healthy patients. The CDCR general population meals "lean toward a modified heart-healthy diet," Maurino says, with 30% of calories from fat.

"Our sodium is around 3,500 mg per day, which is a little high for a heart-healthy diet, but since we're serving 2,800 calories per day, with about six to eight slices of whole wheat bread per day, it's hard to get the sodium lowered. We did have the amount of sodium lowered in our lunch meats, and I am also decreasing the total amount of processed meats in the menu."

In comparison, the new 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.

Maurino writes standardized menus for all prisons in the CDCR system, as well as provides policies and education to each prison's food manager, who handles the day-to-day operations. She says this collaborative effort helps to maintain a consistent food experience throughout the system, as well as helps meet budgetary needs.

"Inmates may be eating the same thing statewide on any given day," she says. "This allows for more cost-efficient bulk purchasing. I am trying to serve the most nutritious meals on a budget of $3.42 per inmate per day, three meals per day."

Yager explains that while the healthy inmate population of CDCR eats on a five-week menu cycle, CCHCS has a standardized three-week health care menu, which is revised quarterly. The menu for the medical population changes more frequently to account for changes in inmates' medical conditions. Adjustments can be made for inmates with diabetes who have fluctuating sugar levels, for example.

In her 20 years of consulting with the Massachusetts DOC, Rourke has witnessed an evolution within the system that has resulted in a more all-encompassing menu that serves a large number of the general corrections population. Using recipes from the US Army as a base, she says RDs modified offerings to meet the Massachusetts DOC goal of creating a healthful menu that meets adequacy and restrictive needs, minimizing the number of special dietary menus needed to meet the special requirements of inmates with dietary or religious restrictions. The result was a wide-reaching general population menu with five additional menus: kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, and female-specific.

"For the female population, considerations are made to include more foods with calcium, such as dairy products, and iron, such as fish and spinach, to meet women's dietary needs," Rourke says. "We also keep in mind that women need fewer calories per day than men, due to their higher percentage of body fat."

Serving a large population can be challenging, but Rourke says it does have its benefits. One benefit to creating menus for inmate populations greater than 10,000 is that products can be purchased in large quantities at a reduced price. In one instance, Rourke was able to contract with vendors to create products to her specifications, specifically a beef and chicken base product that could be made as a low-sodium, reduced-cost product.

In Mills' experience, foodservice directors at each correctional facility complete their menu planning by following the specific dietary criteria for each location. Factors that can impact menu choices include contract specifications for how often the menu needs to change, regional preferences, and feedback on menu items gathered from inmates as part of their nutrition counseling. Once the menu meets budgetary restrictions, Mills completes a nutrition analysis. If the menu isn't nutritionally adequate, changes are made so the menu is both nutritionally adequate and within budget.

The CEC foodservice operation falls under the same ACA and NCCHC standards as traditional correctional facilities, Mills says. In addition to a standard menu, which provides a total of 2,800 kcal over three meals per day, CEC provides medical diets for inmates with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease, Crohn's disease, renal conditions, enhanced medical and postsurgery needs, and wired jaws.

Special Dietary Needs and Food Preferences
While RDs who serve an incarcerated population work to create menus that meet as many dietary needs as possible in an effort to cost-effectively provide the best possible sources of good nutrition, there always will be exceptions. For example, included with the general population diets at CDCR are vegetarian, religious meat alternate (which uses halal meat as a substitute for the regular meat on the menu), and a Jewish kosher diet (which consists of prepackaged frozen meals using kosher-certified food). Halal meat is that which is permissible according to Islamic law. Forbidden meats for inmates of the Muslim faith are those from the hindquarters of the animal or any meat from pigs.

Maurino says accommodations also must be made for inmates with known food allergies. "For inmates with allergies, we need documented proof of known allergens," she says. "If the allergies are severe, we try to comply through our hospital kitchens."

On the medical side, Yager oversees the preparation and delivery of therapeutic meals to patient-inmates at CCHCS, with input from dietitians at each facility. Currently, she creates 15 different medical diets, including gluten-free, low-sodium, and specific renal diets for inmates with kidney disease. For example, renal diets are low in sodium, phosphorus, and protein, and they limit fluids.

"The medical, vegetarian, and religious meals are about 1.75% of the total meals served," Mills says. "As much as possible, the menus provide the same foods to be in compliance with the ACA and NCCHC standards. This is still institutional foodservice with the limitations of food production."

Counseling and Providing Nutrition Education
All the effort of planning menus can be for naught when it comes to what inmates actually eat. That's where nutrition counseling and education comes into play. While prisoners are given preselected meals that meet dietary standards, there's no one patrolling the cafeteria to tell them what to eat. Maurino says it's also difficult to provide counseling to a population that has no control over what they get to eat with their daily meals.

"Inmates are handed a tray out of a food port in a dining hall, a process called blind feeding, designed to keep inmates from seeing who makes up their food tray," she says. "There are no options about what you want. We can only tell them to pick and choose out of what they are served."

Blind feeding is one means of cafeteria-style feeding however, many facilities operate a cafeteria-style feeding that allows inmates to refuse food items they don't want, Wakeen explains. Some facilities offer salad bars and alternate vegetarian entrees.

In most cases, inmates are provided with nutrition education handouts, either in group settings or during one-on-one counseling sessions. Wakeen uses the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Nutrition Care Manual materials and modifies them when necessary to meet the needs of inmates and the facility. However, others note that any written materials must not exceed a fourth-grade reading level to ensure all inmates can understand the text.

Nutrition education can be helpful for inmates who have access to the prison store, which offers unhealthful options like Top Ramen, soda, cookies, and candy. However, having access to the store and its unhealthful options can be seen as power within the prison system, which creates a challenge when it comes to convincing inmates to make good choices. "They won't even buy diet soda because it's considered 'sissy stuff,'" Maurino says.

Yager says RDs provide nutrition counseling for inmates receiving medical attention in one-on-one counseling, in group settings, or via teledietary services. There are no specific requirements for how often counseling sessions need to occur, she adds. However, dietitians work to maintain regular contact with inmates who are in need of help when it comes to sticking to their medically required diets. "We emphasize education to empower the patient to make good decisions regarding their diet and take control of their health issues," Yager says.

Unexpectedly Fulfilling
Providing foodservice for the incarcerated population comes with ever-changing variables—from changes in dietary needs and cost-cutting measures to trying to anticipate the next unintended use for diced pears. That said, Maurino says the challenges can add to the fulfillment RDs get when working in this environment. Mills agrees, finding the challenges of working in corrections as pluses of her job.

"No two days are ever alike," she says. "Corrections is the best kept secret for dietitians."

— Kathy Hardy is a freelance writer and editor based in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

1. State of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Weekly report of population as of midnight April 6, 2016.
WeeklyWed/TPOP1A/TPOP1Ad160406.pdf. Accessed April 4, 2016.

2. Carson EA US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Prisoners in 2014. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics 2015. BJS publication NCJ 248955.

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Prison Food and Commissary Services: A Recipe for Disaster

Food plays an integral role in our lives. It not only provides the nutrition necessary to sustain our existence, it feeds the sense of community we all crave. Social bonds are made as we break bread with those who sit and dine with us at the meal table. It may sound trite, but food feeds not just the body but also the soul.

The role of food is more pronounced for prisoners than for those who are not incarcerated. A primary reason for that difference is the fact that prison and jail schedules revolve around meal times. Another is that prisoners are limited to eating the fare provided in the dining hall (commonly called the chow hall or mess hall), or what they can buy from the commissary they lack the food choices that most people take for granted.

The answer to the question &ldquowhat&rsquos for chow?&rdquo is often determinative of whether a prisoner goes to the dining hall or eats out of his or her own pantry. The latter occurs only if the prisoner has money to buy food items from the commissary or can hustle up something to eat. The poorest prisoners are often content with a &ldquobutt naked&rdquo ramen noodle soup.

For the uninformed, a butt naked soup contains nothing more than the soup noodles and seasoning pack. Ramen soups are a staple food among prisoners (as well as poor college students), and even serve as a type of currency in prisons and jails.

More elaborate meals can be made using ramen, by mixing it with various other ingredients. What these dishes are called varies with location in some facilities they&rsquore known as swoles. In Florida they&rsquore called goulash or goulahs.

When not making a goulah, the only other option is to go to the chow hall. As in any institutional setting, there is a serving line that kicks out a tray containing food of dubious quality and sometimes unidentifiable origin. Many years ago, Florida prisons set up barriers to prevent prisoners working in the kitchen from seeing who they served, ending preferential treatment as meals were given out.

When commissary food is prepared as a group meal for a prisoner and his friends, such &ldquospreads&rdquo can be very elaborate. As one prisoner put it, &ldquoIt&rsquos all about taste contrast.&rdquo Spreads have been the subject of such books as Prison Ramen, Commissary Kitchen, Cooking in the Big House, The Convict Cookbook, Jailhouse Cookbook: The Prisoner&rsquos Recipe Bible, From the Big House to Your House: Cooking in Prison and The Prison Gourmet. Most often the recipes only include items sold in the prison commissary, but other ingredients are often available from kitchen workers who sell onions, peppers, spices, meat or even sandwiches or pastries they make in the institutional kitchen.

While a single goulah is tailored to the maker&rsquos taste and eaten alone, a spread meets the varied tastes of the group and is part of a communal gathering. Spreads may be made at any time, but are more prevalent around the holidays.

Corrections officials realize that food is a major part of prison and jail operations it can be used as an incentive for good behavior, to maintain control and to generate profit. Some have the attitude of Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Paul Penzone, who said at the &ldquovery bottom&rdquo of his list of concerns was &ldquowhether or not detainees are happy with the taste of the food they receive.&rdquo

Other officials view food differently. &ldquoNutritious and delicious &ndash it sounds like a catchphrase &ndash but at the end of the day, we don&rsquot want to give inmates any reason to have unrest,&rdquo stated Daniel Martuscello, deputy commissioner for administrative services for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Services. &ldquoIf we&rsquore not giving them something that&rsquos palatable and acceptable to them, it can lead to other problems inside the institution.&rdquo

A World View of Prison Food

Meals served to prisoners have varied significantly by era and location. In the northeastern part of the United States, for example, prisoners were once served what was considered a poor man&rsquos food: lobster.

&ldquoUp until sometime in the 1800s . lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized,&rdquo David Foster Wallace wrote in a 2004 Gourmet essay.

&ldquoEven in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats. One reason for their low status was how plentiful lobsters were in old New England.&rdquo

Also, a 1946 menu from the federal prison on Alcatraz Island listed a number of tasty dishes, including roast pork shoulder, beef pot pie Anglaise, baked meat croquettes with Bechamel sauce, potato chowder, fried eggs and spinach with bacon.

Among the world&rsquos prisons, Norway has a reputation for the most humane facilities. At the Bastoy Prison in the Horton municipality, prisoners are served fish balls with white sauce and prawns, chicken con carne and salmon.

In Japan, meals include fried fish, miso soup, rice with barley, daikon radish and noodle salad, while prisoners in India are served pulihora, a tamarind rice dish, for breakfast. Lunch consists of lentil stew with rice and curry. Dinner is tamarind juice soup and rice goat or chicken curry is served on Sundays. Prisoners in Denmark can prepare their own meals.

Prison food can be much worse in countries where prisoners are treated poorly and their well-being is not seen as a priority.

Andre Barabanov served four years in Russia&rsquos penal system following an anti-Putin protest in 2012. &ldquoThey didn&rsquot give us porridge in the prison canteen, but an incomprehensible grey mass,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI had stomach problems and I felt as if they were trying to kill me.&rdquo

In Thailand, visitors can deliver food to prisoners those who are not so lucky must eat the prison fare. &ldquoBy seven o&rsquoclock a bell would ring and prisoners would line up in the mess hall where plates of steamed rice husks had been sitting on the benches for half an hour,&rdquo wrote Harry Nicolaides, an Australian who served six months in a Bangkok prison for defaming the Thai monarchy. &ldquoThough hungry, I resisted the temptation to try the murky soups, having seen cats vomit after being fed the scraps.&rdquo

China, according to U.S. citizen Stuart B. Foster, has a brutal prison system. While serving eight months in a Chinese prison, Foster was forced to assemble Christmas lights all day except during two 10-minute breaks for lunch and dinner. If the prisoners&rsquo work production did not meet quotas, their rations were halved.

&ldquoEach meal we were fed rice, turnips, and a little pork fat, which tasted terrible but was enough to sustain life,&rdquo Foster wrote in a 2014 online article written for PLN. &ldquoA cut in food rations was devastating, and I saw a few prisoners start to look skeletal.&rdquo

The worst conditions for prisoners with respect to food are in Africa. In 2008, the United Nations reported that at least 26 prisoners had died due to malnutrition in the city of Mbuji Mayl in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The following year, according to news reports, more than half the 1,300 prisoners at the Chikurubi prison in Zimbabwe died as a result of starvation or disease.

In the United States, the Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to adhere to evolving standards of decency, which means prison conditions are based upon the constantly improving conditions of society in general. Fiscal realities, however, are always at the forefront &ndash particularly when it comes to prison and jail food services.

Food Service Privatization

Correctional facilities are always looking for ways to cut costs. One of the most popular trends in recent decades has been privatization &ndash of prison operations, medical and mental health care, transportation, commissaries and food services. In the latter regard, Aramark Correctional Services and Florida-based Trinity Services Group are the two largest players in the privatized prison and jail food industry. Other companies include Summit (which has acquired correctional food service firms CBM Managed Services and ABL Management), Food Services of America (owned by Services Group of America) and GD Correctional Services, LLC.

Because these companies are mainly concerned about generating profit by lowering costs, both the quality and quantity of food served to prisoners tend to suffer.

&ldquoInmates shared countless grievances about serving sizes as well as the quality, taste, or healthiness of the food,&rdquo said University of Arizona School of Sociology doctoral candidate Michael Gibson-Light, who interviewed around 60 prisoners and employees at a men&rsquos facility. &ldquoIt was common for some to compare their meals to those that they received during previous prison stays, sometimes years or decades prior, which they claimed contained more and better food.&rdquo

Over my 30 years of incarceration,* I have watched this phenomenon play out in Florida&rsquos prison system. The meals have never been great as with most institutional food, it is bland and looks unappealing. Yet by adding a bit of seasoning to most chow hall meals, I could leave satisfied.

&ldquoThe reality of it is we do institutional cooking, and that&rsquos bland cooking,&rdquo said Willie Smith, food service administrator for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. &ldquoWe don&rsquot season. We don&rsquot cook it like momma used to cook it.&rdquo

Regardless, holidays and specialty meals are a big draw. &ldquoThanksgiving, Christmas, hot dogs, anything Fourth of July related,&rdquo said Smith. &ldquoWe have what we call the Big Mac deal. If they come in and for some reason the hamburgers are gone, that&rsquos when they get upset. When those popular meals appear, we feed everyone.&rdquo

The most satisfying meal I&rsquove had in prison was my first Fourth of July. We were served a small slab of ribs, potato salad, baked beans, salad and a quarter of a watermelon. Some regular meals, such as creamed beef for breakfast, cheeseburgers or fried chicken, were highly anticipated meals that drew most prisoners to the chow hall.

In 2001, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) decided to privatize its food services in hopes of saving money. As word spread, prisoners uninformed about the perils of privatization espoused hopes for better food.

The first meal served by Aramark Correctional Services at my prison was appealing to the eyes, generous in portions and appetizing in taste. From that point on, though, things spiraled downhill as profit became the motivating factor instead of food quality, quantity or nutrition.

&ldquoWe control the menu, we control what ingredients are used, we enforce the calorie amount that has to be present in every meal,&rdquo noted Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) spokesman Chris Gautz.

As previously reported in PLN, the MDOC privatized its food services, first with Aramark and then with Trinity Services Group, with unappetizing results. Following repeated problems with unsanitary practices &ndash including maggots found in food serving areas &ndash as well as issues involving food shortages and substitutions, misconduct by private food service staff and protests by prisoners, Michigan officials finally decided to bring kitchen operations back in-house. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.52 Jan. 2018, p. 46 Feb. 2017, p.48 Dec. 2015, p.1].

Similar problems have occurred in other jurisdictions where prison and jail food services have been privatized, including in Florida and Ohio. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.14 Dec. 2006, p.10 March 2003, p.15].

When Aramark was the food service vendor in Florida, it often shorted meals with small portions and missing ingredients. On one occasion when I was assigned as a kitchen worker, an Aramark employee berated me for draining water off the vegetables after they were cooked.

&ldquoWater is part of the serving,&rdquo the employee said. That would result in prisoners who were unfortunate enough to be served from the bottom of the pan receiving just a few green beans in a scoop of water.

&ldquoPrisons are very delicate environments and things like food become incredibly important to people who are incarcerated. It&rsquos a safety issue for other prisoners and corrections officers,&rdquo noted Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio. &ldquoWhat we&rsquore seeing with Aramark and around food privatization is that it injects chaos into the situation.&rdquo

Aramark&rsquos poor food quality and small portions reportedly sparked a 2009 riot at a Kentucky prison that left eight prisoners and eight guards injured. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.10 Oct. 2009, p.36]. According to a subsequent report by Kentucky&rsquos Auditor of Public Accounts, &ldquocertain items on the menu were watered down or . items were routinely missing or cut out of recipes.&rdquo Further, &ldquoThe auditors noted numerous instances in which spices were left out of recipes, and even more serious instances in which flour, beef base, and bulk food ingredients called for in the recipe were dramatically reduced or omitted.&rdquo

Florida abandoned prison food privatization in 2009, and Michigan announced it would do likewise in February 2018. Other jurisdictions have also chosen to keep food services in-house, concluding that the savings, if any, are simply not worth it.

The 2009 Kentucky riot at the Northpoint Training Center, in which six buildings were destroyed, resulted in $18 million in repair costs. A September 10, 2016 riot at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan &ndash partly due to the poor quality of food served by Aramark &ndash cost the state $888,320, according to a prison spokesman.

Learning from Privatization

When Aramark ended its contract with Florida in January 2009 and food services reverted to the FDOC, prison officials adopted the company&rsquos cost-cutting practices. Rather than making its kitchen workers corrections officers as it had done previously, the FDOC hired people at minimum wage as non-benefit employees. Under Aramark, the daily cost to feed prisoners was around $2.31 each per day. The FDOC cut that amount to $1.71 per day.

It accomplished that not only by hiring lower-paid workers, but also by serving lower-quality meat and soy products.

Aramark had removed fryers from prison kitchens, eliminating fried food and the cost of grease. It also converted all beef products to turkey. Thus, sloppy Joe was really &ldquosloppy Tom.&rdquo

In its eagerness to cut costs, the FDOC went even further. It made virtually every meal soy-based. All of the patties were soy, as were most other &ldquomeats.&rdquo The only real meat was the weekly chicken quarter. The soy patties have fancy names like Southwestern patty, but to prisoners they are known as &ldquofart patties&rdquo due to the severe flatulence they cause. The worst cases of gas came from what prisoners called &ldquoKibbles and Bits,&rdquo so named because they were small chunks of textured soy protein that resembled dog food.

Additional cost-cutting came in the form of eliminating virtually all fresh fruit from the menu. The irony is that Florida is one of the nation&rsquos largest producers of fruit, with the state itself owning thousands of acres of citrus orchards.

On several occasions, the inferior food led prisoners at the Cross City Correctional Institution to boycott the chow hall. Those incidents compelled prison officials to improve the meals, and they eventually abandoned the Kibbles and Bits due to the boycotts and because prisoners were regularly choosing the alternative meal option: beans. Plus, as many prisoners were suffering intestinal ailments after soy became the main course in most prison meals, increased medical costs may have been a contributing factor.

There are some things that private food service companies can do that most corrections agencies can&rsquot, or won&rsquot, though.

Aramark&rsquos iCare and offer specialty food items that family members can purchase for prisoners at certain facilities. They can order pizzas, burgers, Philly steaks, hotdogs, onion rings, hot wings and more &ndash but must pay exorbitant prices. A Double Angus Cheeseburger with A1 sauce is $15.49 through iCare, and an eight-inch cheese pizza is $12.39. At, which services the Norfolk County Jail in Virginia, a hamburger, two slices of pizza or a Philly steak, with drink included, costs $9.00 each plus a $2.00 processing fee. The food is ordered online and delivered to prisoners on a scheduled date.

The Cook County jail in Chicago has a similar program in which prisoners can order pizzas for $5 to $7 each, and have them delivered to their cells. According to May 2017 news reports, the pizzas are made by prisoner workers enrolled in a culinary program taught by Chef Bruno Abate, who is a member of Recipe for Change &ndash a non-profit that works with prisoners at the jail and gives them an &ldquointroduction to healthy food, good nutrition and the art of quality cooking.&rdquo The most popular jail pizza is one topped with sausage.

The Kosher Effect

Thanks to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), many jails and prisons have been forced to provide prisoners with religious dietary options, including halal meals (for Muslims) and kosher meals (for Jewish prisoners and sometimes Muslims, too). Corrections officials have done so unwillingly in some cases.

When the U.S. Department of Justice dragged Florida into federal court to force it to provide Jewish prisoners with kosher meals, the FDOC mounted a vigorous challenge. Costs, state prison officials argued, would be over $3 a day per prisoner &ndash or about $12.1 million a year. The district court, however, calculated the cost at $3 million, which was a fraction of the FDOC&rsquos $2.2 billion total budget. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.59 May 2014, p.14].

The California Institution for Men in Chino has seen a huge shift from having to serve kosher meals after a federal court decreed they must be made available. The food budget for such meals jumped from $52,000 in 2016 to $143,000 in 2017.

&ldquoThe state [overall] has spent an additional $2 million to $3 million feeding kosher,&rdquo declared Willie Harris, the food manager at the facility. To cut down on that, prison officials remove prisoners from the kosher meal program if they consume non-kosher food. Harris found that &ldquo80 percent of the inmates that were on that kosher list have purchased some type of pork product from the canteen.&rdquo

However, prison officials often ignore the fact that prisoners purchase food items from the commissary to barter or trade with other prisoners, not to eat themselves.

While many prisoners request kosher meals due to their sincere religious beliefs, others seek them out because they are considered more nutritious, better tasting or at least different from the standard, monotonous prison fare.

Since kosher meals cost more, within the past year Florida officials have tried to entice prisoners to abandon the kosher diet program by upgrading the master menu. The current menu now includes roast beef, chicken nuggets, breakfast burritos, real beef patties and even ice cream bars. The effect was exactly what the FDOC had hoped: Many prisoners receiving kosher meals returned to the master menu. It seems that prison officials figured out if they spend a bit more on the regular menu, they could spend a lot less on kosher food.

Litigation, mainly under RLUIPA, has spurred corrections officials to provide kosher dietary options, including in Nevada, which settled a class-action suit in August 2012, and in Texas, Indiana and Idaho. Maryland agreed to serve kosher meals in 2009 after a meeting between the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and representatives from the Jewish community. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.56 April 2018, pp.40,48 Sept. 2009, p.44]. And in October 2017, Michigan prisoners sought class-action status in a federal lawsuit to require prison officials to provide kosher meals. See: Ackerman v. Washington, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 4:13-cv-14137-LVP-MKM.

Most recently, on July 5, 2018, a federal district court in South Dakota held a former prisoner&rsquos suit could proceed on claims that he was denied kosher food. While James Irving Dale was incarcerated between 2002 and 2017, he claimed that the prison&rsquos private food contractor, CBM Correctional Food Services, served meals containing rice cooked with pork flavoring and byproducts, that the kitchen was not certified by a rabbi and that kitchen workers indicated they had contaminated his food with utensils used to cut pork.

The district court wrote that &ldquoIt is settled law in the Eighth Circuit that a kosher diet must be provided in a prison setting,&rdquo and, &ldquoViewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court concludes that there were numerous instances in which Kashrut [Jewish dietary] practices were not followed in the preparation and serving of food that Mr. Dale would have eaten.&rdquo

Although Dale has been released from prison, rendering his claims for injunctive relief moot, he also sought monetary damages, which allowed his lawsuit to proceed. The case has been set for trial on September 18, 2018. See: Dale v. Dooley, U.S.D.C. (D. SD), Case No. 4:14-cv-04003-LLP.

Not all prisons and jails offer a halal or kosher option, but rather provide vegetarian alternatives or serve &ldquocommon fare&rdquo meals that meet the dietary requirements of a number of religions.

The Commissary Alternative

In some jurisdictions, the company that supplies prison food services has a disincentive to serve meals that draw prisoners to the chow hall. That&rsquos because the vendor not only provides meals but also manages the commissary or canteen store. When the same firm controls both operations, it&rsquos like hitting the prison contract lottery.

Such is the case with Trinity Services Group, owned by TKC Holdings &ndash a company that also owns Keefe Group, which operates prison and jail commissaries. TKC, in turn, is indirectly controlled by H.I.G. Capital, LLC, a private equity firm.

&ldquoThere&rsquos almost no incentive to serve good food,&rdquo noted Ronald Zullo, an associate research scientist at the University of Michigan&rsquos Economic Growth Institute, upon learning that Trinity managed both food and commissary services in Michigan state prisons until earlier this year. &ldquoIf you deter people from the chow hall and have them buy food [from the commissary], that would, from Trinity&rsquos perspective, be the most profitable.&rdquo

Other private companies that provide both food and commissary services include Aramark, TIGG&rsquos Canteen Services, Summit and Tiger Correctional Services. Several other firms, such as Kimble&rsquos Commissary Services and McDaniel Supply Company, only provide commissary services &ndash mainly at local jails.

The meals served in prisons and jails are sometimes so unpalatable that prisoners avoid going to the chow hall altogether, instead relying on commissary purchases.

&ldquoI don&rsquot eat that prison food,&rdquo said one South Carolina prisoner. &ldquoThe guys on what they call lock up, they&rsquore the ones who mostly fall victim to that. Me, personally, I would have to be rock bottom with no chance at all to eat that.&rdquo

South Carolina canteen manager Eddie Huddle said prisoners who can afford to do so opt out of the chow hall meals and purchase their food from the commissary. &ldquoI can&rsquot tell you what percentage but I can tell you there&rsquos a lot of [that],&rdquo he observed.

Commissaries are big business. One example can be found in the FDOC&rsquos contract with Trinity in exchange for the privilege of providing commissary operations, the company pays the state $1.165 per day for each of its nearly 100,000 prisoners &ndash or over $36 million annually.

Accordingly to a 2014 contract proposal posted on West Virginia&rsquos website, Keefe Commissary Network and its affiliate, Access Securepak, reported gross sales of over $375 million for care package, commissary and technology programs in 2012, with net profit of $41 million &ndash or a 10.9 percent profit margin.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) conducted a survey of state prison systems in 2013, and of the 34 that responded, 12 had privatized some or all of their commissary operations. Twenty-eight states reported combined annual commissary revenue of $517 million with net profit of over $57 million.

When Trinity&rsquos parent company, H.I.G. Capital, announced it was acquiring Keefe Group in May 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative &ndash a non-profit criminal justice research and advocacy organization &ndash estimated based on the ASCA data that Trinity could reap annual revenues totaling $875 million after buying Keefe.

The Company Store

Exercising the option to mainly eat commissary food is expensive. Commissary prices are typically higher than what people pay outside of prison for the same items some facilities have policies that limit the mark-up amounts, while others don&rsquot. Corrections officials justify the prices by noting they are similar to those at convenience stores &ndash which often charge more due to the &ldquoconvenience&rdquo factor, which is lacking in prisons and jails where prisoners have no other options. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.25].

Higher commissary prices are compounded by low prison wages. The Prison Policy Initiative released a report in April 2017 that examined how much prisoners earn in each state prison system, both in regular institutional jobs and prison industry programs. For regular jobs, the average wage ranged from .14 to .63 per hour. Thus, high commissary prices consume a large amount of prisoners&rsquo income. In some states, including Alabama, Texas and Georgia, prisoners receive no pay for their work.

To supplement their paltry wages, prisoners often receive money from family members and friends, which is put on their prison or jail trust accounts.

&ldquoWe&rsquore not rich,&rdquo said Lisa Moore, who has sent thousands of dollars to her son in a Mississippi prison to buy commissary items. &ldquoWe work hard, but I see so many people who don&rsquot have anything to take to their loved ones.&rdquo She added, &ldquoI work an extra job, just to take care of it.&rdquo

The most popular item in prison and jail commissaries, ramen noodle soup, is often sold at inflated prices. Trinity charges Florida prisoners .70 for a standard 3-ounce package of ramen. Union Supply Group, a California prison package service, sells the same soup to Tennessee prisoners for .45 each. By contrast, ramen packages are available in most grocery stores at a cost ranging from .10 to .25.

Honey buns are another very popular item. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.24]. An iced honey bun you can buy at the corner store for .70 is sold in Florida prison commissaries for $1.59, while a two-pack of AA batteries that discount stores sell for $1.80 costs $3.02 in the commissary.

This is reminiscent of a scene in The Grapes of Wrath, the 1939 Pulitzer-winning novel by John Steinbeck, when a family travels to California during the Great Depression to look for work. When they obtain a job picking peaches, the mother goes to the company store &ndash owned and operated by the farming operation &ndash to buy food for their dinner. She finds everything is overpriced but there are no other options if they want to eat. Thus, they have to use their meager wages to purchase food from the company store at inflated prices.

Such is the nature of prison and jail commissaries.

&ldquoYou&rsquove got a very high cost of doing business,&rdquo countered Jim Theiss, CEO of the Centric Group LLC, Keefe&rsquos former parent company. &ldquoI can assure you, we believe in providing value.&rdquo

That value depends largely on location. Through Access Securepak, Trinity sells food packages for prisoners. The Florida Fall/Winter 2016 catalog listed eight packs of cheese on cheese crackers for $3.90. That same item was sold to Georgia prisoners for $3.25 in the Fall 2016 catalog. A five-ounce Vienna sausage package was offered to Florida prisoners for $2.40, while Georgia prisoners could purchase that item for $2.00. Union Supply Group engages in such disparate pricing, too for example, it offered a four-ounce bag of Folgers Instant Coffee to both Florida and Tennessee prisoners in the winter of 2016. The former had to pay $4.95 per bag, while the latter were charged only $2.55.

Inflated commissary and package prices are directly connected to the kickbacks that corrections agencies receive in exchange for awarding companies monopoly contracts. For food packages, the FDOC receives 20 percent of Trinity&rsquos gross sales, while Union Supply Group kicks back 15 percent of its gross sales.

Prison Policy Initiative Report

The Prison Policy Initiative released a detailed report on commissaries in May 2018, noting that they &ldquopresent yet another opportunity for prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families, often enriching private companies in the process.&rdquo

The report examined data from Illinois and Washington, where the state DOCs operate prison commissaries, and from Massachusetts, where Keefe is the prison system&rsquos private commissary vendor.

According to the study, prisoners in Illinois and Massachusetts spent an average of $1,121 and $1,207 per year on commissary purchases, respectively, while those in Washington spent an average of $513 annually. The disparity for Washington may be partly due to a state law, RCW 72.09.480, that makes any money sent to prisoners&rsquo trust accounts subject to 25 percent deductions for victims&rsquo compensation and cost-of-incarceration, plus another 10 percent for mandatory savings, 20 percent for outstanding legal financial obligations and 20 percent for any child support orders. As a result of these deductions, less money is available to Washington state prisoners for commissary purchases.

In a call with PLN, Prison Policy Initiative executive director Peter Wagner also mentioned that Washington prisoners appear to receive a significant amount of commissary items through quarterly packages ordered by family members from Union Supply Group. The packages, which are not counted in commissary sales data, may be favored by prisoners&rsquo families as a way to avoid the DOC&rsquos trust account deductions.

An analysis of commissary sales in the three states examined in the report found that prepared and snack foods made up the bulk of purchases, followed by beverages and hygiene products. The study noted the emphasis on foodstuffs was not surprising, since &ldquoprison and jail cafeterias are notorious for serving small portions of unappealing food.&rdquo

It also questioned whether prisoners should be forced to buy commissary items due to inadequate meals served in the chow hall and insufficient hygiene products provided by prison officials. &ldquoIf people in prison are resorting to the commissary to buy essential goods, like food and hygiene products, does it really make sense to charge a day&rsquos prison wages (or more) for one of these goods? Should states knowingly force the families of incarcerated people to pay for essential goods their loved ones can&rsquot afford, often racking up exorbitant money transfer fees in the process?&rdquo

Total commissary revenue in the three states included $11.7 million in Massachusetts (for the one-year period ending in June 2016), $48.4 million in Illinois (for one year ending in September 2017) and $8.69 million in Washington (for one year ending in October 2017).

With respect to pricing of prison commissary items, the Prison Policy Initiative wrote that &ldquoOne rather surprising finding is that prices for some common items were lower than prices found at traditional free-world retailers. Other commissary prices were higher, but only by a little bit.&rdquo

Then again, the report had a limited data sample from just three state prison systems and no local jails, and apparently didn&rsquot do much in the way of comparison shopping with respect to free-world costs. For example, the study cited local retail prices for ramen soup ranging from .40 to .89 each, though ramen typically sells for much less at grocery stores.

In regard to public operation of prison commissaries versus privatization, the Prison Policy Initiative found that &ldquoeven in state-operated commissary systems, private commissary contractors are positioned to profit, blurring the line between state and private control.&rdquo

&ldquoOf the three states we examined, only Massachusetts has a contractor-operated commissary system. It also has the highest per-person average commissary spending. It is tempting to conclude that the profit motive of commissary contractors leads to higher mark-ups and thus higher per capita spending, but we would need a larger sample size to test this hypothesis,&rdquo the report said.

It also noted that in Illinois&rsquo DOC-operated commissary system, items sold to prisoners were purchased from private vendors &ndash the largest being Keefe, &ldquowhich accounted for 30% of the commissary&rsquos spending.&rdquo Thus, the report observed, &ldquoit appears that Keefe is positioned to make money even in states that have not privatized the operation of their prison commissaries.&rdquo

&ldquoIn the long term, when incarcerated people can&rsquot afford goods and services vital to their well-being, society pays the price. In the short term, however, these costs are falling on families, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately come from communities of color,&rdquo the Prison Policy Initiative study concluded. &ldquoIf the cost of food and soap is too much for states to bear, they should find ways to reduce the number of people in prison, rather than nickel-and-diming incarcerated people and their families.&rdquo

Protesting Price Gouging

Challenges to high prison and jail commissary prices are rarely successful, but that does not stop prisoners and their advocates from trying.

In New Jersey, a prisoner at the Monmouth County Jail, Donell Freeman, 41, filed suit over price gouging at the facility&rsquos commissary, which is run by Keefe Commissary Network. Freeman claimed the high cost of commissary items violated anti-trust laws and constituted cruel and unusual punishment due to the &ldquodiscriminating prices.&rdquo The county receives a 45 percent commission from Keefe on commissary sales, plus there is a 10 percent fee that goes to a crime victims fund. In 2016, the county received over $350,000 in commission payments. One package of ramen soup costs $1.10 at the jail.

Freeman&rsquos lawsuit was dismissed in May 2017, just one month after it was filed, for failure to comply with in forma pauperis requirements. Ironically, he had been jailed for robbing an A&P grocery store. See: Freeman v. Monmouth County Correctional Institution Commissary, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 3:17-cv-02713-BRM-TJB.

In March 2010, a California federal district court dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by eight prisoners who alleged the state prison system unfairly raised commissary prices to make up for revenue lost in an earlier suit.

In 2003, several California prisoners had sued prison officials because they were not receiving the interest earned on their trust accounts instead, the interest was deposited into the Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF). As a result of that case, prisoner funds were no longer placed into interest-bearing accounts. See: Schneider v. Cal. Dept. of Corr., 345 F.3d 716 (9th Cir. 2003).

Because the IWF relied in part on funds generated by interest earned on the trust accounts, it lost revenue. In order to make up that shortfall, prisoners argued that commissary prices were unfairly and unlawfully increased.

The class-action suit claimed the sudden price increases violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment and constituted &ldquoprice gouging&rdquo under California law.

The district court dismissed the case, noting that prisoners are not forced to buy anything from prison commissaries, and thus no takings clause violation occurred.

And in dismissing the prisoners&rsquo price gouging claim, the court found that 1) there is no constitutional right to purchase anything from the commissary other than the necessities of life, 2) prisoners were aware of the prices and authorized the expenditure of funds from their accounts when they made commissary purchases, and 3) there was no evidence that the prices were unfair or unlawful. The dismissal of the case was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on July 13, 2011. See: Godoy v. Horel, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:09-cv-04793-PJH.

Beyond litigation, prisoners and their advocates have also protested high commissary prices through boycotts and demonstrations.

In early July 2017, a group of women incarcerated at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville collectively boycotted commissary purchases. The organized action began after the Arizona Department of Corrections hiked prices on various commissary items provided by Keefe Commissary Network, ranging from tampons and shoelaces to granola bars and soap.

The prisoners released a statement expressing their frustration over the increased prices. &ldquoWe get one roll of toilet paper per week and 12 pads a month. Everything else comes out of our pockets, including [non-cafeteria] food. We make between .10-.45 an hour. 20 percent of our wages go to restitution and we get charged $2 a month for electricity,&rdquo they wrote. &ldquoWith so little, we already struggle to make ends meet &ndash often being left to choose between buying a bar of soap, which is now $1.50, or making a phone call home at .20 a minute. Now we&rsquore expected to pay 70 percent more for staple items, like peanut butter.&rdquo During the boycott, prisoners bought only a single .06 toothbrush.

The Arizona Department of Corrections receives a 16 percent commission kickback from Keefe, which generated $6.3 million in 2016. A prison spokesman noted that only 268 commissary items out of 1,000 had increased in price, while another 222 decreased.

On January 16, 2018, prisoners&rsquo rights supporters protested outside several Florida prisons and the FDOC&rsquos central office in Tallahassee, in part due to price-gouging in prison canteens.

&ldquoCan someone talk to us about why tampons cost $18?&rdquo one demonstrator asked.

The protest action, which resulted in at least one arrest, coincided with a planned non-violent &ldquolaydown&rdquo by prisoners that included refusal to work and a boycott of canteen purchases as a form of non-participation. The laydown was supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a project of Industrial Workers of the World.

The previous month, Operation PUSH &ndash an effort by Florida prisoners and their advocates to end prison slave labor and exploitive commissary prices, and to fully reestablish parole &ndash posted a statement that read, in part, &ldquo[O]ne case of soup on the street cost $4. It costs us $17 on the inside. This is highway robbery without a gun. It&rsquos not just us that they&rsquore taking from. It&rsquos our families who struggle to make ends meet and send us money &ndash they are the real victims that the state of Florida is taking advantage of.&rdquo

The Culture of Prison Cuisine

When it comes to prison meals, the bottom line is that they are one of the most anticipated events in correctional facilities because there is little else to look forward to &ndash and because prison schedules are designed to accommodate thrice-daily meal times (or twice a day on weekends at some facilities). While chow hall dishes sometimes have appealing names, such as Turkey Tetrazzini or Western Chili, the reality is that most prison food is bland, under- or over-cooked and unappetizing. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.1].

As a result, prisoners create elaborate recipes to make their own tasty meals. The best combine both commissary items and food from the chow hall. Onions, tomatoes, peppers and seasonings are popular items sold by kitchen workers.

&ldquoIn most cases, if you&rsquore lucky enough to know somebody that works in the kitchen, they can bring you back some raw onions, maybe some chives, some jalapenos, fresh vegetables,&rdquo said former prisoner Gustavo &ldquoGoose&rdquo Alvarez, who co-authored Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. &ldquoAnd then there&rsquos times when you don&rsquot have much but tap water, a bag of Cheetos &ndash Flamin&rsquo Hot Cheetos at that &ndash and a couple of soups. And you know what? You make a little tamale.&rdquo

Prisoners also frequently take food from the chow hall back to their cells, in violation of prison rules. &ldquoYou&rsquoll sneak back bits of beef stroganoff and wash it off, mix it in with your ramen and create a different dish,&rdquo Alvarez stated.

While some prisons and jails have microwaves available in housing areas, others do not. Most facilities provide access to hot water, though, so prisoners can make soup and coffee, and warm other food items.

&ldquoYou put your noodles in this [bowl], add hot water, put the lid on, and then take it to your bunk and cover it with bedding and a pillow to hold in the heat,&rdquo an ex-prisoner wrote on &ldquoThis method is usually pretty effective, and after 10 minutes or so you have your ramen.&rdquo

Bread is a commodity not always sold or available in commissaries, so prisoners make &ldquosoup sandwiches.&rdquo This involves opening one end of a ramen noodle pack and filling it with hot water for about a minute. Once the water is drained off, the block of ramen, which is partly cooked but still firm, is split into two flat pieces and filled with mackerel, tuna, pork rinds or chips and condiments as desired.

Larger &ldquospreads&rdquo may contain ramen or chips as a base plus pickles, eggs, summer sausage, Slim Jims or virtually anything to add taste. Improvised tamales, burritos, pizzas and even cakes are possible. For example, a jail-house recipe for &ldquosweet and sour pork&rdquo includes pork rinds, cherry Kool-Aid mix, V8 or tomato juice, ketchup, sugar and (where available) soy sauce.

Prisoners are not just innovative when it comes to concocting recipes from food available in the commissary and chow hall they also can be entrepreneurial. When Seth Sundberg was serving time in California, he avoided eating meat in the chow hall that was delivered to the kitchen in boxes stamped &ldquonot for human consumption,&rdquo and developed a granola bar using oatmeal, honey, trail mix and peanut butter.

Finding that other prisoners were willing to buy them, upon his release he started a company to make organic, gluten-free energy bars under the name Prison Bars. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.17]. His business has since expanded, and is now branded as Inside-Out Bars (, offering such flavors as cranberry almond and peanut butter choco chip.

Eating in prison has a larger purpose than simply being a means of nourishment or even having something appetizing to take the edge off the drudgery of life behind bars.

&ldquoCooking meals in prison isn&rsquot really about taste,&rdquo explained performance artist Karla Davis, who conducts demonstrations on how to prepare prison food. &ldquoIt&rsquos a reminder of humanity, community, and the person you were on the outside.&rdquo

Sitting down to a spread can be a sharing experience that helps prisoners remember there is power in bringing people together. While at the California Institution for Men in August 2009, Alvarez experienced race riots. &ldquoThere were inmates being stabbed, people getting beaten, buildings going up in flames. People were carrying around swords made out of broken windows,&rdquo he recalled.

Then, he saw something that caused him to change his life and way of thinking. He saw some older gang members calm down younger prisoners and begin feeding soup to freezing prisoners who were not being let back into the housing units by guards.

Alvarez told others in his unit, &ldquoGather up whatever food you have, and let&rsquos feed these guys.&rdquo It was then he realized, &ldquoI was having a meal with my so-called enemies, but after speaking with them, it was obvious that they were my brothers.&rdquo

The carceral experience can be traumatic, both physically and emotionally, and food can make an enormous difference.

&ldquoI was making chicken soup &ndash it took me back to that ordeal [during the riot],&rdquo said Alvarez. &ldquoI felt how I felt at the time &ndash I was on my own, becoming a man, but in prison. It was an eerie feeling &ndash that little warm soup brought me some comfort. There is still something I can have and feel at home, even though I&rsquom not.&rdquo

Sources: Daily Republic,, Seattle Times, Statesman Journal, The Republic, Clarion-Ledger, Baltimore Sun,,, Munchies, The Atlantic,,,, Detroit Free Press, Colorado Springs Independent,,,, The Marshall Project,,,,, Phoenix New Times,,,, Chicago Tribune

* The author is incarcerated in a Florida state prison.

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Kilmainham Gaol Museum

Following the Kilmainham Gaol tour, there is an informative museum that you can go through at your own pace.

The museum has more details about the Easter Rising & other Irish nationalist events, including a copy of the original proclamation.

Along with the history of the Rising, there are also exhibits about earlier uprisings, rebellions, and political groups. There is also a section that details the restoration of Kilmainham, including old photos.

The final section of the Kilmainham Gaol Museum was a special exhibition called &ldquoHunger Strike Ireland: 1877-1981,&rdquo which told the history of hunger strikes. Among these stories was that of Thomas Ashe, a hunger striker who was force fed & died on September 25th, 1917. I visited Kilmainham on September 25th, 2017, exactly 100 years after the day of his death.

Kilmainham Gaol is very much a social history museum. It is an informative & moving experience. The stories told by the tour guides bring Irish history to life while also importing the idea that prison & societal conditions still have room for improvement in the modern day. If you&rsquore interested in more history of Dublin, I also recommend visiting the Little Museum of Dublin & Glasnevin Cemetery.

If you&rsquore looking for a place to stay in Dublin, check out these Dublin hotels & AirBnbs.

I start all of my flight & hotel research on Kayak to find the best deals!

What it’s like to actually eat the food in Oakland County Jail

As they do every evening, hundreds of fruit flies perched on the dank tiled walls in the Oakland County Jail's showers look on as I step in to prepare dinner.

The roughly 6-by-4-foot enclosure is dimly lit by yellow, fluorescent light. The mildew is staggering.

Aside from serving as a fruit fly sanctuary, the shower serves multiple needs for hundreds of inmates daily. Even though it's filthy, it's where we scrub ourselves of the jail's filth. It's also where we do our laundry: Underwear and socks are agitated and scoured in five-gallon buckets also used to clean out the showers, then held up to the showerhead for a rinse.

Worse yet, it's the only place where a prisoner can find some privacy. And a few moments out of sight in the day of a sex-starved criminal lodged for months in the county jail leads to one thing.

The shower is also our stove. It's where we "cook" our commissary food, and in my hand is a clear, 20-ounce plastic cup filled halfway with pale brown, no-brand dehydrated refried beans. I hold the cup to the showerhead and fill it until the bean flakes are submerged. The beans need hot water to cook. Jail shower water is tepid at best, but regardless of the outcome in the stove, the beans are my ticket into that evening's "cook-up."

The cook-ups are a sort of potluck in which inmates pool ingredients purchased from commissary, which has a stock list similar to that of any crappy Eight Mile party store. But a party store offers better food than the Oakland County Jail cafeteria, and the cook-ups are essential. The "state" meals are painfully short on calories and taste, so each night we pile up mounds of junk food on chips or tortillas, creating sodium bombs packing the flavor and fill lacking on the state-issued trays.

My cook-up partner and friend, Chillin' P, who goes by this nickname despite his felonious assault rap that would be evidence against the moniker, is contributing semi-cooked and still mostly crunchy white rice along with a bag of pulverized Flamin' Hot Cheetos used for seasoning. Some dude who has the face of a classic cartoon thief brings tortillas, pickles, jalapenos, and squeeze cheese. These are the ingredients of a variation on the jail burrito &mdash not much of a dazzler on this night, but it'll do.

For a moment in the shower I become very aware of what I'm doing and my surroundings. It's a harsh flash of reality. The scene is gross and depressing as I take a fruit-fly-on-the-wall look at myself: Me standing in a jail shower, a cup of dried refried beans held to a dirty showerhead. The din of dozens of inmates recreating in the dayroom on the other side of the shower curtain echoes through the cellblock. It's a stew of sad lives playing spades, Scrabble, chess, or watching TMZ. The only thing louder than them is the deputy yelling at them to shut the fuck up.

I smell the mildew and I see the staring and still fruit flies. I know I stand on an unfathomable amount of "pris jizz." I see the pile of old, wet socks the last prisoner who laundered in the shower left behind. A wave of despair hits, but retreats in an instant. The repulsiveness is shut out by the need to eat. Any germaphobe hesitation disappears. Germs present less of a threat than hunger. My rumbling belly trumps all. In jail you've got to do what passes the time quicker. Hunger is a weight on the minute hand. And if standing in that dank horror chamber with a cup of dried beans is what gets me through, well .

I pull the cup from the showerhead. Ten minutes later, the beans &mdash now a scientifically impossible soggy yet crunchy paste &mdash are presented to Chillin' P and thief face.

1 package saltine crackers

Spread the tuna on the tortilla. Dice half a pickle. Crumble saltine crackers into a pile. Try to heat the chili. After failing, mix chili, pickle cubes, and add saltines for thickening. Pour chili mix over the tuna. Liberally apply mustard.

A convincing argument can be made that jail food should be pretty gross, but what it shouldn't be is rotten, maggot-infested, pulled out of the garbage, or gnawed on by rats. Unfortunately, that's exactly what it has been at times in Michigan's jails. Aramark, the company with which Oakland County and the Michigan Department of Corrections contracts for food service, seems intent on outdoing itself with each increasingly appalling headline. If you thought those maggots they served in Jackson last week were pretty gross, then check out the rotten chicken tacos they plopped on the plates in Kent County this week.

While OCJ has been spared the more gruesome issues, I still got a taste of Aramark's approach to feeding inmates during my seven-month stay in four different cellblocks, and it wasn't good. The media has been on them. Not only here, but also in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, and everywhere else where mouse turds or bugs or worms are turning up in prisoners' dinners.

Thankfully, I didn't read about the extent of it until after I got out.

In the days leading up to a sentencing I knew would leave me confined for much longer than preferable, I rounded my belly by licking plates clean at all my favorite restaurants. Chicken gyros from Plaka, deep-dish pizza from Loui's, burgers from Nemo's, cake after cake from Astoria.

As a teenage delinquent with a Hollywood Knights-style relationship with the local law, I had gotten acquainted with drunk-tank cuisine, so I figured I knew what to expect and would fatten up a little beforehand.

But as I waded into my protracted stay at the Oakland County Jail, it quickly became evident that I wasn't prepared for the daily culinary horror show. No one is asking the jail to polish the silver for a bunch of beer-bombing dolts and petty thugs. However &mdash assuming they weren't serving actual trash that day, which is a legitimate worry in Michigan &mdash there was no imagining the cartoonish menu items that would land in front of us, like bologna soup. There's no knowing ahead of time that "meatballs" in fluorescent gray sauce were actually the best thing rolling out of the kitchen and cause for excitement.

The problems with taste didn't compare to the sudden drop in caloric intake and persistent hunger. No one straight up starves in jail but, unless your people are putting money in your prisoner account so you can buy chips, candy, beef sticks, tuna, beans, or other ingredients to prepare food from commissary, you go hungry.

Within a week I dropped 11 pounds and within two weeks my ribs popped through as I shed another 10. Slices from Loui's and chicken gyros from Plaka danced and tumbled through my dreams. When my cellmate and I weren't bitching about our cases, we sat on our bunks and debated which restaurant in town stacked the tallest Rueben and one-upped each other's potato salad recipes.

The only person I ever met who gained weight in jail put on a shocking 20 pounds. By the looks of his pencil-thin frame, one would've guessed he had just lost 30.

"I was a meth addict before I came in," he explained over a bologna sandwich.

"He was on the stem-fast diet," another of his tribe chimed in.

Being hungry while confined in a monotonous existence places food in a whole new light. Surviving jail with your sanity intact is all about pushing the clock forward with as much joy as one can scrape together, and hunger &mdash the kind that causes everyone in the room except meth addicts to drop 20 to 30 pounds &mdash only slows time and cracks the spirit.

Meals become one of the few bright-ish spots in an otherwise dismal reality. There's nothing else from which to draw any pleasure, rest assured. So for those with money for commissary, cobbling together a tuna Rueben or assembling a junk food burrito the size of a football is an immense joy that can swing a day from miserable to tolerable by offering some delight and variation that, by design, is in very short supply.

Brighten enough days in that way and time might not seem to stand quite so still.

Food also becomes currency. You're pretty much illiterate and want someone to write a nice letter to your judge? Hand over a Honeybun. Need a barber to do something about your lid? The going rate is two bags of chips and a scoop of coffee. For those looking for a liquid lunch, someone always had "spud juice" made from fermented apples in their locker. A 20-ounce bottle runs $5 worth of commissary items.

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Eastern State Penitentiary: A Prison With a Past

In 1787, four years after the American Revolutionary War, the United States was a country brimming with possibility, and no city felt the excitement more than Philadelphia. Delegates such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were gathering at Independence Hall to draft what would later become the Constitution. That same year, a couple of blocks away from Independence Hall, at the home of Benjamin Franklin, another group of civic-minded leaders gathered to debate a wholly different matter: prison reform.

Conditions at the Walnut Street Jail located directly behind Independence Hall were appalling. Men and women, adults and children, thieves and murderers were jailed together in disease-ridden, dirty pens where rape and robbery were common occurrences. Jailors made little effort to protect the prisoners from each other. Instead, they sold the prisoners alcohol, up to nearly twenty gallons of it a day. Food, heat, and clothing came at a price. It wasn't unusual for prisoners to die from the cold or starvation. A group of concerned citizens, calling themselves the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, decided that this must not continue. What they would propose set the stage for prison reform not only in Pennsylvania, but also the world over.

From its beginning, Pennsylvania was determined to be different from other colonies. Founder William Penn brought his Quaker values to the new colony, avoiding the harsh criminal code practiced in much of British North America, where death was the standard punishment for a litany of crimes, including the denial of the one "true God," kidnapping, and sodomy. Penn, instead, relied on imprisonment with hard labor and fines as the treatment for most crimes, while death remained the penalty only for murder. But upon Penn's passing in 1718, conservative groups did away with his Quaker-based system, and incorporated the harsh retributions that were the norm elsewhere. Jails simply became detention centers for prisoners as they awaited some form of corporal or capital punishment. It would take another seventy years before anyone would try to do away with this severe penal code.

Dr. Benjamin Rush was a prominent Philadelphia physician with an interest in politics. In 1776, he served in the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. More than a decade later, he would lead the push for ratification of the federal Constitution. He was an outspoken abolitionist, and would later earn the title "father of American psychiatry" for his groundbreaking observations about "diseases of the mind."

As a newly minted doctor training in London in 1768, Rush ran into Benjamin Franklin who was then serving as an agent to Parliament for the Pennsylvania Assembly. Franklin, a celebrity among the Parisians, urged the curious twenty-two-year-old to cross the English Channel and experience the Enlightenment thinking that filled French parlors. The following year, Rush did. He mingled among scientists, philosophers and literati, listening to progressive European theories about such issues as crime and punishment that would eventually follow him to America.

In 1787 Rush was back in the company of Franklin and his American contemporaries proclaiming that a radical change was needed not just at the jail on Walnut Street, but the world over. He was convinced that crime was a "moral disease," and suggested a "house of repentance" where prisoners could meditate on their crimes, experience spiritual remorse and undergo rehabilitation. This method would later be called the Pennsylvania System and the institution a penitentiary. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, also known as the Pennsylvania Prison Society, agreed, and set out to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Changes were made at the Walnut Street Jail—inmates were segregated by sex and crime, vocational workshops were instituted to occupy the prisoners' time, and much of the abusive behavior was abolished—but it wasn't enough. Philadelphia's population was growing by leaps and bounds, and so was the criminal element. A prison of a grander scale was needed to fulfill the prison society's mission. For repentance to truly happen, the complete isolation of each prisoner would need to occur, and this was impossible to do in these overcrowded jails.

Construction of Eastern State Penitentiary began on a cherry orchard outside of Philadelphia in 1822. The chosen design, created by British-born architect John Haviland, was unlike any seen before: seven wings of individual cellblocks radiating from a central hub. The penitentiary opened in 1829, seven years before completion, but the institution proved to be a technological marvel. With central heating, flush toilets, and shower baths in each private cell, the penitentiary boasted luxuries that not even President Andrew Jackson could enjoy at the White House

Charles Williams, a farmer sentenced to two years for theft, would be inmate number one. On October 23, 1829, Williams was escorted into the new prison with an eyeless hood placed over his head. This was done to secure his anonymity and eventual integration into society upon release, as no one would recognize his face from the prison. But it also served another purpose: to ensure that there would be no chance at escape, as Williams would never see the prison beyond his private cell. Communication with guards was done through a small feeding hole. The inmates lived in complete isolation, with a Bible their only possession, and chores like shoemaking and weaving to occupy their time.

Delegates from around the world came to study the famous Pennsylvania System. Alex de Tocqueville praised the concept, writing about his 1831 trip: "Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than solitude. leads [a prisoner] through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope makes him industrious by. idleness?" Others also agreed. More than 300 prisons throughout Europe, South America, Russia, China and Japan would be based on the Eastern State Penitentiary model. But some were not so convinced of the method. Charles Dickens, after his visit in 1842, wrote critically: "I am persuaded that those who designed this system. do not know what it is they are doing. I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Dickens' doubt would prevail. In 1913, Eastern State gave up on the Pennsylvania System of isolation and penitence. Prisoners shared cells, worked together, and even played in organized sports. Francis Dolan, site manager of the Eastern State Penitentiary Historical Site, explains, "The solitary confinement system was nearly impossible to maintain given the technology of the early 19th century, and collapsed under the weight of it's own lofty morals." And just like the jail on Walnut Street, the penitentiary, says Dolan, "was doomed by the rapid growth of Philadelphia." What was meant to originally hold about 300 prisoners was, by the 1920s, forced to house some 2,000. More and more cells were constructed, including ones built below ground without windows, light or plumbing. Eventually, solitude wasn't about redemption, but punishment.

By the 1960s, Eastern State Penitentiary was falling apart. In 1971 it was officially closed by the state of Pennsylvania. Over the course of its 142 years, the penitentiary held some 75,000 inmates, including the gangster Al Capone. Declared a national historic landmark in 1965, the prison was opened as a historic site in 1994. Today tourists, and not criminals, walk beneath the vaulted ceilings and skylights of the neo-Gothic building that once represented the moral ambitions of America's founding fathers.

Pennsylvania Jail Tells Inmates: Stop Ordering Books

Since arriving at Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) Jail last November, he’s read dozens of books, from the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series to the original translation of the Holy Bible.

He reads “all day, pretty much every day,” he said, often trading books with other inmates.

For Stultz, reading helps pass the time, especially since the pandemic began.

The jail has been operating on a restricted schedule, with inmates able to leave their cells for only one hour per day. For many, there’s little else to do besides getting lost in a book.

But on Nov. 16, Stultz and most other inmates at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) received a written message on the new tablets the jail provided to them: Books ordered from the outside would no longer be allowed inside the jail.

Screenshot Allegheny County Jail website. Courtesy PublicSource

Inmates will instead have to limit their reading to what is available on the tablets, and what jail authorities said was “wide variety” of printed texts already in the “leisure library on each pod.”

But there are just 263 free books, including 49 religious titles, in the facility’s digital library.

According to jail authorities, the book policy was adopted to protect against contraband.

Potential contraband is “a safety and security issue,” ACJ Warden Orlando Harper wrote in an email to PublicSource.

He said the policy “is by no means permanent,” and added that the facility is discussing with the tablet provider “how to add additional books and resources, and how it may handle requests for specific books.”

In addition to the books available on the tablet, Harper said inmates on each pod have access to a leisure library and a room in the education department designated for donated books.

“There are over 1,000 different titles in that library which will be rotated throughout the facility for the inmates,” Harper wrote.

Reading for Mental Health

But inmates and advocates worry that the new policy will further erode inmates’ mental health by limiting one of the only outlets available at the jail.

With limited recreation time, visits from loved ones suspended during the pandemic, and a chronic shortage of medical staff, mental health issues at the jail were already a serious concern.

“I get very anxious when I don’t have something constructive to do. And reading is one of those things,” Stultz said. “…I think a lot of us would be in very dire straits if we didn’t have a way to pass our time constructively.”

Jodi Lincoln, co-chair of the local books-to-prisoners program Book ‘Em, said ACJ’s book policy was already “extremely restrictive.” Before, inmates could order books from Barnes & Noble or

She and Bethany Hallam, an Allegheny County Councilwoman and member of the county’s Jail Oversight Board, have been working to change the policy and allow books from other booksellers, publishers and books-to-prisoners programs.

“We were not a fan of the policy they had to begin with, but this is a step back even from that,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln also pointed out that many of the available titles are not modern or “culturally relevant” and fall short of inmates’ interests.

“It’s all the Jane Austens, but there’s not a lot of good educational resources,” she said.

Some inmates PublicSource spoke to also raised First Amendment concerns: they felt their religion was not represented in the 49 religious books available on the tablets.

‘A Sense of Self’

Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the Education Justice Project, noted that most people in jail have not been convicted of a crime — yet they can spend months or years awaiting trial. She said books can help inmates “maintain a firmer grip on who they are,” rather than letting their sense of self and social skills deteriorate while incarcerated.

“Providing people in jail access to a wide range of reading materials can help them fight off depression and even suicidal thoughts,” she said.

“Let’s face it, 214 books does not constitute a wide range of reading materials.”

According to Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the Supreme Court ruled that prisons cannot ban all books but instead “must examine each book individually for inappropriate content. ”

Access to a trifling 214 books is tantamount to a complete ban,” she wrote in an email to PublicSource. She also said the small number of religious texts make it “virtually certain” that some faiths have been ignored, violating both the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Sheffield isn’t the only inmate worried about their religious freedom.

Every holiday season, Richard Lauffer looks forward to reading Christian literature.

“It’s something from my childhood, something from my youth that I can look back on and have a happy smile for Christmas,” he said. “It’s meant a lot to me to have, and now I can’t have it this year.”

Lauffer, a Pentecostal Christian, said the tablet does not include his religious sect.

“There’s nothing on there for Pentecostal people like myself. None whatsoever,” he said.

On top of bringing him “closer to God,” Lauffer said the books were “brain food” for himself and other inmates.

“My only pastime is these books. And now that I don’t have them, I don’t know what I’m going to do I’m going to be lost now.”

Editor’s Note: ACJ is not the first prison facility to encounter a hard-cover ban—and it likely won’t be the last. According to a 2018 investigation by The Crime Report, 45 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons contract with an electronic legal database company to replace textbooks in prison law libraries.

That’s up from nine states a decade ago. The move to replace print with digital media is having a significant impact on how prisoners access court, the investigation found.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story that appeared in Public Source this week. The full story can be accessed here. Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource and a former John Jay justice reporting fellow.She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @julietterihl.

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Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

The Pennsylvania Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was founded in response to the appalling conditions prisoners endured at the Walnut Street Prison. Walnut Street Prison was built in 1773 to house prisoners from the overcrowded High Street Prison. As with its predecessor, prisoners were held in large communal rooms instead of individual cells. Conditions were dangerous for the inmates, who had to suffer through poor sanitation and frequent outbreaks of violence. There were no attempts at rehabilitation. In 1790, at the insistence of the Prison Society, a new penitentiary house was added, the first of its kind. Here, individual inmates were held in small cells and prevented from communicating with each other. The society believed that this solitary confinement would provide prisoners with time for reflection and repentance, as well as protect first-time criminals from being corrupted by repeat offenders. Walnut Street Prison became a model for prisons across the United States and Europe.

Tench Coxe

Merchant turned political economist Tench Coxe gained a dubious reputation for frequently switching political parties, a habit that earned him the sobriquet “Mr. Facing Both-ways” among his political rivals. He was a Tory before the Revolution and tried to remain loyal once the war began. He left Philadelphia as the war started, only returning once the British occupied the city. His business success during the occupation raised some question about his loyalty and he was arrested on suspicion, but never convicted. He eventually joined the Patriot cause and the Pennsylvania Militia records list him as serving during the final years of the war. In 1788, he was a delegate to the Continental Congress. He joined the Federalist party and was assistant to Alexander Hamilton during his tenure as secretary of reasury. Removed from power by John Adams, Coxe became a Democratic-Republican and later earned an appointment as purveyor of public supplies to Thomas Jefferson during his presidency. Nonetheless, the Democratic-Republican affiliated Philadelphia Aurora accused him of Federalist leanings for his support of tariffs. Whatever his political affiliation, Coxe became interested in public reform shortly after the Revolution ended and was one of the founding members of the Pennsylvania Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. He was present at its first meeting in May 1787.

Membership Certificate, Pennsylvania Prison Society

Eastern State Penitentiary was a model of prison reform when it opened, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society advertised its originality. This membership certificate from 1855 features Eastern State prominently and describes the innovative Pennsylvania System of Prison Discipline, a strict solitary confinement system advocated by the Prison Society. Above the prison image is a portrait Bishop William White. White was a native Philadelphian who earned a doctorate in divinity from the University of Pennsylvania. During the Revolution, he tried to prevent the American and British Anglican churches from splitting. The American branch reorganized as the Episcopal Church during the war but retained close dies to the Church of England. White was one of the first bishops consecrated in America after Parliament relaxed the laws mandating that all clergy be ordained in England. In 1787, White was elected as the first president of the Prison Society, a position he held for forty-nine years until his death in 1836.

Eastern State Penitentiary

As Philadelphia’s inmate population outgrew Walnut Street Prison, the Pennsylvania Prison Society called for building a much larger state institution that would allow for the separation of all prisoners. This came in the wake of a deadly 1820 riot in the communal jail block that remained in use at Walnut Street Prison. In 1829, the first inmates were moved from Walnut Street to the new Eastern State Penitentiary in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood. Eastern was known for its groundbreaking wagon-wheel floor plan, with seven one- or two-story cellblocks radiating from a central hub. This served two purposes: it aided with ventilation to help circumvent the sanitation and health issues that plagued Walnut Street Prison, and it allowed guards to monitor inmates more efficiently—a guard at a desk in the hub could pivot and look the length of each long cell block. In the twentieth century, the prison housed some of America’s most notorious criminals including bank robber and escape artist Willie Sutton and gangster Al Capone. While the institution was state-run, the Pennsylvania Prison Society had a number of its members appointed to positions of power in its earliest days.

Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary’s high, vaulted ceilings, glass skylights, and arched doorways were designed to evoke a church-like atmosphere for inmates. From 1829 until 1913, prisoners spent nearly their entire sentences confined to their personal cells, in theory forcing them to reflect on and repent for their crimes. They were unable to speak to or see other inmates and were forced to obscure their faces with hoods whenever moved from their cells. The Pennsylvania Prison Society advocated this as a humane alternative to corporal punishment and the overcrowded communal jailhouses of the time. For the health of the inmates, each cell was centrally heated and had a rudimentary toilet for sanitation. The solitary confinement system–which became known as the Pennsylvania System–officially ended in 1913. (Photograph by M. Fischetti)

Implements of Torture and their Dangerous Effects Illustrated

Though touted as a humane alternative to crowded and dangerous prisons and capital punishment, the Pennsylvania System was not without flaws. Just four years after Eastern State Penitentiary opened, a controversial punishment led to the death of prisoner Mathias Maccumsey. Like all inmates at Eastern, Maccumsey was expected to spend his sentence in silent and solitary reflection. He repeatedly was caught talking to fellow inmates and so Warden Samuel Ward ordered him to be restrained with an iron gag. The device rested on the prisoner’s tongue and was chained to the jaw making speech impossible. In 1833, two years into his twelve-year sentence for murder, Maccumsey was found unresponsive in his cell with the gag still in place. His death led to a public outcry for the gag to be banned, as seen in the 1835 handbill decrying its use.

Roberts Vaux

Though the Pennsylvania Prison Society was nondenominational from the start, many of its early members were members of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. Roberts Vaux was one of these men, born to a prominent Quaker family. Vaux trained as a lawyer and became a judge in the court of common pleas. He is remembered today, however, for his affiliation with a number of service organizations and public service campaigns. As a Quaker, he believed all children were entitled to an education, regardless of social class or disabilities. In 1820, he helped found the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, and the Overbrook School for the Blind in 1834. He was one of the founders of the city’s public school system, forming the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Public Schools in 1827. That organization helped open free schools available to all children living in the city. He served as the president of the Board of Controllers for the Philadelphia public school system for a number of years.

Vaux was also keenly interested in prison reform. He joined the Pennsylvania Prison Society and for twenty-one years served as its secretary. He was one of the early proponents of the “Separate System” first implemented at Walnut Street Prison’s penitentiary house. Vaux sat on the board responsible for promoting the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary. When that institution opened in 1829, he was appointed one of the eleven commissioners by the state of Pennsylvania. A year before, Vaux founded the House of Refuge, the state’s first institution for reforming juvenile offenders without imprisoning them with adults. Combining these two interests, Vaux printed and distributed pamphlets to schools explaining Pennsylvania Laws and citizens’ rights in terms younger readers could understand. He died in 1836. His son, Richard Vaux, carried on his legacy by writing a series of articles about prison reform and the penitentiary system.

Auburn Prison

The Pennsylvania Prison Society advocated a system of silent solitary repentance by inmates. When put in practice at Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829, this system became known as the Pennsylvania System. In the same era a competing system was developing at Auburn Prison in New York. Like the Pennsylvania System, the Auburn System required prisoners to remain totally silent. But unlike at Eastern, prisoners in Auburn only remained in solitary confinement at night. They took their meals, performed hard labor, and prayed in groups. The Auburn system proved to be far more cost-effective than the Pennsylvania system. Not only was it easier to feed prisoners en masse, but laboring in groups increased productivity of prison-manufactured goods that offset the cost of housing and feeding inmates. The year that Eastern opened, Auburn began to operate at a budget surplus. The Pennsylvania System spread to Europe, Asia, and Latin America, but was supplanted in the United States by the Auburn System.

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Pennsylvania Prison Society

Founded in 1787 as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the Pennsylvania Prison Society quickly became a leading advocate for the humane and salutary treatment of the incarcerated. From the restructuring of the Walnut Street Jail in the eighteenth century, to the construction and oversight of the Eastern State Penitentiary in the nineteenth, and its ongoing work as a social casework agency, the society’s efforts shaped correctional practices in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Tench Coxe was one of the first members of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. His frequent changes of political party earned him the nickname “Mr. Facing Both-ways” among his political enemies. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Although it soon gained international renown, the Pennsylvania Prison Society began humbly. As was typical in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, many of the group’s founders, including Caleb Lownes (1754–1828), Christopher Marshall (1709–97), Isaac Parrish (1734–1826), and Thomas Wistar (1765–1851), were prominent members of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). From the outset, however, the Prison Society was decidedly nondenominational. William White (1748–1836), a bishop in the Episcopal Church, served as the organization’s first president, a position he held for forty-nine years until his death in 1836. Many of the society’s charter members were men of both local and national (and even international) repute. Physician and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), politician Tench Coxe (1755–1824), and publisher Zachariah Poulson (1761–1844) all attended the society’s first meeting on May 8, 1787.

Spurred by reports of deplorable conditions in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, the society appointed an acting committee of six to ascertain the conditions of confinement and its effect on inmates’ moral and physical wellbeing. Prison Society visitors found a chaotic institution where inmates of all types, ages, and sexes mixed indiscriminately in an environment rife with obscenity, idleness, and vice. Realizing that the direct relief offered to prisoners in the form of bibles, clothing, medical care, and cash would not address these broader problems, the society also turned its efforts toward legislative change. Proposed reforms included abolishing the use of iron shackles and establishing a set salary for the jailer to avoid corruption.

The Pennsylvania Society for Relieving the Miseries of Public Prisons formed in response to stories of inhumane treatment and unsanitary conditions at the Walnut Street Jail. In 1790, the society built a new penitentiary at the prison where prisoners were expected to silently repent in private cells. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Most significantly, the Prison Society supported the solitary confinement of all prisoners. Influenced by the writings of the British prison reformer John Howard (1726–90), the proposed “separate system” would prevent hardened criminals from corrupting first-time offenders and would provide all inmates with the space needed for serious reflection and reform. Following legislative approval in 1790 for the separation of prisoners by age, gender, and crime committed, the Walnut Street Jail and the Pennsylvania Prison Society became models for prison reform efforts throughout the United States and in Europe.

Even as the Walnut Street Jail earned accolades from visitors, the Pennsylvania Prison Society was far from satisfied on the state of correctional practices. After a deadly riot at Walnut Street in 1820, Prison Society members escalated calls for a larger state institution purpose-built for the separation of all prisoners. In 1829, the first group of prisoners moved into individual cells at the new Eastern State Penitentiary. Though technically a state-run institution, the Prison Society served as sole outside overseer of the facility and active society members Roberts Vaux (1786–1836), Thomas Bradford (1781–1857), and John Bacon (1779-1859) filled three of the eleven state-appointed commissioner positions, while Samuel R. Wood (1776-?) served as the first warden of Eastern State.

Nineteenth-century membership certificates for the Pennsylvania Prison Society prominently displayed first president Bishop William White and the Eastern State Penitentiary. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Much of the society’s activity in the nineteenth century centered on the oversight of Eastern State and defense of the separate system, which became known as the “Pennsylvania System.” In 1845, largely in response to growing criticism from opponents of such extreme solitary confinement, the society established Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy (later renamed The Prison Journal) to improve public outreach. Early editions extolled the successes of the Pennsylvania System alongside reports of the achievements and deficiencies of penal practices elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

Although the Pennsylvania System spread to Europe, Asia, and Latin America, the practice quickly fell out of favor in the United States. In part due to ongoing questions about the morality of solitary confinement, the scheme was ultimately abandoned because of the untenable costs of providing separate living, working, eating, and exercise quarters for every inmate. In response to these changes, the Pennsylvania Prison Society shifted its attention in the early twentieth century to other pressing issues, including parole and probation standards and the use of prison labor. Over the course of the twentieth century, the society’s activities were increasingly professionalized, with paid staff working with prisoners and their families to ensure legal and just treatment within the correctional system. Nevertheless, the Prison Society’s commitment to the humane and just treatment of prisoners remained at the core of its mission as the group continued to serve as an important advocate for the incarcerated and a leading voice in penal reform.

Laura Michel is a Ph.D. student in History at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. She studies issues surrounding crime, poverty, and philanthropy in the early modern Atlantic World.

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

McKelvey, Blake. American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1977.

Meranze, Michael. Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760–1835. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Pillsbury, Samuel H. “Understanding Penal Reform: The Dynamic of Change,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 80 (1989), 726–80.

Roberts, Leonard H. “The Historic Roots of American Prison Reform: A Story of Progress and Failure.” Journal of Correctional Education, 36 (1985): 106–9.

Rothman, David J. The Discovery of the Asylum: Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971.

Sheehan, Glenn W., “Eastern State Penitentiary: A Study in ‘Progressive’ Penology,” Archaeology, 45 (1992): 44–47.

Teeters, Negley K. “The Pennsylvania Prison Society: A Century and a Half of Penal Reform,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 28 (1938), 374–79.

——. They Were in Prison: A History of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, 1787­–1937. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1937.

Wiebe, Robert. The Search for Order, 1877­–1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.


Pennsylvania Prison Society Records (1787–1966), Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia.

Walnut Street Prison Historical Marker, Southeast Corner of Sixth and Market Streets, Philadelphia.

Watch the video: Höchststrafe - Leben in der Todeszelle DOKUHD (May 2022).