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The Invisible Violence of Carceral Food

There's no such thing as a 'humane' eating environment in a penal system that inherently produces illness and death.


In July 2020, Dennis Williams — a 52-year old Black man born and raised in Maryland’s Eastern Shore — was transferred from Patuxent Institution, a treatment-oriented prison infamous for its human rights abuses, to the Wicomico County Detention Center, a jail located close to his hometown. Mr. Williams arrived there with a slew of severe mental and physical chronic health conditions — including osteoarthrosis, ulcerative colitis, hypertension, asthma, anxiety, and depression. Having previously been incarcerated in most of Maryland’s correctional facilities, Mr. Williams was accustomed to the extreme inadequacy of medical care provided by county jails and the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. During his five months in Patuxent, however, his ability to walk had steadily worsened due to his osteoarthrosis; by the time he was transferred, he was in need of a wheelchair and a double hip replacement.    

I first spoke with Mr. Williams in May as part of a study our organization, the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project, had conducted to understand how prison food conditions changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our previous research with currently and formerly incarcerated folks uncovered the various roles food plays in Maryland’s correctional institutions — namely, as an everyday mechanism of control, dehumanization, and punishment; as a site of exploitation and profit for private food service corporations; and as a form premature death due to long-term impacts on individuals’ physical and mental health. Given that prisons quickly became ground zero for the spread of COVID-19 — and the disastrous responses to the pandemic by state corrections departments — we wanted to understand, in a time of crisis, the impact of carceral food systems on the already life-shortening nature of incarceration.

Prison food conditions in Maryland have been rapidly deteriorating since the state’s jail and prison populations exploded since the 1970s. Adapting to the thousands of people entering state bondage and the industrialization of our food system as a whole, correctional food systems generally cut costs, privatized food service to multibillion dollar corporations such as Aramark or Trinity, and substituted any semblance of real foods with ultra-processed, nutritionally bankrupt meals. In 2018, Maryland spent on average $3.83 per day to feed an incarcerated person for all three meals — averaging to $1.28 per meal. In some institutions, that figure was as low as 72 cents per meal.

When Mr. Williams arrived at the Wicomico County jail, he encountered a level of abuse he had never experienced in his three decades of intermittent incarceration. After his transfer, the limited services he was able to extract from Corizon Correctional Healthcare — the private healthcare provider responsible for providing medical care for all Maryland state-run prisons — were halted. “The thing about the county jail,” he told me, “was when I got transferred from Patuxent, they took … all my pain pills. And they didn’t give me nothing in its place. So when I left Patuxent I was in remission, but when I got to the county jail they stopped the [medication] because it was too expensive. I deteriorated from that point on.”

But it was not just the denial of medication that Mr. Williams had to face. “This is what happened,” he explained. “For two weeks, they took my cane and didn’t give me nothing to assist me for walking. And I literally had to hang on to stuff around the walls, and lean on the tables for support myself to even go get my trays. The last four days of those two weeks, I literally crawled on the floor. I had to drag myself, my bottom half, with my arms because I couldn’t put no weight on my hips and my legs. And they did nothing. They took my cane and didn’t give me nothing in its place. I wouldn’t wish this on nobody.”

This unimaginably dehumanizing experience was worsened tenfold with the impact of prison food on Mr. Williams’ chronic illnesses. In his own words:

“Even the pain that I go through with my hips and my lower part of my body, when you add ulcerative colitis to that, I’m a hot mess. There are certain things that I know that I’m not supposed to eat, but to this day the prison system has failed to provide me with the proper foods that I’m supposed to eat and not eat. Can you imagine, because of eating the wrong thing, when you have to use the bathroom … when that feeling hits your stomach that tells you you have to go to use the bathroom, you actually got like 10 seconds to get to a toilet and get your pants down. You can’t control your bowels, and you go to the bathroom at least 15 to 20 times a day, if not more. And what comes out is blood and mucus and feces … but then I’m in the physical condition that I can’t move, ‘cause I can't walk. So imagine how I make it to the bathroom in 10 seconds. Yeah. It doesn’t happen. I went through that in the county jail. Oh my god, my mental health is just gone.”

Yet words, Mr. Williams’ or mine, are insufficient to properly convey how he was treated. At the same time, such experiences are not unfamiliar to many of the thousands of people held captive in Maryland’s jails and prisons. The physical, mental, and emotional abuse that people endure are endless and all-encompassing. The American Civil Liberties Union found that, over a five-year period, Corizon was sued for medical malpractice 660 times and amassed millions of dollars in fines and penalties for grossly substandard care. More recently, some Maryland prisons responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by shackling people who tested positive for the virus to steel beds in makeshift tents for days or weeks at a time. Oftentimes, prisons’ responses to the contraction of the virus were so severe, and the treatment so ineffective, that some folks refused to be tested at all, instead choosing to suffer in silence. As one person told us, “All they did was lock you down, put you in a cell by yourself, and check your temperature. They wouldn’t even give you a Tylenol or anything. I know a couple of people that died in there because they weren’t getting any type of medical treatment.”

Prisons, simply put, are institutions that produce death. Certain features of the U.S carceral state are widely and publicly condemned — such as the overcrowded and filthy conditions of confinement; the power of the state to kill through the death penalty; and the multitude of human rights abuses incarcerated individuals experience on a daily basis. The death-making capabilities of the prison industrial food system, however, remain largely invisible. The reach of states’ correctional food systems is staggering. The state of Maryland, for example, serves over 19.5 million meals to 18,000 adult individuals confined across 21 correctional facilities every year — a monumental undertaking made possible by a loose web of state regulations, institutional policies and practices, lax nutritional requirements, and generally unenforceable guidelines issued by organizations such as the American Correctional Association. Nationally, this number skyrockets to just under 2 billion meals served per year to the 1.8 million people incarcerated across all state and federal prisons. 

Food analyzed through the lens of critical food studies has been referred to as an ‘intimate commodity’ — one that continuously shapes and reshapes the consumer. As Rebecca Godderis describes in “Food for Thought: An Analysis of Power and Identity in Prison Food Narratives,” prisons use food as a tool to transform a person from an individual to an “inmate” — a subjugated body able to be controlled. Carceral institutions’ general orientation toward keeping people alive on as low of a budget as possible — combined with their explicit shift away from rehabilitation — means that the act of eating in captivity changes from one of nourishment to dehumanization. Institutional meals are routinely compared to slop or dog food — in part due to their horrendous quality, laughable portion sizes, and ultra-processed and starch-heavy content. Incarcerated folks are served rotten, spoiled, and expired food items on a consistent basis, and encountering bugs, maggots, cockroaches, and rat droppings in meal trays is not uncommon. As one person we spoke with put it: “You have to make due. The majority of the food you’re given is not edible, but you have to make due. You eat or you starve.”

The carceral food system does not merely exacerbate any short- or long-term health conditions a person may have upon entering bondage. It is, oftentimes, their root cause.

Of course, consuming nutritionally bankrupt meals multiple times a day for years on end inevitably translates to deadly impacts on a person’s mental and physical health. The carceral food system does not merely exacerbate any short- or long-term health conditions a person may have upon entering bondage. It is, oftentimes, their root cause. If prisons use food to communicate to incarcerated folks that they are undeserving of being treated like human beings, the direct weaponization of food service brings to light the larger logics undergirding prisons themselves. Prisons are deeply violent institutions. The technologies of violence deployed on the inside are varied — some more brutal than others — with food serving as a covert, quotidian mechanism of domination that forms the basis for more gratuitous practices such as torture and physical abuse.

Filing a grievance against a correctional officer for receiving an expired milk carton could mean that one does not receive meal trays at all for the next few days. Being caught taking the rare fresh produce item out of the prison kitchen may result in disciplinary actions ranging from being strip-searched, losing commissary privileges, or ending up imprisoned in solitary confinement. In solitary, food conditions are even worse — oftentimes infamously taking the form of nutraloaf. And retribution against larger forms of care and resistance — including hunger strikes, sharing commissary foods, or coordinated actions to throw particularly unpalatable meals in the trash — can be especially severe. Earlier this year, incarcerated folks at Dorsey Run Correctional Facility — a pre-release facility in Jessup, Maryland — embarked on a hunger strike to protest the prison’s handling of a COVID-19 outbreak. In retaliation, the prison transferred strikers out of the institution to a maximum-security facility hours away. In other cases, carceral institutions respond to hunger strikes by viciously force-feeding protestors by jamming a tube down their nose and throat. The list of horrors is endless; prisons manufacture hunger, create the conditions for violence, and then brutalize folks for resisting conditions of confinement. 

Creating a “humane” eating environment in prison — where incarcerated folks are able to access foods that meet their physical needs and are culturally, emotionally, and mentally nourishing — is thus a paradox. Such a framing of carceral food not only misrepresents the lived experience of eating in confinement, but obscures the true role of prison as a means to warehouse, punish, and disappear. Furthermore, it misrepresents the economic aspects of incarceration and the intentional allocation of cents per person per meal; the cents on the dollar paid to incarcerated dietary workers for their labor, without which prisons would cease to function; and the ways in which private food service and commissary providers parasitically seize on any opportunity to extract capital from hunger. As Rachel Herzing has written, “The last two centuries of imprisonment provide clear evidence that claims for a ‘healthy prison’ are untenable. No change to the discrete workings of the system can create health and well-being for those in its crosshairs.” 

How do we balance the urgent need to improve food conditions in prisons, on the one hand, and the creation of a world where communities have access and ownership over resources needed to thrive — necessarily, a world without prisons — on the other? First, it is crucial to lay bare the violence of correctional food systems in relationship to the political economy of carceral institutions themselves. “For decades,” writes Orisanmi Burton in a recent essay, “Black radical activists and critical prison studies scholars have analyzed the US carceral regime as, variously, ‘class warfare’ against racialized surplus populations,” as well as “counterinsurgency warfare against political radicals … and racial genocide.” Failing to analyze correctional food systems through such analytics not only limits and deradicalizes the scope of advocacy to mitigate the dehumanizing experience of eating in captivity, but intentionally obscures the intersections between carceralism and our food systems as a whole.

The specific shape and form that these intersections take under racial capitalism vary throughout the country. In predominantly deindustrialized cities, the relationship between incarceration and food apartheid is well-documented; Black communities that experience the highest rates of incarceration are at the same time structurally denied access to affordable, nutritious, and fresh foods. In the south, incarcerated folks toil on the land of former plantations — only now under the ownership of the state — to grow thousands of pounds of food that are recirculated within the prison itself. And in Maryland, prisons run a number of agricultural programs: bay grass restoration, oyster cage construction, gleaning, and a handful of prison “gardens” where food grown on site is donated to food banks or consumed by correctional staff. These intersections only intensify when we think of our food system itself as a more expansive carceral universe extracting labor, time, and capital from racialized populations across the globe.

The questions around improving correctional food thus expand far beyond material food conditions in prisons themselves. Borrowing from our report: What can prison food reveal about broader systems of harm that work in tandem to deprive people of self-determination through the exploitation, oppression, and dispossession of land and labor? What common ground can be found across various sites of struggle — for example, between those organizing against food apartheid, against the increasing corporate control of food production and distribution on a global scale, against the continuous exploitation and violence against migrant farmworkers, and against a food system that oppresses billions of poor communities in the Global South to ensure access to fresh and nutritious foods for a minority of the world’s population? What explicit alliances and bridges can be built between activists and organizers fighting for food sovereignty and those working toward abolition? Ultimately, how can food be used as an abolitionist tool to build power?

Understanding the contemporary crisis of correctional food means understanding how our social relationships — between ourselves and others, between land, between food — have been torn asunder, ruptured through centuries of oppression, and reconstituted along the lines of violence and alienation.

The answers to these questions are grounded in long traditions of food and land-based forms of resistance. Abolition is a process, a constant struggle, a constellation of activities designed to shape and reshape the world and our place in it. Understanding the contemporary crisis of correctional food means understanding how our social relationships — between ourselves and others, between land, between food — have been torn asunder, ruptured through centuries of oppression, and reconstituted along the lines of violence and alienation. We have lost knowledge of what it means to be in this world from a place of reciprocity — epistemologies rooted in Black and Indigenous foodways, practices that steward and cultivate the land from a place of abundance and love.

Still, movements to reclaim such ways of being remain strong. From the recent victories of the historic Indian farmers’ protest to the resurgence of movement building toward Black food sovereignty to the seeds of care and resistance nurtured in prisons every day, examples of abolitionist world-building are plenty. It is up to us to move beyond reform and create a world where prisons and all forms of carceralism — including those embedded deep within our food system — are obsolete.

Image: Unsplash