Prison and jail administrators have long weaponized food — or the lack thereof — to inflict additional punishment on incarcerated people. The U.S. Supreme Court responded to the most egregious of these practices in 1978 when it ruled in Hutto v. Finney that serving incarcerated people calorie-deficient and otherwise unhealthy diets for a prolonged period of time constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. This meant that administrators could no longer force people behind bars to subsist on bread, water, and gruel.
Challenged with improving food while facing rapid population growth in the late 20th century, administrators turned to the private sector that promised quality food service at lower costs. Since, corporations have maintained a regular presence in the correctional food market and include manufacturers and distributors of raw and prepackaged ingredients as well as food service managers responsible for the preparation and serving of meals. As a former Arizona food service supervisor explained,
“Though the inmates do most of the work, and the corrections officers are there to maintain order, it is civilian contractors who are often responsible for every aspect of the meal preparation: inmate training, adherence to recipes, ensuring food safety standards are met, theft prevention, portion control, and general quality of service.”
But rather than improving nutritional value and quality, privatization exacerbated the carceral food problem. In Michigan, for example, privatized food service in state prisons has “been the source of almost continuous scandal, embarrassment, and administrative difficulty.” Yet, few of the endless lawsuits regarding food in prisons and jails since Hutto have been successful.
Failures in food service have forced incarcerated people to depend on commissary, or on-site convenience stores first introduced in federal prisons in 1930, and care packages sent by loved ones for food as well as hygiene and clothing essentials — all of which are insufficiently provided by correctional facilities. But the very corporations that commit these food service atrocities are often also entrusted with operating commissaries and care package programs, which means that providing substandard food service is rewarded with increased revenue in commissary and care package sales. But the food sold in commissary and care packages also fails to meet the nutritional needs of incarcerated people. In fact, the one place where incarcerated people will, at times, find nutritional reprieve is in the vending machines of visit rooms. Understanding the power of a shared meal, corporations sign exclusive contracts to stock visit room vending machines with expensive ready-made food — a cost that the occasion of a visit might warrant.
How Much Money is at Stake?
The correctional food service industry, made up of just a handful of players, is estimated to rake in $4.1 billion each year. Larger prison systems can serve as many as three million meals per week and pay between 56 cents and three dollars per meal. The largest provider, Aramark, serves 380 million meals and brings in $1.6 billion in revenues from prison and jail food annually.
The commissary market that incarcerated people rely on to supplement prison and jail food, basic hygiene, and clothing necessities was estimated to bring in $1.6 billion in 2016, but recent data suggests a more accurate estimate could run far higher. A survey of commissary sales in three state prison agencies revealed that incarcerated people spend an average of $947 annually on commissary, 73 percent of which is spent on food. And while less than half of prison commissaries are outsourced to corporations, that figure is up 28 percent in just the past year. In jails, outsourcing commissary operations to corporations is more common. Importantly, commissary operators also make money charging families hefty deposit fees to transfer money into their loved ones commissary accounts.
Unfortunately, there is no aggregated data about the care package and vending machine markets specifically in correctional settings.
$1.6 billion Annual commissary sales
17 States with privatized commissary operations10
$947 Average annual commissary spending per person
What Corporations Are Involved?
The carceral food industry is dominated by Aramark, which pioneered the space in the 1978, Sodexo, one of the world’s largest food service providers, and Trinity Services Group, which entered in 1990. Today, Aramark operates in more than 600 correctional facilities and serves over a million meals each day to bring in $1.6 billion annually on its correctional business – or roughly 12 percent of its total revenues. Sodexo takes in $360 million annually on its U.S. correctional food service business. And Trinity Services Group contracts with over 400 correctional facilities in 43 states to make $252 million annually on its food service business, which is almost 40 percent of its total $660 million in revenues. Other major prison food service providers include subsidiaries of Compass Group and The Elior Group.
The commissary market is similarly dominated by just a few familiar corporations: Aramark, Keefe Group, Trinity Services Group, and Union Supply. Keefe Group, the market’s largest player, entered the business in 1975, Trinity Services Group’s commissary business also dates back to the 1970s through its subsidiary Swanson Services, Union Supply emerged in 1991, and Aramark launched its commissary brand iCare in 2006. Today, Keefe Group serves 650,000 incarcerated people in 14 states and brings in more than $1 billion in revenues a year across all its business lines. Most commissary vendors also have a care package brand. Notably, Trinity Services Group and Keefe Group joined forces in 2016 when they were merged under TKC by its private equity owner HIG Capital, which also owns correctional healthcare and telecom corporations. Beyond its commissary and care package services, Keefe Group also has a subsidiary that provides correctional telecom services (ICSolutions) and brand that provides correctional financial services (Access Corrections). Altogether, TKC is estimated to bring in $1.5 billion in sales, the majority of which is derived from the carceral market.
The vending machine market is far smaller and served by smaller, and often local, vendors. These include corporations like Microtronic US, Three Square Market, 365 Retail Markets, Canteen Vending, Avanti Markets, and Fresh Healthy Vending.
Correctional administrators outsource foodservice to corporations to reduce facility operating costs with detrimental consequences.44 Few laws regulate foodservice in correctional facilities, so contractors set their own standards for quality and safety.45 Considering little more than caloric requirements, they pad their bottom lines by employing incarcerated people at pennies an hour to serve small portions of food. They often use inexpensive and unhealthy fillers or substitutes like margarine and soy to increase caloric intake, leaving people hungry, exacerbating chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, and creating new health risks.
Still worse, in efforts to avoid waste costs, these corporations ration food dangerously. They serve food that is old or contaminated or serve inadequate portions, if they do not run out altogether. In 2014, an investigation at the Gordon County Jail in Georgia, which had contracted with Trinity Services Group, revealed that incarcerated people were eating toothpaste, toilet paper, and syrup packets out of hunger. Sadly, the human rights violations committed by correctional food service providers are endless.
Michigan’s experiment with private food service vendors is perhaps the most notorious. In 2014, leaked emails revealed that an Aramark employee retrieved and re-served food that had been thrown in the trash in a Michigan prison. The following year, the state’s correctional administrators terminated a three-year contract with Aramark early after a slew of controversies and contracted with Trinity Services Group instead.
“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. ‘Water is part of the serving,’ the employee said.”
On some days if they don’t run out, there will be other problems with the food. Raw, undercooked, sometimes burnt, sometimes it’s soupy. If they don’t run out, they screw it up somehow.
I watched a prisoner pull a rock out of his mouth… Wasn’t 2 feet over from me where I scan my IDs, and he’s like…, ‘What in the…?’ And he reaches into his mouth and pulls a rock out bigger than a pea… drops it on the table. Tink, tink, tink. I was like, ‘What is that?’ And he says, ‘It’s a rock.’
We had spaghetti one day, and one of the officers came over and he was eating, and he pulled a mop string out.
Their supervisor will give them a recipe to serve 900 prisoners. Our institution holds 1,100 normally, and depending on which meal it is, they will add water to all of their stuff to make their products stretch.
I’ve seen a bug that big in them collard greens, like I couldn’t even handle it. A perfect big ol’ bug right on the collard greens… A well-cooked bug.
The state fined Trinity Services Group over $2 million for various violations, including unauthorized meal substitutions, delays in serving meals, and sanitation violations. After two failed experiments with private food service providers, then-Governor Rick Snyder announced in 2018 that the state would move back to running its own prison food service.
Michigan’s decision to bring food service back in-house was a rare one. Despite the abundance of these stories and, in many cases, the agreement among incarcerated people and corrections officials about the shortcomings of private food service, many prison and jail administrators continue to outsource food service to corporations that put profit over people to deprive them of something as simple as food.
In 2013, for example, Aramark was awarded a two-year $110 million contract to provide food service across Ohio’s prisons. Less than a year later, there were numerous reports of service failures, including 65 instances when it failed to serve food or ran out of it and five instances when it served food with maggots. Though the state took the rare step of penalizing the corporation, Aramark took the $272,300 in fines in stride and won next contract with the state in 2015, despite a cheaper competing bid from a public union.
Unsurprisingly these efforts to cut food costs have had a really damaging impact on the lives of incarcerated people. In fact, incarcerated people are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a food-related illness than people in the general public according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 1998 and 2014, correctional facilities reported 200 food-borne outbreaks and 20,625 illnesses, 204 hospitalizations, and five deaths resulting from food sickness.
And still, illness is not the only consequence of cost cutting measures — enslavement is yet another. Commonly referred to as “plantation prisons” given their history as plantations in the ante-bellum South, many prisons use incarcerated people to work in farming to harvest food for the facility. In 2002, the most recent year for which data is available, 28 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons had incarcerated people working in agriculture. In Georgia, for example, roughly 5,000 incarcerated people work completely unpaid to produce 41 percent of food required by the state’s prisons.
While prison and jail administrators weaponize food to exact nutritional punishment and enslave incarcerated people, incarcerated people have used their bodies as counter-weapons in political struggles, practicing what some have termed “gastronomical resistance.” Throughout history, across political movements, people with no weapons have used their bodies to fight injustice and oppression. Incarcerated people have time and time again effectively used hunger strikes, one form of gastronomical resistance, to protest prison conditions and labor practices. In 2013, for example, nearly 30,000 incarcerated people in California participated in a hunger strike that led to the end of indefinite solitary confinement in state prisons.
In prisons and jails, commissaries can offer an expansive reprieve from the depravity of kitchen food. Even when egregiously priced, off-brand products can be innovatively transformed into pleasurable community meals that serve as another form of gastronomical resistance. Yet, commissary food comes with its own problems. Pre-packaged foods are high in sugar and sodium, for example, and can cause or exacerbate chronic health conditions, leaving incarcerated people to choose between two types of poison while private corporations collect the spoils.
Some states and municipalities stock and operate their own commissaries, usually charging a markup on the resale of products to cover operating costs and pad their coffers. Many others choose to outsource their commissary operations to private corporations in exchange for a kickback on sales. While the latter model is more profitable for commissary corporations, they benefit from both because they manufacture and supply many of the unique products sold in commissaries in either case. Under both models, operators inflate product prices while offering substandard brands to generate more profit. Importantly, many of the commissary goods incarcerated people purchase are used to meet basic food, hygiene, and clothing needs that have not been met by prison and jail administrators.
More specifically, besides foods, incarcerated people often purchase simple hygiene products like shampoo and deodorant in commissary. These products are often incredibly low in quality – lotion the consistency of a watered-down gel – and yet priced exorbitantly. And culture-specific hygiene products are even hard to come by or more egregiously priced.
In most cases, it is the families supporting incarcerated loved ones who provide funds to purchase these items given the insufficiency and subsequent garnishment of prison wages — when wages are paid at all. A 2018 study of three state prison agencies found that, on average, incarcerated people spent $947 annually on commissary products, substantially more than the $180 to $660 typically earned by incarcerated people working in these states. And jails offer even fewer paid job opportunities, meaning families supporting loved ones in pretrial detention, who often cannot afford to pay bail, are also exploited by commissary schemes.
“We live in an environment designed to deprive the senses. Our world is almost completely devoid of colors, pleasant scents, or tender physical contact. Our senses are starving to death. In such a bland artificial existence, even a simple sugar treat can be mistaken for an exotic ecstasy.”
I was a young woman when I went to prison. It was the most dehumanizing experience of my life. Every day, I dealt with the profound racism and misogyny of the system. Male guards constantly threatened to rape me and the other women if we didn’t comply with their orders. On other days, they just maliciously denied us necessary hygiene products. They used their power to terrorize and degrade us.
I spent my first period in solitary. I was given just two cheap sanitary napkins a day. The result was humiliating. I bled through my clothes and had no option but to sit in the blood for hours. Back in general population, we did not get sanitary napkins or tampons at all. We had to buy them from commissary, which we could only do once every two weeks, or suffer the humiliation of bloodied bottoms.
And purchasing menstrual hygiene products from commissary was not an easy task. I had to plan ahead, determining what I needed and, more importantly, what I could afford. Low-quality, generic brand tampons cost twice as much on the inside — more than $5 for a pack of 18 — while our pay scale ranged from just 10 to 25 cents an hour. I would work 50 hours just to afford decency during my period.
Of course, sanitary napkins were not the only thing we needed from commissary. There were other things like deodorant, shampoo, shower slippers, and even food. We had to buy pre-packaged food to supplement the inedible, unhealthy, and limited diet served in the mess hall. Again, all at high costs on low wages.
The truth is that prisons provide little of what you really need to survive — from sustenance to basic hygiene. Instead, you need to rely on your family for all that. But most families supporting people behind bars don’t have the money. They can’t afford to give their loved ones doing time the money needed to buy even a shred of dignity inside.
Even commissary falls short of meeting basic human needs, so many correctional agencies have historically allowed incarcerated people to receive homemade care packages from loved ones, friends, and organizations. These care packages are subject to strict content guidelines and weight restrictions that vary from institution to institution and can change without notice.
Increasingly, however, corporations are stepping in and convincing agencies to prohibit homemade care packages and introduce sterile, privatized care package programs that give families a limited menu of egregiously priced “pre-approved” products. Prison and jail administrators receive kickbacks and empty promises about contraband reductions while corporations collect profits hand over fist. In its bid for the West Virginia contract, for example, Union Supply Group, which runs the care package program Union Supply Direct, projected that the state would earn about $95,000 per year thanks to a 17 percent commission rate on annual sales.
Privatized care package programs are no more than external-facing commissary stores. In fact, most care package programs are run by commissary operators. They merely allow families to shop directly from a comparably terrible menu with a few more brand name items. When these programs are introduced, families are generally barred from sending fresh fruit and vegetables or filling bags with cheap items from their local bodega, dollar store, or superstore. Instead, they must pay much more to the few corporations that control care package program for their loved one’s facility. And families that may have previously used social benefits to pay for items included in homemade care packages no longer have that option either, putting care packages even further out of reach for the economically distressed communities targeted by the criminal legal system. Moreover, ordering packages is not easy for people without internet access or computer literacy, which is not uncommon.
In 2018, New York piloted a privatized care package program. Of the six approved vendors the state selected, only one sold menstrual hygiene products — at four times the cost at the local chain retailer. Thankfully, advocates forced the state to cancel the pilot and prevented it from taking permanent hold, but other states have not been as lucky.
But limiting the items that incarcerated people can receive and privatizing care packages is not just financially exploitive, but also emotionally deprave. Homemade packages are sent and received with love, carefully crafted to include favorite snacks and childhood reminders. Care packages built in warehouse by strangers cannot carry the same weight. Privatizing care packages removes some of the last reminders of the outside world that bring hope to an otherwise hopeless place.
For incarcerated people, vending machines are limited to visit rooms and typically offer costly ready-made items like pizzas and burgers. The small corporations in this market take advantage of their captive audience: families. Sharing a hot meal can have a significant positive impact on a visit — food has the power to create memories — and should be encouraged, not exploited.
But depending on the length of one’s visit, food can also be more of a necessity than a luxury. In 2018, family relationships were strained when Pennsylvania temporarily suspended vending machine access during prison visits. “If you are elderly or diabetic or have a small child, it is impossible now for you to visit your loved one,” explained Claire Shubik-Richards, head of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Families were eager to see vending machines returned to visit rooms despite the hefty cost of products.
“My support network isn’t very technologically aware. My mom doesn’t even own a computer, let alone know how to place orders. I won’t even mention what she can’t afford. Essentially, I was one of the few major financial contributors for my family. Now DOCCS is attempting to institute another punitive restriction on our families”.
The exploitation of basic human needs like food is both an anathema to human rights and the perfect encapsulation of how the prison industry functions. Corporations, and sometimes government agencies, profit by spending as little as possible to feed those who are in their care. Worse yet, failures in one service line can, in fact, drive revenue in another, creating remarkably dangerous incentives. Legal, legislative, and regulatory weaknesses allow corporations to avoid any meaningful or long-lasting consequences for their dehumanizing, reprehensible food practices. The state of prison and jail food is a crisis within in a crisis.