With a Side of Higher Mortality: Prison Food in the United States

By Cleo Hernandez
Associate Editor, Volume 23

November begins a holiday season in the United States that is stuffed full of increased attention on food. The average American does seem to gain just under one pound of body weight during the holiday season.[1] However, some individuals avoid this holiday gluttony through no choice of their own.[2] Prisoners in the United States on a day-to-day basis have an extremely different interaction with the “food” they are provided. Research about the nature of prison food in the United States is sparse, but there seems to be a general consensus that an inmate does not receive adequate food.[3]

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposes duties on prison officials to provide prisoners with adequate food.[4] In reality many prisoners encounter food that is primarily a product of state legislative choices about funding, and thus prison meal systems will vary widely from state to state and from prison to prison.[5]


This means that in some states prisoners are simply not fed enough. In Gordon County, Georgia prisoners only get two meals per day, served at least 10 hours apart.[6] In Butte-Silver Bow County, Montana, prisoner meals averaged between 1,700 and 2,000 calories per day.[7] Furthermore, the nutritional value of the meals seems to be low, with items like margarine, brownies, and cake tacked on to meager meals in order to reach calorie minimums.[8] Certainly, prisoners are not getting the diet rich in a diverse array of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables recommended by United States Department of Agriculture.[9]

Food in prisons also is structured so that it serves as a constant reminder to prisoners that they are in prison.[10] They have little or no control over what they eat or when they eat.[11] In some prisons where inmates can buy extra food and snacks with money sent from families, food becomes a form of currency and contraband. Prison food and exchanges then begin to echo the drug trade many inmates were involved in before prison.[12] Indeed, some prisoners end up seemingly addicted to food in prison as they were addicted to drugs in their previous life.[13]

In a country where people of color are incarcerated in staggering numbers, and disproportionately more often than whites,[14] this prison food struggle can also be understood as another racial disparity. Prison food is bad enough that prisoners are more likely to have health problems like obesity and diabetes.[15] These health problems can have real consequences. People who have diabetes are at a greater risk for other more serious health conditions,[16] and those who are overweight have a higher mortality rate.[17] Nothing kills like plain margarine with every meal three times a day for a long prison sentence.

Prison food in American can hardly be called food. The holiday season provides an appropriate time to at least reflect upon the role that food plays in our society, and in particular, the differences in the amount and quality of food that those who are poor, or who are imprisoned, face every day.


[1] Jack A.  Yanovski et al., A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain, New Eng. J. Med., March 2000, at 861, 866. But see Eleese Cunningham, What’s the Latest on Holiday Weight Gain?, J. Acad. Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013, at 1576 (summarizing possible methodical flaws of the Yanovski study).

[2] Hunger in the United States is by no means confined to prisoners. See United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx (listing statistics about food insecurity in the US) (last visited Nov. 4, 2017). Indeed, even college students are facing a struggle to afford food. See Maria Carrasco, Campus Food Pantries Help Ease Student Hunger, USATodayCollege (June 28, 2017 3:24 PM), http://college.usatoday.com/2017/06/28/campus-food-pantries-help-ease-student-hunger/.

[3] Amy B. Smoyer and Kim M. Blankenship, Dealing food: Female Drug Users’ Narratives About Food in a Prison Place and Implications For Their Health, 25 Int’l J. Drug Pol. 562, 563 (2014); Alysia Santo and Lisa Iaboni, What’s In a Prison Meal?, The Marshall Project (July 7, 2017 7:15 AM), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/07/07/what-s-in-a-prison-meal.

[4] Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832-33 (1994).

[5] Santo and Iaboni, supra note 3.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] United States Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf.

[10] Smoyer and Blankenship, supra note 3, at 563.

[11] Id. at 566; Santo and Iaboni, supra note 3.

[12] Smoyer and Blankenship, supra note 3, at 565-66.

[13] Id. at 566.

[14] The Sentencing Project, Criminal Justice Facts, http://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/.

[15] Smoyer and Blankenship, supra note 3, at 566.

[16] American Diabetes Association, Complications, http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/complications/?referrer=https://www.google.com/.

[17] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects/index.html.