The Pennsylvania Prison Society is working to change the culture of food behind bars

Prison cell with an empty plate and bowl on a table

Grant Durr -

Guest blog from Joel Wolfram for the Pennsylvania Prison Society

Soggy pizza soaked in beet juice. Sour milk and rotten apples. Room-temperature Salisbury steak. These were a few of the items on the menu in Pennsylvania state prisons in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to incarcerated people who filled out our survey on prison food.

The Pennsylvania Prison Society started surveying incarcerated people after receiving a deluge of letters describing how bad prison food had gotten since the prisons closed dining halls during the pandemic and began serving all meals in-cell. Dishes got jumbled together in transit and sat on trays for hours before being served. Hot menu items were rare, and were cold by the time they arrived. Making the fare even more unappetizing, incarcerated people were forced to eat it just a few feet from the toilet they shared with a cellmate.

“Food is not even fit for an animal,” one incarcerated person wrote.

The notion that prison food should be punitive is so deeply ingrained in our culture that even the Prison Society, whose mission is to ensure humane treatment in prisons and jails, had taken it for granted–until now. In our survey, 73 percent of the 429 people in Pennsylvania state prisons who responded reported receiving fewer hot meals, 74 percent reported receiving rotten food in the past month, and 72 percent said that portions had gotten smaller compared to before the pandemic.

Thanks to a grant from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Pennsylvania Prison Society is now working to change the status quo toward a future where meals in prison satisfy the basic human need for nourishing and wholesome food.

Cost-cutting on food is short-sighted

While never known for culinary excellence, prison food has managed to get even worse in recent years. According to a report by Impact Justice, spending on meals behind bars plummeted as mass incarceration put pressure on state correctional systems to reduce costs. Pennsylvania prisons cut food costs more than any other state. In 1996, the state spent $8.96 per person per day (adjusted for inflation). By 2018, it was spending just $2.61. Several other states also cut food spending precipitously, according to Impact Justice. Florida slashed food spending from $5.65 to $2.02 (adjusted for inflation) during the same period.

“Budget cuts and stagnant spending have led to fewer hot meals, smaller portions, lower-quality protein, fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, and more ultra-processed foods, as well as poorly equipped and ill-supervised kitchens that further compromise quality,” the Impact Justice report states.

Prisons’ penny-pinching coincided with a trend of outsourcing food service operations to the private sector. Impact Justice reports that at least 15 states have privatized some aspect of correctional food service to corporations like Aramark and Trinity. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has contracted with Aramark since 2017, when it signed an initial three-year, $154 million contract. This centralized food procurement for all 23 prisons, which previously sourced food independently. Under the arrangement, Aramark only supplies the food–the DOC formulates menus, staffs kitchens, and handles the rest of the food service operation. At the time, state officials said the contract would save $16.6 million.

The state didn’t consider how the savings could be offset by the damaging consequences. Poor quality food with inadequate nutrition makes incarcerated people sicker, increasing medical expenses. The Pennsylvania DOC plans to spend $356 million on medical care in the coming fiscal year–about 12 percent of its overall budget. Elevated rates of acute and chronic illness contribute to the bill. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that incarcerated people contract foodborne illnesses at over six times the rate of the general population. An unhealthy diet can also lead to long-term health problems. People confined to prisons are one-and-a-half times more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma than the general population, and 40 percent more likely to have any chronic illness.

“I entered county jail 134 pounds, fit and healthy,” commented one formerly incarcerated person during a national listening session hosted by CSPI and Impact Justice. “I was 206 pounds ten months later in prison, and I had high blood pressure for the first and only time in my life.”

The poor diet may take a toll on health even years after release. One study found that formerly incarcerated people were 60 percent more likely to develop high blood pressure in young adulthood after accounting for other risk factors like smoking.

“I had a heart attack and a triple bypass 17 months after release, and I was one of the fortunate ones to have made it and to recover,” another formerly incarcerated person said during the national listening session. “There was a direct correlation with the 23 years of poor diet I had while incarcerated–a prison sentence can turn into a death sentence for many.”

Families foot the bill

Inadequate nutrition in prisons also adds to the financial burden borne by incarcerated people and their families. Nearly three-quarters of the incarcerated people who responded to our survey reported spending more on food from the prison commissary to supplement their diets as the quality of meals declined. While the salty, sugary snacks and preserved foods typically available in the commissary may taste better and help incarcerated people get enough calories, they do not provide the healthy micronutrients that are lacking in the prison diet.

Also, because incarcerated people make vanishingly low wages, the extra expense often falls to their families. It adds to the hundreds of dollars a month these typically low-income families pay on phone calls, prison visits, clothing, and other support for their incarcerated loved ones.

The Prison Society’s project to improve prison food

With CSPI’s support, we hired a registered dietitian with expertise in food policy development, Arielle Herman, to evaluate food service in Pennsylvania prisons and make recommendations for change. Since January 2023, Herman has been thoroughly reviewing the state of food service in Pennsylvania prisons, the DOC’s policies and contracts with Aramark and its commissary supplier, and researching best practices in other jurisdictions. She has visited several state prisons to tour kitchen facilities, talk to kitchen staff, and interview incarcerated people about their experience with prison food. Herman has also conducted a nutritional analysis of meals served in state prisons.

The Aramark contract expires this year, and Herman’s findings and recommendations will help inform the department’s decisions as it draws up a new contract. The time is ripe to begin changing the culture around prison food.

This blog was written by Joel Wolfram for the Pennsylvania Prison Society. For more information on the Pennsylvania Prison Society, please visit