The Truth About Prison Food


  Not everyone has knowledge about prison food, especially people who have never been locked up before. In fact, one of the only things that folks who haven’t spent time behind bars envision when it comes to prison food is what they see in the movies. For example, there was a film that was released in the early 1990’s entitled “The Shawshank Redemption (1994)”. In one scene, the film’s protagonist, Andy Dufresne (played by actor Tim Robins), was sitting at a table in the prison cafeteria about to eat one of his first meals as an inmate. He looked down into his plate, saw something moving, dug into the food with his fingers, and pulled out a fat maggot. The prison librarian, Brooks Halton (played by actor James Whitmore) sat a few feet away from him and asked Andy if he was going to eat it. “Wasn’t planning on it…” Andy responded as he handed the insect to Brooks, who then fed it to a bird that he had in his inside jacket pocket.

   The film itself was set in the 1940’s and was fictional, so it didn’t give its viewers an authentic view of how food is actually regulated, inspected, or who the actual suppliers are to the many correctional institutions in the U.S. That is what I intend to explore.

Image retrieved from

   Back in 2008, the Florida Department of Corrections went out looking for a dependable food supplier who they could put in a permanent position to continuously provide healthy food to the state’s jails and prisons. A man named Tyrone Walker who owned a company called M&S Foods heard about them searching for a vender. He had a friend who was in a very high position at U.S. Foods named Thomas Tomlin, so Walker figured that his high ranking buddy would probably have enough pull in the food distributing industry to land the contract with the State of Florida. But Walker also knew that in order for his business M&S Foods (whom his wife Christy was also part owner of) to get in on the action he’d have to get his friend Thomas to put in writing that M&S Foods was associated somehow with U.S. Foods. So, the sly Walker asked Tomlin to propose a bid for his business in the name of U.S. Foods. Tomlin did, and a short while later U.S. Foods was successful in getting the prison food distribution contract.

   The problem was that Tyrone and Christy’s business was not a meat processor like they claimed to be on the bid – they were simply a food supply chain. So, all of the meat that was getting sent to the prisons was coming from a company that wasn’t even within their rights to service U.S. Foods with items such as beef, pork, or chicken. Tomlin’s company, mind you, was where the prisons ordered edible items directly from.

   A little while later after the shady paperwork exchanged between the two friends, the prison’s food receivers started complaining about shortages in deliveries, items ordered from U.S. Foods that were poor in quality, and many instances where they felt that they were being overcharged for the products. Secretly, Walker had been paying Tomlin over $15,000 every month to use his high-powered U.S. Foods influence to keep running the scheme. But, when authorities started getting suspicious and investigating, Thomas proclaimed that he barely even knew Tyrone. That was of course a lie, and the police even found out that they had even been on vacation together. They were likely splurging lots of the $1.5 million that they’d made over the course of 48 months to live lavish lifestyles.

   It wasn’t the first time that prisoners in this country had the health of their food compromised for greedy reasons. In one case, it was actually the Sherriff’s office that pocketed State’s funds that were supposed to be used to feed inmates. Some years ago, a publication entitled the Prison Legal News did a report (Ruetter, Hunter, & Sample, 2010) on an incident that happened in Alabama that had inmates in Morgan County hungry for extended periods of time. Gregg Bartlett, a sheriff there in 2009, finally admitted to stealing over $200,000 in money that was supposed to be for nutritional prison food, but instead got deposited into his personal accounts. The conditions of the meals were horrible; for over 24 months no milk was served and fruit was only given out a few times.

   The worst part about it was the fact that what Bartlett was doing was considered legal. Alabama had a law that was in effect since the late 1930’s that allowed the sheriffs there to keep any money that was left over from prison food for themselves. In 2009, the county was still operating under that law, and many of the sheriffs just continued to let their bank accounts get fatter while prisoners struggled to keep their body weight up.

   In many prisons in the U.S. today, bad food is currently being used as a type of disciplinary tool for punishment. Eliza Barclay, a writer for NPR, did a piece in the publication’s Food for Thought section that highlighted a horrible prison meal called “The Loaf” (Barclay, 2014). It’s what many inmates refer to as mystery meat, a bunch of leftover items from various meals that                                                                                          get tossed into a machine and shaped to look like meatloaf. The “meal” is everything but that. It’s served with no seasoning and is given out multiple times daily in some correctional institutions. Higher-ups who run some the prisons say that there is nothing wrong with serving the “Loaf”, and that punishment by way of food has been going on since the days when those inmates who got in trouble were given bread and water until they earned the “right” to eat meat, cheese and other healthy foods. Civil rights activists are doing everything they can to cease the block of guck from being served to inmates, but in early 2014 there were at least a dozen states still giving it out as meals (to even the well-behaved inmates) in over 100 jails and prisons across the nation.

   If it’s not the distributors or the sheriffs who’re shortening the amount of nutritional sustenance hitting the trays of prisoners across the country, it’s the big companies at the top of the food chain who’re doing it. One of these companies is Aramark, an organization that provides food as well as commissary and equipment services to several hundred jails and prisons in the U.S. In their business purpose statement (Aramark, 2014), they promise to “Deliver Experiences that Enrich and Nourish Lives”, “Focus on Growth”, and that they are a “High Performing Organization” with the Most Engaged People”. But, the million or so meals they serve to those doing time in hundreds of correctional facilities have been subpar to put it lightly. “We used to get two slices of bread,” said one prisoner at a Wisconsin jail to reporters. “Then we got one.” (Prison Legal News, 2010)    

                 An inmate holds the Nutri-loaf prison meal. Image retrieved from

   Under Aramark’s watch, Georgia inmates went without hot food for 90 days at one point, which is against the law in that state. The law says that prisoners are supposed to get at least two heated meals every 24 hours. It seems like everything grimy, greedy companies like Aramark say that they stand for they don’t back up when they are called upon to do so, seeing as how when the equipment failed in those aforementioned Clayton County facilities and all that was served for those entire three months were stone cold portions, they simply just didn’t rush to do anything about it.

   There are those companies out there, though, that are trying to break the trend of unsatisfactory service professionals in the prison food industry. One of them is Good Source Corrections, who have been in the business since 1985 and specialize in giving quality product recommendations. They are also a part of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates, an organization that provides many opportunities for its members to attend conferences and take advantage of networking opportunities that allow them to exchange ideas to make issues such as malnourished prisoners disappear. Good Source actually provides food that’s made fresh to order, and communicates complete nutritional information along with influencing generous serving practices on prison kitchen staffs.

   There are also many food service workers within the prisons who are tired of seeing the horrible ideals displayed by companies like Aramark. These motivated rogue workers are doing everything that they personally can to improve the nationwide epidemic of horribly unhealthy prison nutrition. For example, NC’s Haywood County Detention Center’s kitchen staff is head by a former prisoner named Glenn Cagle. After seeing how prisoners are fed first hand as a result of being in and out jails for small offenses over the years himself, he takes advantage of the best specials from distributors and goes out of his way to get fresh donations of fruit from local non-profits that would otherwise go bad and get thrown away. Because of the efforts of Cagle and his dedicated staff, big breakfasts are served to inmates that include hearty portions of things like biscuits and gravy, filling lunches such as tasty cheeseburgers and French fries, and dinners with large servings of spaghetti and meatballs (with different varieties of meals each week).

   If everyone put in as much effort as Glenn does, then the word ‘correctional facility” would once again mean just that – a place where rehabilitation of the heart and mind would be assisted                                                                                                             by the nutritious meals given to prisoners every day. Inmates who are now serving time nationwide are paying their debts to society, and are already living with the consequences of actions that they can’t take back. The job of prisons is not to make them suffer more by limiting vital necessities such as healthy trays. What people outside of the jails who have never spent a day behind bars envision as prison food (based on what they see in the movies) should stay fictional, and not be what is actually going on in reality.



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The Shawshank Redemption Movie Description. Rotten Tomatoes. 2014. Retrieved from

Actor Tim Robbins. IMDb. 2014.  Retrieved from

Actor James Whitmore and Actor Tim Robbins. IMDb. 2014. Retrieved from and

Egan, P. Prisoners in Marquette Demonstrate over Aramark Food. Detroit Free Press. 12 Nov 2014. Retrieved from

Barclay, E. Food as Punishment: Giving U.S. Inmates “The Loaf” Persists. NPR. 2 Jan 2014.  Retrieved from

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ACFSA Home Page. Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates. 2014. Retrieved from

Helpful Hints. Good Source Solutions. 2014. Retrieved from

About Aramark. Aramark Food Distribution and Commissary Company Home Page. 2014. Retrieved from


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