by Lonnie Burton
In October 2016 report by Prison Voice Washington detailed the adverse effects of a takeover of food services in Washington state prisons by Correctional Industries (CI). The report, titled “Correcting Food Policy in Washington Prisons: How the DOC Makes Healthy Food Choices Impossible for Incarcerated People and What Can be Done,” described how shifting prison food services to CI has cost the state millions of dollars – from higher food costs, increased health care expenditures and more prisoner violence stemming from discontent over poor-quality meals.
The report also revealed that the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) was in violation of Executive Order 13-06, signed by Governor Jay Inslee, which mandates that state agencies serve healthy, nutritious food to people in their charge.
The Washington DOC incarcerates over 18,000 prisoners, and the food provided by CI in state prisons “is now unhealthier than it has ever been,” the report found. For example, CI has eliminated all freshly-prepared food and every main course is now “a reheated, highly processed CI product with high amounts of sodium.”
Unprocessed meat is never served. No fresh vegetables are provided, other than carrots and celery. Breakfasts have been eliminated altogether. Even though commonly referred to as the most important meal of the day, Washington prisoners get a factory-packaged breakfast with their evening meal that mostly consists of sugar and starch. The report noted that CI replaced “what had been one of the healthier meals served in prisons ... with a plastic-wrapped [breakfast] “boat” (so-called for the shape of the cardboard container holding the items).”
The boats contain a serving of sugar-coated cereal, a breakfast bar full of chemical preservatives, a sugary muffin and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The PB&J sandwich is in name only, as the jelly consists of flavored sugar and the peanut butter has more oils and sugar than peanuts. The items served every day for breakfast are “almost entirely sugar, starch, and fat,” the report said.
Further, switching food services to CI has not saved the state any money; in fact, Prison Voice Washington found it is costing the state and taxpayers millions of dollars annually. CI has eliminated all fresh food preparation at DOC facilities and ships everything in trucks from a factory located at the Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane. Washington now pays CI to run nearly all of its prison food service programs from a centralized location when it could produce healthier and less expensive meals locally at each facility.
Costs are further increased by the long-term impact of the high-sodium, high-starch diet prisoners are forced to consume. This diet contributes to higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and chronic kidney disease, especially among elderly and African-American prisoners, the report stated, warning “[i]t is irresponsible to adopt food practices that do especial harm to the health of these populations.”
CI’s nutritional information for its menu items “significantly misstates” the nutritional value of the food served in state facilities, Prison Voice Washington said, and violates the Healthy Nutrition Guidelines set forth by the state Department of Health (DOH). CI serves only half the minimum amount of fruit required and does not meet the DOH’s requirements for vegetables in any category. CI also fails to serve the minimum 50% whole grains required by the guidelines, and “almost never serves lean protein, and never serves fish” or other seafood. According to the report, beans are the only unprocessed protein provided by CI, and the minimum amount of daily protein cannot be consumed by prisoners without consuming other unhealthy sauces and condiments in which “protein is buried by CI, with excessive calories, sodium, fat, sugar, and refined flour.”
Other adverse impacts from the switch to CI food services include environmental harm, increased prison violence and detrimental effects on local economies, each of which ultimately costs taxpayers more money. Cooking from scratch with fresh, locally-grown produce and other foods would avoid the additional commercial costs of processing, packaging and shipping. For example, the plastic wrap used for the vast majority of CI products is environmentally unsustainable, as it increases carbon emissions from fuel used to package and transport food from Spokane to prisons across the state.
In addition to CI meals threatening the health of state prisoners, the DOC has seen a steady uptick in prison violence since converting to CI food services. The report noted that poor food has been a driving factor in prison riots nationwide, and that “years of penny-pinching on food can be wiped out in minutes if riots erupt over the quality of the food.” CI’s inferior food production is a ticking time bomb in Washington prisons and a potential threat to security at DOC facilities, the study added.
Switching over to CI has also diverted funds from local economies, as prisons are no longer buying fresh produce, bread and other food items locally, often at lower prices. The report showed how purchasing food from local farms and small-scale whole food producers would benefit commerce within Washington, thus increasing state revenues.
CI attempted to justify its takeover of the DOC’s food services by claiming it was training prisoners for jobs upon their release. The reality is quite different, the report concluded: “CI Food Service employees are all but universally relegated to menial low-skilled reheating and packaging tasks for which little or no training is required.” The switch to CI has mostly eliminated skilled cooking positions throughout Washington state prisons, and prisoners now merely reheat the food that CI supplies.
“There are no careers in reheating,” the report observed.
The Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) has been the lone CI holdout in Washington. The facility held off on a CI takeover of its food service program for several years, though it was forced to buy increasing amounts of processed foods from CI. Joe Williamson, the Food Services Manager at SCCC, who passed away in April 2017, was always quick to point out how he could make higher-quality, better-tasting and healthier food at a lower price than anything he could get from CI. As a result, SCCC gained a reputation as having the best food in the DOC and, consequently, the lowest rate of violence of any major prison in the state.
It is unclear whether the report by Prison Voice Washington will spur changes in the way food is produced and served in the state’s prison system. If Washington officials take notice of the extra costs incurred – both short- and long-term – due to the switch to CI food services, they may be moved to take action. Aside from the obvious issues related to prisoners’ health, environmental impacts and prison violence, the need to reduce costs should be enough to encourage state officials to improve the DOC’s provision of food services.
CI is a source of revenue for the Washington DOC, as it runs the quarterly package and weekly commissary programs at state prisons. But taking into account that switching back to a locally-produced, fresh and scratch-made menu at each facility would save the state millions of dollars annually, it is fair to question the decision by DOC officials to turn over food services to CI. Why spend more money on lower-quality, less-nutritious food? Why violate an executive order issued by the governor? Why knowingly increase health care costs and prison violence due to poor food?
All of which ultimately costs Washington taxpayers and adversely affects the prisoners who have to eat the meals as well as prison staff who must deal with the consequences.
According to a May 22, 2017 news report, problems involving the DOC’s food services have continued, with 319,000 pounds of food produced by CI at the Airway Heights Corrections Center – almost 160 tons – being recalled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The recall was apparently related to contamination by fire retardant chemicals used at the nearby Fairchild Air Force Base that had entered the local water supply.
Sources: “Correcting Food Policy in Washington Prisons,” by Prison Voice Washington (Oct. 25, 2016); www.nwnewsnetwork.org; www.prisonvoicewa.org
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