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Food Survey Reveals Washington State Prisoners’ Concerns and Complaints

by Matt Clarke

It might be classified as “better late than never,” but a March 2019 report on a food survey of prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), undertaken by the state’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds, cast light on the kinds of problems with prison food that led to protests in 2018 and early 2019.

The Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) has its self-funded industry program, Correctional Industries (CI), prepare three meals a day for state prisoners at a central facility. The food is transported, already portioned out in trays, and then reheated on site at the various prisons statewide. In recent years, CI stopped serving hot breakfasts and began giving prisoners cold, bagged breakfasts during their evening meal to be eaten the next morning.

The introduction of the bagged breakfast meals, known as “breakfast boats,” is believed to have been the cause of food strikes by over half the prisoners at WSP in April 2018 and nearly the entire population at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (CRCC) in February 2019. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.50]. Since the protests, hot breakfasts have been reintroduced at WSP while hard-boiled eggs were added to morning meals at CRCC, in addition to other improvements.

The food survey consisted of six questions asking the three most and least favorite CI menu items, the most important food concern, one suggestion for improving the CI menu, what should be increased on the menu, and what nutrition-related topic prisoners would like to learn more about.

“The vast majority of respondents reported regularly feeling hungry after some meals, most especially after lunch. Lunch portions are reported to have been reduced since hot breakfasts were reintroduced in 2018,” according to the 47-page Ombuds report.

The reheating protocol was also roundly criticized as rendering meal items “hard, dry, and inedible.” Many survey respondents suggested that all menu items not be placed on the tray prior to reheating. They frequently cited the pre-CI method of serving prisoners from a large tray of food as much better than placing the items on a tray at a distant location and reheating it locally, which caused drying and crusting on many menu items.

After the WSP food strike, oatmeal was temporarily served for breakfast from a large tray. Many respondents found that method vastly superior to reheating individual portions.

Survey respondents also complained about the overuse of soy-based textured vegetable protein (TVP), and asked for more protein from unprocessed meat, egg and dairy sources. They expressed concerns about an unhealthy high ratio of carbohydrates to proteins.

The prisoners also had concerns about the quality of food ingredients and lack of freshness. They wanted less processed food, more variety in the meals and meal components, and asked for better recipes and improved flavor. Some were worried about ineffective monitoring of prison kitchen staff, resulting in improper food safety and sanitation. Prisoners in protective custody and other forms of administrative segregation believed their food was intentionally being contaminated by prisoners working in the kitchen.

The favorite menu items were pancake/waffle meals, followed by hamburger, chicken nuggets/tenders, tacos, and biscuits and gravy. The least favorite were yams/sweet potato, sausage, spaghetti, braised beef, meatloaf Salisbury patty, sweet and sour chicken, beef Stroganoff and fish patties.

Prisoner food reps complained that CI nixed reasonable suggestions as cost prohibitive and operated food service as a zero-sum game – that is, in order to give one thing, CI must take away another. That dovetailed with prisoners’ statements that lunches were reduced after hot breakfasts were reintroduced.

Inadequate portion size was the number one concern, with over four times the number of responses as the next highest concern (excess use of TVP). Incorrectly cooked or heated food, unhealthy food, poor food quality and inadequate protein were also cited as concerns. Some prisoners decried the disparity between the written menu and what they actually received, noting that items would often be watered down, substituted for lesser items or missing altogether. They also complained of leftover food being thrown away rather than served to prisoners, and about the prohibition against prisoners trading or giving away food items.

Some prisoners reported that alternative menu meals had even smaller portions than regular meals. It was also alleged that prisoners with food allergies, with the exception of tomato allergies, were told to simply not eat items containing ingredients to which they were allergic – yet no list of ingredients was available, and this reduced the already paltry amount of food available to those prisoners.

The number one topic of interest for additional nutritional information was protein, followed by the governor’s executive order on improving the health and productivity of state employees and access to healthy food in state facilities, caloric needs, fruit and vegetable needs, and carbohydrates.

In summary, most prisoners wanted larger portions of locally prepared food not adulterated with soy, corn meal and bread. Palatability, while desired, was not the primary concern; instead, the main concerns were the quantity, quality and preparation of the food. Whether CI or the DOC will act on those reasonable requests remains to be seen. 

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Sources: Washington State Office of the Corrections Ombuds, union-bulletin.com, seattletimes.com