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Washington State Prisoners Protest Poor Food

by Ed Lyon

During April 2018, prisoners in six housing units at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla participated in a hunger strike that lasted up to 10 days. Over 1,300 prisoners reportedly took part – around half the facility’s population, excluding those who were elderly or ill. Their main complaints were the quality of food and its temperature when served. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.1].

Until the 21st century, food service departments in Washington prisons prepared meals from scratch and exercised autonomous buying practices. That often meant local food service managers could take advantage of surplus food supplies at below bargain basement prices, which provided variety in meals and saved money. The food preparation skills that prisoners learned helped them develop marketable job skills they could use to obtain employment in the food service industry once released.

Washington State Correctional Industries (CI), the state’s prison industry program, has slowly yet inexorably edged out local prison meal preparation services, instead substituting pre-prepared heat-and-eat meals as well as cold packs called “breakfast boats,” which are given to prisoners at night to eat in the morning.

Rather than healthier fresh fruit, eggs and oatmeal breakfasts, CI’s “breakfast boats” contain a muffin, dry cereal, breakfast bar and bread slices, with packets of powdered milk, drink mix and peanut butter and jelly, consisting mainly of processed fats, sugars and starch. They are served at several Washington state prisons.
“Hardly anybody eats their [breakfast] boats,” said former prisoner Jeffrey Owen Dorman.

From its inception in 1993, CI began its food manufacturing program at the Airway Heights Corrections Center where breakfast boats, pre-prepared frozen meals and baked goods are made. A second facility opened at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in 2009, where lunch meats, entrees, sauces, soups and other foods are produced. It was the goal of state officials to increase control over food operations through implementing as much centralization as possible, partly to reduce costs.

Yet there is “no significant statistical price correlation between serving food cooked from scratch and serving pre-processed meals,” according to a 2014 study of school meals, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And since prisoners who work in institutional kitchens are now mainly reheating pre-cooked food provided by CI, they are not learning culinary skills that could benefit them once they are released.

“Job skills is not boiling 20-pound bags of something already cooked in a kettle and trying to use that as a teachable skill for the private industry,” noted John Holeman, a former food manager who worked at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Although prisoners still grow vegetables in prison gardens to supplement IC-supplied meals, health concerns remain. Brent Carney, a former prison dietary services manager who now works for the state’s Department of Health and Social Services, stated, “if the Department of Corrections would spend more money on the food budget, it could actually reduce [prisoner] health care costs.”

Following the end of the hunger strike at Walla Walla, prison officials committed to working on solutions to the prisoners’ concerns, and agreed to provide fresh milk and oatmeal for breakfast.

“While there are clearly some cost avoidance benefits of having a breakfast boat served daily in an operation of a prison, we recognize that the concerns that are being raised are valid,” admitted Scott Edwards, who is over CI’s food production and related services. He also acknowledged that CI was “deficient” in terms of providing “fruit and vegetable portions and varieties” in prison meals.

It costs around $1.64 per meal to feed prisoners in Washington state. 


Sources:,,, Associated Press,

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