by Kevin W. Bliss
In mid-2018, prisoners at the Bristol County House of Correction (HOC) in Massachusetts participated in a hunger strike to protest inadequate food and medical care. Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said those were the same complaints prisoners have always made, which were without merit. He blamed outside groups for inciting the protest, which he opined “could set off a riot in a matter of a minute.”
“They are exposing my officers, my staff, and the inmates that we have care and custody of to either being seriously hurt or killed as a result of their stirring up these inmates inside our facilities,” Hodgson added.
No riot or injuries occurred, though.
Val Ribeiro, an immigration attorney, said the lack of sufficient medical treatment has been “a consistent problem” for her clients, who are ICE detainees held at the jail.
“We kind of have to move mountains to get [Bristol County] to acknowledge it, number one, and to provide them with the proper medication and treatment if necessary,” Ribeiro noted.
“We have a nurse in that facility everyday, almost the entire day,” Hodgson countered. “We have doctors if somebody needs a doctor.”
The HOC’s Dartmouth facility, including its Women’s Center, has an average population of about 1,010 prisoners serving sentences of no more than 30 months, though most stay six months or less, Hodgson said. Bristol County also contracts with ICE to house an undisclosed number of immigrant detainees at the jail.
In July 2018, sixty ICE detainees went on a hunger strike. A week later, other prisoners in the HOC followed suit with their own strike, which 242 eventually joined. The Sheriff’s Office said neither was a true hunger strike because prisoners were still eating food purchased from the commissary.
“Everyone is eating,” observed Jonathan Darling, the public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office. “No one is going hungry.”
Keefe Commissary Network, which runs the HOC’s commissary, allows family members to use its Access SecurePak program to purchase up to $100 of food for delivery to prisoners each month. Items for sale include ramen noodles priced at $0.90 for a three-ounce pack and a $1.65 iced honey bun. Keefe returns a third of its gross sales to the Sheriff’s Office, which is over $30,000 per month that Hodgson said goes to fund prisoner programs.
“When somebody is on a hunger strike, they’re not buying two dollar ramen noodles from the commissary,” argued Laura Wagner with the Unitarian Universalist Mass Action Network. “They don’t have any money.”
Hodgson allowed The Standard-Times to visit the HOC after the newspaper received a tip about the hunger strike. He insisted that he was not trying to punish prisoners with poor meals, except for those who repeatedly throw food. Those violators are fed “nutraloaf,” a house-made blend of powdered milk, vegetables, beef, beans, eggs and bread that is cooked into a meatloaf-like shape. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.24].
“I don’t believe you use food to send a message to be tough on crime,” Sheriff Hodgson insisted. “I think what you do is ... meet your basic standards of nutrition.”
However, Hodgson has used the idea of food as punishment in promotional materials. “Seen Around Dartmouth Jail: Tuesday morning’s breakfast,” the Sheriff’s Office tweeted in January 2019, along with a photo of cereal, a small carton of milk and a square muffin. “If you’re more of a bacon and eggs type, don’t break the law and you can have whatever breakfast you want, every morning.”
Otherwise, the sheriff said his goal was to balance nutrition and taxpayer costs.
“I always tell people, ‘Look, [if you want] cake, cookies, you want more ounces of orange juice or what have you, don’t come here,’” he stated. “You can have all you want on the outside. But we’re not going to have taxpayers pay extra money for food beyond what they’re already paying for the cost of care here.”
Yet when journalistsvisited the HOC, they found prisoners were not receiving any fresh fruits or vegetables, large amounts of carbohydrates were being served, and several products were well past their “best use by” date. Food expiration dates are not federally mandated and typically indicate when food quality begins to decline, not when it is unsafe to eat.
“They [prisoners] use the exact same jargon,” Hodgson said of the protestors. “The food’s not good. The place isn’t clean. You know, just the same bologna the detainees were throwing out there, which were [sic] absolutely not true.”
The Standard-Times compared Bristol County’s self-run food service to contracted services in nearby Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Bristol County’s per-meal cost – the lowest in the state – ran about $0.75, not including labor. Plymouth County, which contracted with Trinity Services Group, paid $1.66 per meal – which covered the food as well as contract costs such as wages, equipment and preparation. Plymouth County served fresh lettuce and tomatoes as well as beans and fruit, which were absent in Bristol County’s jail menu.
“We used to serve salad years ago, but nobody was eating it,” said HOC food service director Avelino Alves, who added they also serve no pork due to religious dietary restrictions and because “it’s just easier.”
The HOC’s weekly menu typically includes six servings of potatoes, five servings of rice and two slices of untoasted wheat bread with lunch and dinner. On day 23 of the menu’s 35-day cycle, lunch consists of meatloaf, instant mashed potatoes, bread, margarine and cake, along with a serving of green beans and “fortified punch” – an artificially sweetened drink containing no fruit juice.
Simmons University dietitian Sharon Gallagher reviewed the HOC menu and said it didn’t look that bad. The carb count may be high, but a person’s diet should consist of about 50 to 60 percent carbohydrates.
“Of course I would love to see fresh fruit on the tray,” she stated. “I just don’t know if it’s possible based on their [budgetary] constraints.”
Sheriff Hodgson said the jail provided sufficient food to give each prisoner 2,710 calories a day, with about 54 percent from carbohydrates, 32 percent from fat and 14 percent from protein, on average.
“Provided we’re meeting your nutritional standards and keeping you as healthy as we possibly can, which we do, that’s the only standard I’m worried about,” he added.
After the newspaper reports, the HOC began serving prisoners apples twice a week. But Sarah Wakefield, an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies prisoner health, said that was still below normal when compared to other prisons and jails that provide more fresh fruit and vegetables.
“In my experience, limited to some state prisons, that is unusual,” she noted.
José Ashford, a criminologist and professor of social work at Arizona State University, said he did not believe food should be used as punishment. Many people in county jails are only there because they cannot afford bail and have not yet been convicted of a crime.
“So you’re punishing them for poverty,” Ashford observed.
Susan Krumholz, a crime and justice professor at UMass Dartmouth, said unappetizing food could also exacerbate depression in an environment where the majority of the population already has mental health and drug-related problems.
“I know it makes them angry,” she said.
Gregg Miliote, a spokesman for the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office, reported that prisoners held at the HOC are generally charged with driving under the influence, indecent assault or vehicle crashes resulting in bodily injury, along with first-time drug or firearm-related offenses.
“An awful lot of people who are in jails are there for doing things that most of us have done. Often what they’ve done is just really stupid,” Krumholz said.
Regardless, poor food should not be part of their punishment.
Sources: southcoasttoday.com, wgbh.org
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