By Mark Wilson
Approximately 40 Nevada prisoners at a maximum-security lockup near Reno started a hunger strike on December 1, 2022, that lasted at least nine days. Top officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) claimed the strike at Ely State Prison was due to skimpy portions served by its new food vendor, Aramark Correctional Services.
While portion size may be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, prisoners say the strike was about much more. “Food, I think, is the thing that pushed it over the edge,” said Jodi Hocking, executive director of Return Strong, a prisoners’ rights group advocating for better prison conditions that supported the striking prisoners. “People feel like this is their only way to get anyone to listen, and we’re going to do everything we can to elevate their voice.”
One of those voices belongs to prisoner Sean Harvell, 35. He called his mother, Nina Fernandez, on the second day of the strike, telling her the protest was over unsafe and inhumane living conditions, physical abuse by prison staff, excessive lockdowns and unreasonably long solitary confinement sanctions, as well as the food concerns. “Mom, if I never make it out,” he said, “just know I love you.”
Prison officials denied knowing of any problem beyond inadequate food portions. “I’m unaware of rights being violated,” claimed DOC Deputy Director Brian Williams. Yet soon after the protest began, acting DOC Director William Gittere announced a “significant change” in “administrative sanctions” policy beginning December 9, 2022.
Before the strike, prisoners could be punished with “concurrent” sanctions that simultaneously stripped them of multiple privileges, including phone time and commissary access; now, however, only a single sanction may be imposed at a time.
The strike was then voluntarily ended. It was known that the number of participating prisoners fluctuated daily. Some prisoners chose to receive food one day and then return to the strike the next. The prison made food available daily to all prisoners during the strike.
While the prison population likely welcomed the end of concurrent sanctions, it was not one of the six demands compiled by striking prisoners and shared by Return Strong. Among those six demands was a request to provide adequate and nutritious food.
Even the guards’ union recognized that complaints about Aramark were valid. “The portion sizes have been changed,” admitted Paul Lunkwitz, President of the Fraternal Order of Police Nevada C.O. Lodge 21. Another issue that is very real for prisoners in Nevada and across the nation is the inflated price of food bought from commissaries to supplement meager prison meals lacking in flavor and nutrition.
Prices are so high that some prisoners are simply skipping meals or passing on a bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste. Across the country, prisoners are paying a lot more for everyday items. Peanut butter costs 61 cents more this year in Wisconsin but the jar is two ounces smaller. A pouch of beans that cost $1.21 in 2021 now costs $1.51 in a New Jersey prison. A packet of Ramen in Illinois prisons costs almost 70% more.
According to results reported in the 2022 Fiscal Report by Aramark, the leading company in prison commissary goods, its shareholders are probably happier than the company’s incarcerated consumers. Company revenue in the fourth quarter that year was 111% of pre-COVID levels, reaching a staggering $4.4 billion – an increase of 24% compared to the same period a year earlier.
Aramark declined to comment on the Arizona strike. But Deputy DOC Director Williams claimed the prison system is “going to do what’s in the best interest of the offenders.” This apparently includes auditing portion sizes at all facilities and reviewing the contract with Aramark. DOC also claims to be reviewing additional unspecified complaints.
Additional source: NBC News
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