Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Sharp barbed razor wire fence seen through prison bars

Prison Food is Straight out of a Nightmare

by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

The general public seems to be almost voyeuristically fascinated by prison food. It’s a punchline in sitcoms and movies. A condemned prisoner’s last meal is widely reported, down to what they ordered to drink. An incarcerated person’s dietary requests—for organic meals, for example—become fodder for outraged tweets.

But this interest belies a much bleaker daily reality for prisoners across the U.S.

“Prisons are food deserts,” formerly incarcerated writer Michael Capers explained in an essay published in The Appeal this week. “Mess hall meals typically contain very little nutritional value, and most commissaries offer few, if any, fresh food options.”

In addition to the lack of access to healthy food in prison, many people are served meals that are altogether inedible. The Appeal has been in touch with several women at Virginia’s Fluvanna Correctional Center who said they’re provided food that is moldy, rotten, or spoiled. They often find roaches on the food trays. The portions are “toddler size,” one woman reported.

Although Virginia prisons provide meals for more than 22,000 people, there is little independent oversight of their kitchens or food preparation practices.

When The Appeal reported the women’s allegations to the state health department, a spokesperson responded in an email that it does not have regulatory authority over correctional facilities at the regional and state level. Although Virginia’s department of health does monitor conditions at some local jails, the state department of corrections conducts its own inspections of facilities like Fluvanna, according to the spokesperson. And while the health department publishes a database of inspection reports for the facilities it oversees, no such transparency exists for the state’s prisons.

In an email to The Appeal, a VADOC spokesperson disputed reports of substandard food at Fluvanna, writing that the facility’s kitchen is “regularly tested” and has “pest control measures” in place. According to the spokesperson, the prison’s “food service operations” were inspected in June and “received the best score possible.” When asked for a copy of the report, the spokesperson directed The Appeal to submit a formal public records request. The Appeal has submitted a request but did not receive a response by publication.

“I would not think twice about eating a meal at this or any other VADOC facility,” the spokesperson wrote.

VADOC’s denials conflict with several reports from women at the facility who say they continue to receive inedible food.

“I got rotten black potatoes on my tray today,” Stephanie Angelo wrote to The Appeal last week via the prison’s online messaging service. “They have been rotten at least the past 2-3 days.”

Rancid food is far from unusual in prison mess halls across the country. People in prison are routinely forced to pick through bugs and mold at meal time. A 2017 survey of more than 100 incarcerated people in almost two dozen states found that over 65 percent of respondents had been served food not intended for humans, or that was moldy, spoiled, or had bugs in it. Most states spend less than $3 a day on food per incarcerated person, according to a 2020 report by Impact Justice, a public policy and advocacy organization.

To survive these conditions, incarcerated people might try to smuggle some of the more edible food from the mess hall into their cell—maybe a banana or an orange. But these items are considered contraband, which can lead to disciplinary action if they’re found. Capers, who came home from prison in February, wrote in his essay that he received his first misbehavior report for taking vegetables from the mess hall that were otherwise going to be composted.

“I had just arrived at the facility and didn’t have much to eat in my cell,” he wrote. “I was faced with a stark choice: go hungry or break the rules.”

Many people end up spending what little money they have at the commissary, where options are typically just a step up from a vending machine.

Regina Watkins, who’s incarcerated at Fluvanna, told The Appeal she earns 27 cents an hour housekeeping, which comes to about $30 a month. She spends much of that money buying food at the commissary.

“I supplement what I make with what my family sends me,” she told The Appeal. “They send me what they can when they can.”

In February, Watkins said she got food poisoning after she ate coleslaw from the mess hall, and vomited for several days. Last month, she got food poisoning again after eating potato salad. Her experience is relatively common among prisoners. Incarcerated people are over six times more likely than those in the community to contract a foodborne illness, according to a 2017 study that analyzed data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I try hard not to [eat the food] because I’m so afraid of it,” Watkins told The Appeal.

According to Watkins, the kitchen was recently closed for a few days for extermination, but just last week she passed two kitchen workers who were pushing a warming cart of food trays. One of them screamed, “It’s roaches on this cart!”

In conversations with The Appeal, Shebri Dillon said that after finding maggots in her cauliflower, she now only eats food that she can wash off. “I went to go eat it and looked down and it was moving,” she said in a phone call from prison.

“I understand that I am incarcerated,” Dillon said. “I don’t expect five-star food, but I also would expect food that’s at least edible.”

Correction: A previous version of this article contained a statement from Regina Watkins suggesting she buys 40 packets of ramen a month from the prison commissary.

In an email to The Appeal nearly two weeks after this story was published, a VADOC spokesperson provided a complete list of Watkins’s commissary purchases from January 1 to July 19, which he claimed indicate someone who is not “purchasing subsistence levels of food.” While the documents do show that Watkins has only bought 25 packs of ramen so far this year, they also confirm that she buys a variety of other foods each month. According to the VADOC’s records, Watkins has purchased hundreds of food items from the commissary so far this year.

In the news

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has created “a chaotic post-Dobbs landscape in many states across the country,” writes Jessica Winter. The victims of this human-made crisis will be women and other pregnant people. [Jessica Winter / The New Yorker]

Abortion funds still need financial support. Desperately. [Scalawag]

U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver ruled that the Arizona prison system’s healthcare system is unconstitutional. [Jimmy Jenkins / Arizona Republic]

The Savannah, Georgia, Police Department does not keep data on the effectiveness of ShotSpotter, which is supposed to help solve gun crimes. But that didn’t stop the Savannah City Council from voting to expand the program. ShotSpotter has been linked to numerous wrongful arrests. [Jake Shore / The Current]

“As an Arab American who has witnessed the chilling effect of surveillance on my community, three factors have inspired me to stand with the movement to defund the police,” writes Nadine Naber. [Nadine Naber / Truthout]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate to our anniversary campaign here. If you become a sustaining monthly donor at $25 or more, we’ll send you our brand new “Fire Your Bosses” t-shirt!

The Appeal in Your Inbox

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.