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JOHN KIRIAKOU: Animal-Grade Prison Food Indicts US Society

Consortium News, Sept. 18, 2023.

Prisoners in the U.S. face chronic hunger and illness due to substandard and disgusting food, as new Bureau of Prisons director Collette Peters reportedly battles bureaucracy to reform the system.

By John Kiriakou

I’ve written in the past about an awful experience I had in prison a decade ago while serving 23 months in prison after blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program.  I was doing my time at the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania, a low-security prison in the Appalachian Mountains.  One of the very first things I found, on my very first day, was that the food was bad. Very bad. 

I arrived in prison on a Thursday.  The next day, Friday, was “fish day.” A fellow prisoner warned me to skip the fish. “We call it sewer trout,” he said. “you don’t want to put that in your body.” Sure enough, when I got in line in the cafeteria, I saw boxes stacked behind the servers. Every box was very clearly marked, “Alaskan Cod.  Product of China. Not for human consumption. FEED USE ONLY.” That’s what the servers were slopping onto our trays. 

Things only got worse from there. I won’t go into detail about the rat that drowned in the Kool-Aid dispenser. I suppose things like that will happen from time to time. But one incident still makes me angry 10 years later. Every Wednesday evening was “taco night.”  This disgusting concoction was ground beef, some sort of “sauce,” and a little onion. It was truly inedible and I threw it away more often than I ate it.

One day, guards posted a memo from the warden in every housing unit saying, “Sorry. Through no mistake of our own, the company that sends us the ground beef for tacos accidentally mismarked a shipment of dog food as ‘ground beef’. That dog food was served to inmates. The Bureau of Prisons will fine the company.”

I later read in Prison Legal News magazine that the company was fined and the BOP kept the money.  But the real shame here isn’t even that we ate dog food.  The real shame is that we didn’t even realize that it was dog food because the food is so bad every day. I can’t tell you how many expired foods we were served, still in the packaging, and how many years-old frozen bagels, dyed green for some previous St. Patrick’s Day, we were served every Sunday for a year.

Diet Leaves Prisoner’s Legs and Feet Swollen

new study by Impact Justice has found that this level of food quality is consistent in federal, state, and local prisons across America. The report says that,

“Like every other aspect of life in prison, the food is dreary and monotonous and, with rare exceptions, relentlessly bad: two slimy pieces of bologna sandwiched between flimsy slices of white bread, a packet of mustard, and a handful of potato chips one day; two boiled hot dogs, the same white bread, and a scoop of under-baked beans the next.  There are concoctions too similar to differentiate, in which chunks of mystery meat swim in a dull gravy, sometimes atop mushy white rice, or a clump of pasta with the same watery tomato sauce week after week.”

In 2019, prisoners in Nevada complained to state officials that the food they were being served was unhealthy, of poor quality, highly-processed, and too high in fat and sodium.  The state’s response was to cut portion sizes.  Last week, with prisoners quite literally starving from the meager portions, a local newspaper reported that many prisoners were eating toothpaste, salt, and even wet toilet paper to try to stave off the hunger. 

A former prisoner told the paper when he was released from a Nevada minimum-security work camp that a doctor told him that his legs and feet were swollen because of the poor diet that he had for the six years that he was imprisoned.  What he was given may have met state standards for “nutrition,” but maybe the problem is with the state standards.

When the newspaper first brought the issue to public attention last week, a spokesman for the Nevada state Department of Corrections said,

“There’s a diet.  It may not be what we want, but a dietician reviews is, saying that it’s the vitamins and requirements, at a minimum, that you need.” 

I wonder if he knows about the dog food or the Chinese “Alaskan” cod animal feed. I wonder if his legs and feet are swollen or if he’s malnourished.

New Bureau of Prisons Director ‘Wants to Do Right Thing’

I had occasion last week to have dinner with another former federal prisoner. He said that he had tweeted so regularly about the poor conditions in American prisons that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) finally asked him to come on as a paid advisor. One of the first issues he raised was that of food quality. He told me that the new director of the BOP, Collette Peters, genuinely wanted to do the right thing. 

He said her tenure as head of the Oregon Department of Corrections was successful and that she implemented positive changes there. But he went on to say that Peters is up against an entrenched bureaucracy at the BOP. It’s a bureaucracy that sees her as an outsider trying to push career BOP officials aside. They’re doing whatever they can to block her reforms, waiting until she finally resigns or is fired, so they can then go back to business as usual.

That means that the rest of us have to keep up the fight. Outrage is motivating. We shouldn’t be proud that prison food in some of the worst countries in the world is better than what we have here. We’re supposed to be the greatest country in the world, right? We have to fight it. Either Mahatma Gandhi or former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, depending on what source you use, said, “The measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members.”  The prison system, and prison food, certainly indict our society.