Food justice in correctional facilities

We often like to think that when we send people to correctional facilities, justice is being served. But the problem with this notion is that we fail to consider what drives individuals into committing violent crimes in the first place.

Richard B. Freeman, a professor of Economics at Harvard University, argues the decline of available jobs for men with fewer working skills has exacerbated engagement in crimes. People are incarcerated because of social and economic limitations in our society. And with overcrowding due to increasing rates of incarceration, correctional facilities are all the more replete with violence, infectious diseases and excessive substance abuse. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, reduces the incidence of recidivism — meaning fewer people in prison and less taxpayer spending.

Rehabilitation is a restorative health process. But if we want to be healthy, then we need to eat healthy.

Unfortunately, prison food requires serious improvement. Meals currently served in correctional facilities do not merely lack taste; they are infested with maggots, frequently lead to foodborne illnesses and are often described as cruel and unusual punishment, as is the case with the “nutraloaf.”

The food is not just bad — it’s inhumane. But what would improving food quality do?

SEE RELATED: Meal upgrade may be on the menu at SF County Jail

Dr. Bernard Gesch, senior research scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oxford, reports that serving tasty meals rich in vitamins to people in prison reduces violent behavior. It seems food justice plays a positive role in rehabilitating people in prison.

Correctional facilities could use the San Francisco County Jail system as a model from which to learn. According to Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, The City’s jails are currently working toward integrating more organic and locally sourced produce, higher in both vitamins and antioxidants.

While the county jail system in San Francisco may benefit well from organic and locally sourced produce, supplying larger prisons requires more time, food and money. With the average cost per meal in the United States prison system amounting to a meager $1, finding ways to accommodate healthier options becomes increasingly difficult.

Correctional facilities should spend more on food because it will benefit their finances in the long term. Heath care expenses for foodborne illnesses, on average, cost about $1,068 per person. With 20,625 reported foodborne illnesses in U.S. correctional facilities between 1998 and 2014, treatment costs the nation an estimated $1.4 million per year — and that doesn’t include unreported outbreaks.

Rehabilitation does not merely benefit the people within correctional facilities. A study conducted at the City University of New York found correctional policies and high incarceration rates intensify transmission of diseases, disrupt family dynamics and reduce political participation. If better food results in decreased violence in facilities, then it will also improve the neighboring urban environment.

A more interactive approach to food justice as rehabilitation is gardening. This movement, referred to as “Planting Justice,” teaches these people skills useful to acquiring landscaping jobs following their release. The Insight Garden Program at the San Quentin State Prison is so successful that it reduced participant recidivism to below 10 percent and saved the state $40 million.

We emphasize food as one of our basic human needs. People in prison may be in prison, but that doesn’t make them any less human. Like anyone else, they deserve safe, edible and nutritious food. It benefits their health and benefits the nation.

Christopher Rodriguez is a master’s student at Stanford University School of Medicine.

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