Access to healthy prison food is just one of the problems plaguing prison systems around the country.

Lack of transparency around Utah’s prison food leads to a lack of accountability

Access to healthy prison food is just one of the problems plaguing prison systems around the country.

Shane Severson and the 1,200 people in the Utah Prisoner Advocacy Network (UPAN) know a lot more than others about what’s happening in the state’s jails and prisons, given that many of them have loved ones who are in prison. But there are still a lot of unknowns and lingering questions.

“We don’t know what goes into the meal planning,” he says, despite building a large coalition of advocates engaged in Utah’s prison system. “Sometimes the food smells bad; it smells rotten. We’ve had complaints of people eating stuff and getting sick … they rely on commissary, but if they can’t get their commissary, then yeah, it’s a big problem.”

When it comes to nutrition and meals, Severson says jail officials are unlikely to give straight answers. UPAN members have to rely on what they’re being told by loved ones who are incarcerated.

“If they go on lockdown for any reason whatsoever, that can delay meals,” he says, pointing out that staffing shortages have led to increased incidents of violence, disrupting access to food.

In that case, UPAN has found, they may turn to commissary food, which he is told can often be expired. And on top of that, it either costs hours of work for those incarcerated—who make cents on the hour—or it comes out of the pockets of family members outside.

“I don’t believe the concerns are getting where they need to go,” he says. “I honestly believe sometimes the correctional officers just kind of toss them aside.”

The lack of clarity isn’t necessarily new. Utah’s state prisons have had a dietician employed as far back as 2013, but Severson says no one from UPAN has met that person or knows what their work entails.

Prison food has for a long time been seen with castigation by the mainstream. There is a 2017 Buzzfeed video where participants are required to try food from a prison, for example. “I’m trying to convince my brain not to kill myself,” one participant said in the video. Media reports on the topic are eye-catching: “Prison food is way worse than you’d expect,” HowStuffWorks declared in 2021.

Both declared prison food to be “cruel and unusual.”

Human rights groups have found similar things. The American Civil Liberties Union compiled a list of examples where incarcerated people were offered little to no nutritional value in their meals. One man with a broken jaw in Baltimore, for example, was served only two cups of broth for his meals.

The terrible nature of nutrition in the criminal justice system has indeed been reported over and over. And over much of the past decade, the situation appears to have gotten worse, not better. “Prisons are food deserts,” the formerly incarcerated journalist Michael Capers wrote for criminal justice outlet the Appeal in 2022.

In recent years, activists and academics have pulled no punches when arguing that this system is dehumanizing to those incarcerated. In the Food and Foodways academic journal, for example, University of Washington professor Will McKeithen argued that financial structures regulating prisons allowed them to appear more healthy than they are.

“Narrowly defined nutritionism ensures cheap sustenance and biopolitical control while maintaining a veneer of scientific legitimacy and liberal beneficence,” he wrote, summarizing his findings after reviewing state systems to improve food delivery.

Potentially in response to the recent allegations of harmful food, especially as a means to cut operating costs, states have begun to shift their framing around food in recent years. Utah is among those indicating that they are increasing their investment in food rather than short-changing the issue.

In 2012, for example, a report to the Utah legislature by the body’s auditor found that food costs at the state prison were too high and should be reduced—including lowering the caloric intake for female prisoners. They blamed this financial waste on an inexperienced food service manager.

Two years later, Utah was spending about $1.31 for each meal per person in prison, according to a news report from the time that profiled Captain Mike Oviatt, who was in charge of services at the Draper prison before it closed.

“That comes through the state,” he told the trade journal Food Management at the time. “But our legislators want to reduce that down to 80 cents.”

More recently, politicians have made the opposite proposal: to spend more, not less, on food. In 2018, for example, Connecticut’s Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy suggested increasing the price per meal by 10 percent. Texas has also seemingly indicated they want to improve its food offerings.

“As part of a long-term strategic plan, the corrections agency aims to do away with the worst of prison fare—the meager and sometimes moldy brown-bag meals served during lockdowns, which occur regularly and can last for weeks,” wrote journalist Keri Blakinger in January.

In Utah, one of the biggest issues right now is staffing. Last year, the Department of Corrections noted that there were 200 jobs open across their facilities, including in food service. This meant they were even willing to pay a $6,000 sign-on bonus to new hires.

According to a report by KSL, many guards left prison jobs in Utah for police work because they were offered higher salaries. The Department of Corrections responded by increasing their salaries for guards by 27 percent in 2022.

“The current vacancy rate still requires mandatory overtime from officers throughout the state to provide the minimum level of staffing required to operate the new Utah State Correctional Facility,” the DOC wrote in an announcement of the salary increases. “However, these two recent salary adjustments have helped slow both the vacancy and turnover rates and the department projects this pattern will continue through the end of the year.”

The topic of food doesn’t get as much attention when discussing prisons—especially in popular media—as visitation, sentencing, parole or other pillars of the incarceration experience. But many advocates refer to the quality of prison food as a matter of public health. Nutritional food helps ensure those incarcerated stay healthy, both for their well-being individually and because it puts less strain on healthcare needs. On top of that, impulses toward cheaper food are an embodiment of transitions to increased privatization of services within the incarceration industry.

In Utah, one of the biggest issues right now is staffing. Last year, the Department of Corrections noted that there were 200 jobs open across their facilities, including in food service.

“The downturn in prison food quality can be blamed on larger trends toward industrialization and privatization,” wrote Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Prison Policy Initiative, in 2017. She was summarizing findings by a Washington state report that focused on the decreasing quality of food. “Industrialization, as exemplified by Washington state prisons, replaces cooking from scratch with processed foods that may only require reheating before serving,” she continued.

In the case of Washington’s prisons, there had been recent examples of food being made from scratch, but that changed when the state decided to outsource the process to make it cheaper.

“Short-sighted administrators looking to save a few cents per meal have made a bad deal with Correctional Industries, trading a fresh, healthy food service program for highly processed foods that make incarcerated people sick,” Sawyer wrote. “Incarcerated people are at increased risk of chronic diseases, but rather than using Food Services to help control both health problems and the costs of medical treatment, prisons exacerbate illnesses by serving and selling unhealthy foods.”

Compounding the problem is a public perception that those incarcerated are worth little to no resources. Media reports that have discussed the topic often cast judgment on prison populations. One 2014 story in Food Management, for example, suggested that if those incarcerated in Utah’s former state prison in Draper weren’t happy with their food, “they’ll riot.”

This framing continued in 2021 with a segment on Salt Lake City’s ABC4 that focused on the “chaos” of the prison system’s food production line.

“If there’s a knife missing somewhere, we could get seriously injured,” a guard told news reporters at the time. “I like new things; I thrive in the chaos.”

The dehumanization of incarcerated populations couched in financial logic has been a regular aspect of mainstream media for years and often comes up when discussing food in prison. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, for example, built an entire television show in 2012 around the idea that incarcerated people should be contributing to the economy. Taxpayers cover the cost of detention, the show’s premise said, but only 10 percent of that population does full-time work.

“My plan’s pretty straightforward,” he said in the show’s pilot. “This is about getting them working … It just seems like a big waste, the amount of money we’re spending to keep these guys in there.”

In the show, Ramsay worked with a group of incarcerated men to launch a bakery and then attempted to make it public.

Notably, Utah employed a similar program that ultimately shut down in 2020. The Serving Time Cafe’s focus at the Draper prison was job training more than anything, but officials noted that it carried health and safety concerns when they shut it down without expanding on what those concerns were. It had been operational since 2007.

Even as it shut down, the cafe received positive news coverage for its skill-building focus.

Ramsay’s program also shut down. While the project achieved mixed results in terms of longevity, it was slated for revival last year—but its focus is still limited to small batches of participants at a time.

This type of representation, built on an attempt to improve the prison system by making it more cost-effective and focusing on job training, is more active in its critiques of prison than most mainstream media. According to work by Bill Yousman, a Sacred Heart University professor of communication, the norm in popular media is far more violent and dehumanizing.

“It’s a typical night of television in the U.S.,” Yousman wrote before summarizing several scenes of popular dramas that portrayed prisoners engaged in gang violence, hijacking a plane, damaging a hospital emergency room and more. “Prime time fun for viewers of all ages; business as usual for the ratings-driven U.S. television industry.”

In interviewing formerly incarcerated people, Yousman found that even after pointing out that their own experiences varied greatly from what they saw on television, they were still heavily influenced by the portrayal of prisons in popular culture. Meanwhile, that portrayal, he wrote, doesn’t align with the facts.

“Despite the media obsession with crime and chaos, experts from across the ideological spectrum agree that the rate of crime (as tracked by government criminal justice statistics), especially violent crime, has been falling since the mid-1980s,” Yousman wrote.

All of this adds up to a scenario where food—and other basic necessities—become hard to justify as expenses. States and private companies, operating on public opinion, cut back the amount they spend on prison populations because popular media programs create the perception that, as a society, we are spending too much.

And this has been going on for a while. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2012 found that “the majority of prisoners (74 percent) and jail inmates (62 percent) were overweight, obese, or morbidly obese.” At the same time, the report found that only roughly half of those incarcerated were satisfied with their medical care. These findings support the public health concerns that those in the prison system are not being fed or treated well and haven’t been for a while in the U.S.

One key issue Severson pointed out was the commissary program. While it is often used as a way to supplement meals if there is a disruption, he says the state is actually increasing the financial burden on those incarcerated and their families by considering a proposal that would allow commissary accounts to be garnished for restitution.

Severson’s brother is currently in prison, and they talk one or two times per day.

“If you owe restitution to a victim on the outside, they want to garnish up to 75 percent of your commissary account,” he says. “That really leaves them with nothing. [My brother] is working, but he literally makes 40 cents an hour.”

All together, Severson suggested he might pay about $250 per month on phone calls and commissary for his brother, who has a full-time job.

“So you can imagine someone who doesn’t have access to resources, they’re cut off from things like commissary,” Severson points out. 

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.