Prison food usually makes news only when blamed for hunger strikes or riots, or a supplier is found providing rancid or insect-infested food. Yet it also poses an important but little-studied public health issue, recently tackled by a research team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which published a study showing outbreaks of foodborne illnesses disproportionately affect jail and prison inmates.
Looking at confirmed outbreaks of foodborne illness anywhere in the nation between 1998 and 2014, four epidemiologic researchers say their study is the first update in two decades on the incidence and causes of foodborne illnesses in correctional settings. They drew data from CDC’s yearly nationwide surveys of food-related disease outbreaks, then compared food-related illness outbreaks among prisoners with those affecting the general public.
Although inmates comprise less than 1% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for nearly 6% of people made sick by outbreaks of food-related illnesses. Over the 17-year period studied, the annual rate for inmates who came down with food-linked illnesses averaged 45 per 100,000, compared with an average rate of only seven per 100,000 in the non-incarcerated population. That translates to inmates being 6.4 times more likely to become sick due to an outbreak of a foodborne illness.
The researchers classified 200 mass outbreaks of foodborne illness as “desmoteric” (corrections-related), and found those outbreaks produced 20,625 illnesses, requiring 204 hospitalizations and causing five deaths. It was also noted 37 states reported having at least one such outbreak at a correctional facility.
The most common pathogens responsible for foodborne illness outbreaks in prisons and jails were Clostridium perfringens and Salmonella, although botulism, a sometimes fatal or crippling disease, was also frequently found. Poultry products – like chicken salad or chicken tacos – were the types of contaminated food most commonly found to have been involved in an outbreak.
The study examined contributing factors most often involved in food illness outbreaks among inmates. In 37% of cases, leaving food at room temperature too long was cited. The report noted inmates involved in food preparation rarely receive food safety training, and supervisors of inmate food handlers usually give those concerns low priority. Also, many correctional institutions lack adequate space or equipment to maintain proper food handling, preparation, and storage. And because for security and logistics reasons meals are often served in shifts, rather than having all inmates fed at the same time, when all food is prepared before the first shift and left without refrigeration; by the time the last shift eats, its meal may have been exposed for an unhealthy length of time.
Another lesser-recognized factor is that inmates, especially those involved in food preparation, may take food back to their cells, where it cannot be safely stored. Adding to health problem is inmates’ clandestine production of alcohol, known as “pruno” or by other names, made from fermented fruit or other sugar-containing foodstuffs. A health drink it isn’t — one former inmate recalls a batch he was brewing in a rubber boot ate through the sole.
The study, Foodborne Disease Outbreaks in Correctional Institutions—United States, 1998–2014, was published in the July 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.