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The biggest contributing factor involved in foodborne illness in prisons is food left at room temperature too long.

Food-Related Outbreaks Sicken Prisoners Six Times More Often

The biggest contributing factor involved in foodborne illness in prisons is food left at room temperature too long.

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 PostNew York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at and

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch,,, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine,, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites:,, and, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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