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A combination of pinching pennies, corruption, and privatization is resulting in prisoners being fed a stew of unhealthy, nutrient-poor meals in minuscule portions.

Prison Food Linked to Bad Behavior

Photo: The Marshall Project

According to research, despite the fact that eating a plant-based diet can help prevent and even reverse some of the top killer diseases in the Western world, and can be more effective than medication and surgery, the typical American diet remains high in animal protein, fat, dairy, sugar, and junk food.

Poor diet leads to a host of medical issues, including higher levels of IGF-1, a growth hormone associated with cancer risk, heart disease, decreased lung function, inflammation, and even increased risk of dementia. Interestingly, poor nutrition can also play a role in violent and criminal behavior.

A 2002 study spearheaded by Bernard Gesch, a senior research scientist in the department of physiology, anatomy and genetics at the University of Oxford, involved 231 young adult male prisoners who received either a multivitamin and a fatty acid supplement, or a placebo. The testing phase ran for 142 days. During that time, the prisoners who took the multivitamin had a 35 percent reduction in disciplinary incidents and a 37 percent drop in violent behavior. The placebo group saw only a 6.7 percent drop in disciplinary incidents and a 10.1 percent drop in violent behavior.

“Antisocial behavior in prisons, including violence, are reduced by vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids with similar implications for those eating poor diets in the community,” Gesch’s study concluded.

Gesch is not alone in his thinking, or his findings. Elaine Magee, a public health expert and nutritionist, who is better known as The Recipe Doctor and has written 26 books about nutrition, says that “dietary changes can bring about changes in our brain structure (chemically and physiologically), which can lead to altered behavior.”

So if better nutrition improves behavior and reduces an individual’s desire to contravene the law or commit acts of violence, what are the country’s prisoners eating?

The Federal Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) 2017 menu looks pretty good. Click here and you’ll see a nice spread of eggs, beef tacos, fruit, vegetables, soy protein for vegetarians, tofu, and chicken fried rice. Nice, right?

It looks great on paper, but reality tells a different story. Budget cutbacks have slashed many prison institutions’ meals from three per day to two, and as private corporations take over food services in American prisons, the focus shifts from healthy, nutritious meals to cheaper, less healthy food.

“I hate to admit it, but I have a number of years in, 43 years actually,” says convicted murderer Brent Koster of his time behind bars, in conversation with Medical Daily for a story on inmate meals. “I went through a number of food transitions and it used to be pretty good. But when the state went through the budget cuts, it got progressively worse and worse and worse.”

How much worse?

“I have a problem digesting a lot of this food,” Koster noted. “I mean, really. It turns my stool a funny color. There’s no seasoning at all that’s put into anything. Most of the stuff is ready-made mixes or re-racked and re-purposed food. I understand they’re trying to save money, but they go to the extreme with it. Everything’s a numbers game.”

In the Gordon County Jail in Calhoun, Georgia, the food situation is so bad that human rights attorneys are looking into allegations that budget cuts have led to inadequate meals, with reports that hungry prisoners were eating toothpaste and toilet paper. In Arizona, Sherriff Joe Arpaio cut mealtimes to two times a day in his jail system, and cut costs to between 15 and 40 cents per meal. In Alabama, Sheriff Greg Bartlett pocketed $200,000 earmarked for prison meals, and fed his prisoners on an average of 56 cents per meal. Private prison food company Aramark was reported 240 times in 2014 for not providing enough food for inmates in Ohio. The company has also been cited for serving tainted food prepared in unsafe conditions in Michigan.

Despite the BOP’s intention that prisoners eat at least three well-rounded meals each day, a combination of pinching pennies, corruption, and privatization is resulting in prisoners being fed a stew of unhealthy, nutrient-poor meals in minuscule portions.

It’s well established that food does affect mood and behavior, and when it comes to controllable aspects of rehabilitation, the BOP needs to take a closer look at how its feeding the prison population.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook., Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts. He is currently a law student at the University of California, Davis School of Law, where he is a Criminal Law Association and Students Against Mass Incarceration board member, and a research editor for the Social Justice Law Review. Learn more about him at Federal Prison Consultants.

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