Two Meals and Not Always Square
With budgets tight, states and local governments have been looking at prisons - and prison food - as a place to save money. Three days a week, Georgia now serves inmates only two meals. And across the country, there have been increasing reports of substandard food. This is inhumane. Adequate meals should be a nonnegotiable part of a civilized penal system. It is also bad policy. Researchers have found a connection between poor food quality and discipline problems and violence.
Georgia has decided to save on staff costs by serving just two meals on Friday, as it already did on Saturday and Sunday. The state says it gives prisoners the same number of calories on days when one meal is skipped. Even if it does - and some prisoners' advocates are skeptical - it can be oppressive to go so long without eating.
In Alabama earlier this year, a federal judge ordered the Morgan County sheriff locked up in his own jail for contempt for failing to adequately feed his inmates. Alabama allows sheriffs to keep food money they do not spend, and the sheriff reportedly pocketed more than $200,000 over three years.
Prisoners' rights advocates say they are receiving an increasing number of complaints from inmates nationwide who report being served spoiled or inedible food or inadequate portions. Earlier this year, a riot at Reeves County Detention Center in Texas caused heavy damage to a prison building. Inmates said it was prompted in part by poor food.
Cutbacks in food could violate inmates' constitutional rights, notes Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, if they create a substantial risk of serious harm - a particular concern for inmates with diabetes and other illnesses.
If states and localities want to save money on corrections, they should reduce their prison and jail populations. The United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world's population, has almost one-quarter of its prisoners. Many are in for nonviolent crimes that could be punished in more constructive, and less costly, ways. If governments decide to put inmates behind bars, they have to give them adequate food - which means no less than three healthy meals a day.
(Adapted from The New York Times, June 20, 2009)
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