Food of the Incarcerated:
The Metropolitan Correctional Center.
I was thirteen years old when a federal judge sentenced my older brother to two years in federal prison. It was my introduction to our justice system, and everything about it was surreal. The judge himself was a pudgy middle aged White man, swimming inside a deep black robe that contrasted everything in the courtroom. The bench he sat behind was perched three feet higher than the stenographer and the public defender. This made him vividly more powerful, and for a child, almost wizard like.
Located at the corner of Van Buren & Clark in downtown Chicago, the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) resembles a glass shard with alternating slits for windows.
Piper Kerman served her last few months at the MCC, best known for her memoir which is now the Netflix hit “Orange Is The New Black.”
The facility itself is oddly only a few blocks away from the Chicago Board of Trade, and one stop on the “L” from Macy’s. Neighboring high rises can catch prisoners exercising at the top of the sky-deck prison yard.
“So who prepped the food?” I asked my brother.
“The inmates did. I remember in the kitchen there was a cutting knife, chained to the counter, and the counter was bolted to the floor,” my brother responded.
“There were fights, all the time. It could happen anywhere. That’s why guards were posted, especially in the kitchen, when food was being prepped. They didn’t want any intentional poisoning or inmates stealing utensils.”
“What do you remember about your meals?” I asked.
“It was really poor quality food.” He said. “You could just taste it with every bite. They did change the menu up. Tacos, burger, or pizza, the rotation was every few weeks.”
“Did you ever not eat?” I asked.
“No, I ate. The meals weren’t enough. I kept losing weight.”
Personally I have always struggled with my weight, but for as long as I could remember, my brother was always bone thin. It was hard to imagine him shaving any additional weight from his body.
“Because I was an electrician before prison, I had maintenance work privileges that gave me access to different places, including the kitchen. I stole Uncle Ben’s Rice packets every chance I had, and stashed them.”
“How did you cook them?” I asked.
“When I was able, I used the commons area microwave to cook and eat it quickly. No one noticed. I didn’t want to break the rules, but I had to.”
In 2015 there were 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. This is roughly the population of the state of Nebraska and Wyoming combined, the largest prison population on earth. County jails, state and federal prisons adhere to different regulations, including dietary recommendations and caloric intake. This means some prisons only serve 2 meals per day instead of 3, and the time between meals could be as a great as 12 hours (Marshall Project, 2016).
Formal investigations into hunger and human rights violations of U.S. prisons occur much more frequently than we think. Take the case of Alton Rodgers who was found unresponsive in his cell. His body mass index was 16.7, dangerously lower than most medical health standards. He was 6’7 and weighed 148 pounds at the time of his death. He was 167 pounds when he first checked into the Clements Unit prison in Amarillo Texas (The Intercept 2017) . Prisoners of the Gordon County jail in 2014 reportedly started eating toilet paper because their meals were not enough to sustain themselves.
Yet the average food production cost of a single prison meal is about .82¢. Corporate food giants like Aramark and Sodexo continue to monopolize multi-billion dollar contracts to provide food not only to our prisons, but our schools and hospitals, despite cases of malnourished inmates, prison corruption, and exploitative labor practices.
Aramark, reported a gross revenue of $14.8 billion in 2014, while Sodexo reported $24.5 billion in net sales. But even with net sales in the billions, it’s common practice to continually reduce food costs by swapping for cheaper protein sources or unofficially reducing serving portions for prisoners (Prison Legal News 2015).
“Do you still think about your time there?” My last question.
“I work everyday and have a family. I try not to.” He said.