Eating Behind Bars report cover, an illustration of men in orange jumpsuits in a cafeteria.

By Brittany Florio, Program Coordinator

Posted February 11, 2021

Case Studies, News, Stories

The Hidden Truth About Eating Behind Bars: Interview with lead investigation researcher Leslie Soble

Leslie Soble (glasses, dark shirt, light long hair), in front of a red brick wall.

Today’s blog is an informal interview with Leslie Soble, the lead researcher on a groundbreaking report about prison food in America.

About Leslie Soble

Leslie Soble is an educator and ethnographer who is passionate about creating transformative social change. She is a member of FINE's farm to corrections advisory council and is a research fellow with Impact Justice focused on the Food in Prison Project, which aims to improve the conditions of prison food. Impact Justice is a national innovation and research center based in Oakland, CA and Washington, DC, which works to create a more humane and restorative system of justice in the United States. 

Questions and Answers with Leslie Soble

FINE: Leslie, you've just published this incredible 6-part report titled Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison - what was the inspiration that drove you and Impact Justice to research prison food?

Soble: A few years ago, Alex Busansky, the president and founder of Impact Justice, was at an event where a participant made the comment, “We don’t want our school food to look like prison food, do we?” Alex asked her, “Have you ever seen or eaten prison food?” She said no, which got Alex wondering, how much do people really know about prison food? Alex then asked Mika Wenstein, an Impact Justice staff member who had done some food justice work, to dedicate one hour per week to start looking into the current state of prison food. Mika determined that more effort needed to be dedicated to this, so Impact Justice posted a job listing for someone to research the effects of prison food on health. I came across the position on Idealist, and as an ethnographer who focuses on food and culture, it seemed like a really interesting and important topic. In my initial communication, I mentioned that it would also be important to look at food’s effects on mental and emotional health and the ways people interact with one another, as well as the impacts of the eating environment and the ways food connects to culture, identity, self-worth and dignity. Mika responded within a matter of hours to invite me for an interview. So that’s the short answer for how Impact Justice started working on this project and how I got involved. 

FINE: What was it like researching prison food? What was most fascinating? Challenging? Emotional?

Soble: The most emotional part was talking with those directly impacted: formerly and currently incarcerated people and their loved ones. We received 250 responses to our survey from formerly incarcerated people and 230 responses from friends and family of people who are incarcerated. Hearing these stories firsthand is very different from reading reports or news articles, especially when we interviewed folks. When talking directly with people, you see their expressions and body language as they recall their experiences, which make it evident just how profound the impacts of food are. The prison food experience has deep lasting impacts on people, and that was incredibly heavy to hear about at times. 

 

One family member of an incarcerated individual wrote, “My husband has been showing signs of edema, headaches, high blood pressure, diabetes, due to the foods being unhealthy and unbalanced.” 

 

One thing that was challenging for me was going into some of the facilities and talking with corrections folks. I had to overcome my own biases around assuming all corrections folks are there because they believe this cruel and unjust system is the best way to respond to harm. I met people who do want to see the system operate differently, but they feel stuck and don’t really know how to begin changing it. 

 

As one corrections officer explained, “When the flu runs around here, it doesn’t matter how much medicine we have, we need nutrition. It’s just common sense.”

 

FINE: Is there any particular person or story that really stood out to you?

Soble: There is not so much one single person’s story that stands out to me, but rather the repeated patterns of food being used as explicit and implicit punishment. For example, so many people shared stories about working in the kitchen and being forced to serve food labeled “not for human consumption.” Another common story was about being fed nutraloaf twice a day while in solitary confinement, and people were eating toothpaste or toilet paper just to have something in their stomach. And these are not isolated incidents, but routines which people have to live with day after day, year after year.

FINE: What was most surprising about the findings?

Soble: Honestly, the findings were not surprising. Most people know prison food is disgusting from movies and TV shows. Everyone can conjure a mental image of what prison food might look like. Even though it wasn’t surprising, there was a shock at the depths of the awfulness. It stuns me to know that people are creating these types of food experiences for other human beings on a daily basis. Food is something we typically associate with comfort, family, togetherness and nourishment, but in prisons, food is being used as a way to deliberately punish, degrade, and devalue.

From the report: "Our survey findings show that food is often prepared in ways that render it inedible and in some instances unsafe. For example, three out of four formerly incarcerated people we surveyed had personally experienced moldy bread, sour milk, rotten meat, slimy bagged salad mix, and canned or packaged products years past their expiration date."

 

One incarcerated person wrote to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, “It says on the bags of hot cereal ‘not for human consumption’ and has the picture of the head of a horse.” 

 

FINE: Were there problems or roadblocks gathering the information?  

Soble: The two biggest challenges were getting access to facilities and getting corrections officials to speak to us.

We wanted to speak with people who are currently incarcerated, but that was challenging given that we were trying to follow formal research protocols, which require the approval of an institutional review board (IRB). Each state’s department of corrections has its own IRB process, which can be very time-consuming to complete since many only review applications a few times a year. Even after applying, it is very unlikely to be granted access to facilities to engage with those who are incarcerated. Our research team considered other ways that we could communicate with those that are currently incarcerated while still following ethical research guidelines. After many discussions, we eventually were allowed to hold focus groups in two facilities with permission from the relevant department of corrections. I wish we could have done more of that. 

We also faced a lot of challenges getting corrections officials to speak with us. Originally, the plan was to complete site visits in six different states, which we had selected based on factors like rates of incarceration, demographics, geographic location, and size of the incarcerated population. But the response was less than ideal. Many departments would not speak with us, much less let us visit facilities to check out their food. The facilities that we got to visit were ones where the food is actually not as bad as many in the country--they were more willing to let us in because they didn’t feel like they had something to hide. Many food service directors wouldn’t call us back, or the DOC legal departments wouldn’t allow them to be interviewed. In some states, it was easier to speak with retired food service employees than currently employed individuals. 

 

Food in prison sucks. Period.
--a formerly incarcerated person

 

FINE: Is there a particular audience that you hope will read the report? 

Soble: There are several audiences we hope will read the report! The first is advocates doing work around justice reform and prison conditions. Many people are advocating for ending solitary confinement, for better access to healthcare for incarcerated people, for making communications with family members more affordable, but not a lot is being done around food. Food is so important to incarcerated folks, and it’s interwoven with other prison issues--for example, so many health problems are related to poor diet, and food conditions tend to be worse for people in solitary confinement. We also hope that food justice advocates will also read this report. Right now there is a strong push to get more nourishing food to people through emergency food programs, hospitals, and K-12 schools. There are mobile farmers markets, land co-ops, and so many other programs to address people's food needs, but not within the prison walls. We hope that people working in the food justice space will recognize this report as a call to include incarcerated people in their advocacy for nourishing food for everyone.

Corrections officials are another big audience for this report.  We hope they will gain a better understanding of the importance of food, beyond keeping the prison population fed enough so they don’t riot. We want officials to understand the profound impact that food has on people both while they are incarcerated and after they are released. We hope there will be some corrections officials who will be courageous enough to make a transformative change. 

FINE: Why is this report important? 

Soble: The people who are incarcerated are people first and foremost, and having access to nourishing food is simply a human right. The people who are incarcerated are someone’s parents, children, siblings, and friends. If you had a loved one who was incarcerated, you would also want them to have food experiences which promote health and well-being rather than further harm. People often underestimate the impacts of food not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and socially. 95% of people incarcerated will eventually be released. Do we want them to be released in worse physical and mental health? People who are coming out of prison are returning to be parents, partners, neighbors, and colleagues. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have formerly incarcerated folks in the best possible shape physically and mentally so they can take their places within our communities. 

FINE: What would you say to those people who are more apathetic about incarcerated people’s rights? 

Soble: Anyone who is trying to make change has to deal with a certain amount of apathy from others. I would say to them, stop for a minute and reflect about the role of food in your own life. How do you feel when you have eaten a really healthy meal or had something delicious with family and friends? How do you feel when you’re hungry? How do you feel when you’ve had to eat food that’s gross, or had to eat a meal in a really stressful environment? What state does it put you in? How does food connect you to the people and places you love, to the various communities to which you belong, to memories of special moments and times in your life? Sometimes when people reflect on the role and impacts of food in their own lives, it becomes easier to understand how being exposed to unsafe, unhealthy, and nutrient-deficient food in a stressful setting would be detrimental to physical and mental health. Now think about those collective impacts on someone over years, over decades, and recognize that these individuals will be returning to communities, to our society where people are constantly coming in and out of the justice system. This actually affects us all. One in three American adults has an immediate family member who has spent time in prison or jail. Even if you don’t know anyone who has been incarcerated, you probably know someone who has a family member who has been incarcerated. 

FINE: What do you hope will change as a result of this information exposed? 

Soble: I hope people's perspectives will change. Food is a tool for communicating identity and relationships and values, and right now the message we are sending to incarcerated people is that they don’t matter. 

 

“When one incarcerated person compared every meal served over the course of a month with the state’s master menu and dietary requirements, revealing the considerable discrepancies, he was sent to solitary confinement for a month, then transferred to a facility a hundred miles away without explanation. His account has since been published by the Marshall Project.”

 

I hope everyone will recognize the humanity of people who are incarcerated. We can use food to promote a sense of human dignity and self-worth, and to reexamine the stigma of incarceration. I hope corrections leaders and policymakers will acknowledge that the food standards in prisons are too low and there is not enough oversight or accountability. The underlying problem is mass incarceration; we simply have too many people locked up. We need to rethink the way our entire country addresses harm and holds people who have done harm accountable. And even as we work towards ending mass incarceration, we need to provide people with the nourishing food they deserve now.  

FINE: Are there any policy recommendations in the report? 

Soble: We don’t have any specific policy recommendations in the report, but creating some is on our to-do list. In the last section of the report, we suggest steps that correctional agencies can take to improve the food in their facilities.  

FINE: How has the process of hearing stories and writing the report affected you? Has it changed your research focus, professional ambitions, or any aspects of your personal life?

Soble: This is my first foray into researching the carceral system. If someone had asked me two years ago to tell them more about the justice system, I would have said it’s very broken and biased, but I wouldn't have been able to talk about it with any particular depth of knowledge. That’s no longer the case after over two years of working on this project, though I still find it strange to be referred to as a prison food expert! I hope to continue working in this sphere, especially as Impact Justice takes its next steps beyond this report to work on new food-in-prison initiatives like policy change and pilot projects. I never would have anticipated this would become the focus of my work, but this critical issue has become really important to me and I’m glad to be able to contribute something to it.

FINE: What final thoughts that you would like to share?

Soble: Please read the report! I know it’s long and not necessarily everyone’s particular area of interest, but it directly and indirectly impacts us all. I hope it opens people’s minds to the profound impacts of food and the ways we can use food differently to create a more just society, with strong and safer communities. 

Thank to all of the formerly and currently incarcerated individuals and their loved ones who shared and shaped this report. 

About the Report

Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison uniquely examines the harmful trends in prison food and how the physical and psychological effects impact not only individuals, but also families, communities, and society. Information about the prison food experience was gathered through first-hand accounts and original research that bring these issues to life.

The six sections of the report include information on:

  1. The prison food experience (including the effects of COVID-19)
  2. Short- and long-term impacts of prison food
  3. The harmful impacts of prison eating environments & “home cooking” in prison
  4. Operational landscapes of food services in prisons
  5. Systems of oversight and accountability, food as punishment
  6. How we can transform food in prison

Why food in prison?

Food is a human right. Our relationships with food permeates every aspect of our lives. Food is the connector to our culture, identity, relationships, and our physical and biological environment. “None of that changes when someone is incarcerated,” shared Leslie Soble. Good food is comforting, nurturing, and allows for physical and mental healing. 

Key takeaways from the report include:

  • Prison food sends a dehumanizing message that the people who eat it don’t matter.
  • Low standards sacrifice health and dignity for lowest cost and highest efficiency.
  • There is a critical need for more transparency and accountability.

For more information, watch this virtual conversation from Impact Justice as it explores the prison eating environment.

Closing

On average a person sentenced to prison serves roughly three years, which is about 3,000 meals behind bars. The food is typically low in nutrients but high in sugar, sodium, and refined carbohydrates, which has been considered an ill-advised diet for decades by nutritionists. It costs less in the long run to provide healthy food then to pay the healthcare costs of treating diet-related diseases. Having access to real, nutrient-rich foods is a human right deserved by all people in our country. As we work towards changing the structures that drive mass incarceration, we must also support incarcerated people in getting quality food and a healthy eating experience. 

What changes would you like to see in the prison food experience? We would love to hear from you. If you have thoughts, comments or are interested in FINE’s work with the farm to corrections movement, please contact Brittany Florio, [email protected]