Monday, January 05, 2009

Let's talk about something else - how 'bout some yummy prison food?

Prison is not supposed to be fun. I get that. I'm not saying that convicted rapists and murderers and the like should be dining on filet mignon while poor children don't have enough to eat. Obviously. But really, you can tell a lot about a country's priorities by the conditions in its prisons. And when it comes to food, the conditions in our prisons are dismal at best. The CDC lists cases of foodborne illness on its website, and a disconcerting number of them occur in prisons. Some of the reasons for this are obvious - poor quality food, large numbers of people to feed, close living quarters that can lead to contamination. But, as this fascinating article from Cyrus Naim at Harvard explains, one of the problems is responsibility and accountability - to be brief, it's no one's and there's none.

Consider this:
The current law of prison food is primarily a product of prison law, rather than of food law. That is, while there is some self-regulation, oversight occurs primarily through inmate litigation alleging violations of Constitutional provisions, such as the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, or often First Amendment freedom of religion claims demanding prisons supply inmates with food following their specific religious requirements.

Under current standards, this means that sanitation or nutrition conditions cannot be held unlawful under the Eighth Amendment unless two tests are met. First, the conditions must be objectively cruel and unusual, defined as violating “contemporary standards of decency.” Second, a subjective test is applied, looking to the minds of the prison administrators. Since only cruel and unusual punishment is unconstitutional, the Court reasoned that only those conditions that are known by those responsible would be unlawful. The precise standard is that inmates must prove prison officials were “deliberately indifferent” to the specific problems in the case. Both tests must be met before any conditions will be found to violate the Eighth Amendment.

He goes on to mention that "occasionally" food in prison is regulated under general food laws that apply to any place that food is served. However, inspection is generally internal and so is the responsibility for repairing any problems - no inspectors are coming around to check on anything. So basically, unless the food gets so bad that prisoners actually claim Eighth Amendment violations, anything goes.

Really, preventing food poisoning and ensuring nutritional adequacy of meals does not seem to constitute "coddling" of prisoners. One would think it wouldn't be hard to get to a basic agreement on that, but prison issues are pretty much completely ignored in the political discourse, while food issues are only beginning to really break through. So as a issue, I suspect prison food reform lies somewhere below, I don't know, conquering lint, on the nation's priorities.

But of course, there are always a few idealists willing to take on the most hopeless of causes. Prison gardens have starting springing up across the country, initiatives in which prisoners work for their own keep (an idea even the staunchest law-and-order type can approve of), while learning gardening and culinary skills. There's one at San Quentin, another in Maryland (pdf), and someone has even written a guide to starting such programs. Those of us who believe, however naively, that working the land can start to heal a broken person, must find hope in such efforts. Some preliminary studies also indicate that aggressive behavior in inmates can be linked to nutritional deficiencies and decreased with appropriate supplements and better food. Improving prison food may not just be the moral thing to do, but the practical one as well.

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