After more than 20 years in prison, Gideon has eaten his share of bad food. Prison food is routinely regarded as terrible. It tastes awful, and the portions are far too small. It’s even debatable whether prison grub is edible and provides enough nutrients to sustain inmates.
‘It wasn’t edible’
Gideon has watched the quality of food rise and fall over the years. Inmates don’t exactly expect gourmet meals behind bars, but the provisions in his prison reached a new low a couple of years ago. Many inmates lost weight because the food was simply too awful to be eaten.
“We were all falling off because it wasn’t edible,” Gideon says. His weight dropped to 185 pounds—the 6’2” man’s lowest as an adult. He had to poke extra holes in his belt to keep his prison-issued jeans from slipping off.
Gideon would “pick at” the food served at chow when he had only soup left in his cell, but it provided little to no sustenance. Because food is served in small portions, prisoners rely on food purchased from the prison commissary to fill in the gaps. The commissary is similar to a general store from which inmates can buy packaged food and personal supplies.
The food in Gideon’s facility began improving when the prison system switched to a new food-service contractor in August. Previously, the food was prepared off-site by other inmates, which Gideon says hurt quality. Now, grub at the prison is provided by Aramark, a Philadelphia-based company that serves correctional facilities, hospitals, schools, and sports venues across the country.
Food is now being prepared in Gideon’s prison, which has helped the taste. Under Aramark, a hot dog plate, which includes two hot dogs, is considered a good meal.
Gideon says Aramark feeds him and the other inmates “top-notch” pancakes for breakfast twice a week. Making more than one trip through the food line is prohibited, and guards stop inmates who try to sneak seconds. But Gideon still tries to go through the line twice for an extra helping of pancakes. “I have to pick and choose,” he says. “But on pancake day, it’s worth it.”
$1.69 for each meal
Even with the recent improvement in the food at Gideon’s prison, the provisions still aren’t great. For Thanksgiving, the inmates had “turkeyloaf,” which Gideon described as “bologna made from turkey.”
Later in the day, the inmates were given a sack lunch containing two bologna sandwiches. A sack lunch may not sound great to most people, but the inmates considered it a special treat since they get only two meals a day on weekends and holidays. Gideon said the sack lunch was “better than anything they would have given us at chow.”
According to public records, under its contract with the prison system, Aramark is expected to spend $1.44 to $1.69 on each inmate per meal, depending on the year. During the first year of the contract, the company will spend $3.91 to feed each inmate per day. Reports state the cost will rise to $4.40 per inmate per day in subsequent years.
Feeding anyone for $4 per day is difficult, so the cheap ingredients and small portions aren’t surprising. With so little money being spent on food, it’s easy to see why inmates have to supply much of their own nourishment.
In recent years, Aramark has experienced several embarrassing episodes in its prison food services. In 2014, the company was forced to throw out maggot-infested potatoes workers were preparing to serve for lunch at a Michigan prison. The same year, maggot-infested kitchen equipment and turkey rolls were discovered in several Ohio prisons. In all cases, the problems were found before tainted food was served to inmates, and the food was thrown out.
In 2014, one Aramark employee was fired for allegedly feeding inmates cakes that had been chewed on by rodents. According to reports, the employee told an inmate kitchen worker to slice off the sides of the cakes and put frosting on them to hide the fact that the cakes had been chewed on. The cakes were then served to the general population.