December 7, 2023

Healthy Choice

Healthy Choice The Only Solution

How The Prison Food System Denies People Healthy Choices

I wanted to have a better diet in prison. But when you’ve been stripped of your freedom, it can be impossible to make the “right” decisions.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

For my entire adult life, I’ve been haunted by a family history of heart disease. My father and uncle died of massive heart attacks at ages 46 and 27. I’ll turn 29 this year, and though that means I’m fortunate enough to have outlived my uncle, the premature deaths in my family are a constant reminder that my biological clock is ticking way too fast.

Last year, my health status nearly boiled over into a full-blown crisis. I was incarcerated at New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility at the time, serving out the last year of my prison sentence. Even though I was exercising daily, doing my best to watch my diet, and taking two different medications, my blood pressure peaked to the highest level it has ever reached.

Although I had learned how to avoid certain risk factors, prison deprived me of the ability to make the changes I would need to do so. I wanted to do more, but I felt like there was nothing I could do to defuse the time bomb in my chest. There was simply no way to avoid the harmful and pervasive prison conditions that were contributing to my spiking blood pressure. This is the reality of incarceration: When you’ve been stripped of your freedom, agency, and choice, it can be impossible to make the “right” decisions.

Months earlier, I had decided to make a drastic dietary change by cutting out processed carbs and animal protein and eating as much fresh produce as possible. Basically, I wanted to become vegan. But I quickly realized how unrealistic that would be while incarcerated.

Prisons are food deserts. Mess-hall meals typically contain very little nutritional value, and most commissaries offer few, if any, fresh food options. Most people in prison don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables unless their families bring or send them. It’s hardly a sustainable option. While I was in prison, families were allowed to send their incarcerated loved ones two packages each month, totaling 35 pounds. Many of our families are financially strapped and can’t afford to send enough fresh produce to support a vegetarian or vegan diet, but even if money weren’t an issue, the care packages wouldn’t be enough to keep you nourished year-round. But they were something.

The poor access to good-quality food forced me to make hard decisions while I was incarcerated. I received my first misbehavior report for possessing what the prison labeled “contraband.” It was vegetables from the mess hall that were about to be composted. I was in Upstate Correctional Facility then, and the commissary had no fresh food options. I had just arrived at the facility and didn’t have much to eat in my cell. I was faced with a stark choice: go hungry or break the rules. This is still the only way that most people can get fresh food in prison. You have to steal it or pay someone to steal it for you. What would you do?

Each facility makes up its own rules about what foods it provides, which means the availability varies drastically from prison to prison. Eventually, I was moved to Franklin Correctional Facility, where there were better options and it was possible for me to maintain a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. The commissary there sold fresh potatoes and carrots and a frozen stir fry that contained a variety of vegetables and mushrooms. Bananas were 18 cents—which is not as cheap as it sounds, considering that the starting wage of an incarcerated worker in New York is just 16 cents an hour. More importantly, the prison gave prisoners access to fridges, so when I got fresh produce in a package from home, it would last more than three days. It was the best a vegetarian could ask for under the circumstances.

While Franklin may have been better for my diet, the environment at the prison taxed my health in other ways. Violence is the norm at Franklin: both prisoner-on-prisoner and officer-on-prisoner. The incessant brutality forced me to live in a constant state of vigilance. I could barely sleep because I had seen people get cut, stabbed, or doused in hot water while they slept. Certain officers turned the threat of violence into a sadistic game—especially if you made eye contact with them.

Eventually, I succeeded in getting transferred to Fishkill Correctional Facility. The conditions there were a marked improvement from those in Franklin. Still, my blood pressure began to creep upward. The commissary at Fishkill was the worst I had encountered. The majority of the food available was empty carbs packed with sugar. There were strict purchase limits on everything—even beans. Most importantly, the commissary offered almost no fresh produce. The closest you could get were raw onions, packaged corn, and fruit cups. I ended up becoming a pescatarian—not by choice but by circumstance.

I was released from prison in February and now have access to a wealth of healthy food. However, if I were still incarcerated, my situation would be worse than ever. In May, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision launched a new policy prohibiting prisoners from receiving care packages directly from friends and family. Now if people want to give their incarcerated loved ones food or other necessities—like toothbrushes, soap, or undergarments—they have to purchase them through specified external vendors, many of which mark up prices. Families can no longer bring packages on visits. All of this means that people inside have even less access than they did before to fresh foods such as lettuce, spinach, strawberries, and healthy bread. It also means that the cost of sending a care package has soared, because families cannot shop for them at their local supermarkets.

Though my release came before the directive was enacted, I can only imagine what the state of my health would be if I were still inside. I often think about the brothers and sisters I left behind and how they, too, may have the knowledge and the desire to make healthy changes, only to be denied the chance to do so by a cruel new policy that traps them even deeper in a poisonous prison system. I feared for my life while I was incarcerated, and now I fear for theirs. Too many people never make it back home to their families.