ATLANTA — In the 1980 prison-buddy comedy “Stir Crazy,” falsely accused inmates played by Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, find themselves dining on prison grub. Wilder is impressed with the provisions, whereas Pryor is decidedly not.
“Aren’t you amazed at the quality of vegetables in a prison?” asks Wilder.
“I’m amazed at what’s crawling around in our soup,” replies Pryor. “Little creatures.”
Of the two, Pryor’s assessment of prison food is apt to be correct. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that prison inmates are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a food-related illness than the general population. The culprits? Clostridium perfringens and Salmonella were the most common illness-causing agents, according to research conducted by the Atlanta-headquartered Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which analyzed confirmed outbreaks of food-related illness from facilities across the nation between 1998 and 2014. Little creatures, indeed.
According to a report filed by independent news service AlterNet, “Institutions struggle to enforce basic food-safety standards: Though there are reports of corruption and negligence, the primary factor appears to be that many correctional facilities aren’t equipped to execute the food-handling protocols observed in restaurants and corporate cafeterias.” Ergo, inmates are disproportionately affected by food contaminates at a rate of 45 per 100,000 people per anum. In contrast, the general population only experiences the sick-making phenomenon at a rate of seven per 100,000.
For perspective, that means 6 percent of all outbreak-related cases of foodborne illness in the entire nation occur in prisons, which incarcerate less than 1 percent of the country’s total population.
Prison Food Operations Are Uneven
One of the issues that leads to foodborne illnesses in correctional facilities is the fact that, unlike restaurants, prisons are not subject to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Code, which requires someone trained in food-safety management to be present at all times. Moreover, every state enforces different safety criteria, which makes a nationwide kitchen inspection process inherently uneven as federal, state and local prison kitchens are inspected under different rules.
Though a Food Service Manual has been issued by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the latest edition dated Sept. 13, 2011, doesn’t provide a specific recommendation as to when, for example, an inmate who works in a kitchen may return to work following an illness. Likewise, the manual doesn’t require federal food-service employees to have received food-safety training.
Another issue can be related to the outsourcing of prison food services to private companies such as Philadelphia-headquartered Aramark, which poses the rhetorical on its website: “Did you know that your food, facility and commissary operations play a significant role in maintaining the peace?”
In 2015, the state of Michigan terminated a $145 million contract with Aramark due to maggots found in vegetables among other infractions, according to the Detroit Free Press. Critics observe that private companies have a fiduciary duty to pursue profits on behalf of their investors and thus are incentivized to cut costs, which may come at the detriment of inmates and their health.