The Private Prisons Industry Is Changing What Constitutes “Food”

    Prisoners in solitary confinement are often served something called Nutraloaf. Imagine taking all the old crap from the back of your fridge, mashing it together, then baking into a brick. This is Nutraloaf.

    Withholding food to punish us is unconstitutional, so instead people in solitary are given food that amounts to the same thing. But as the United States prison system becomes increasingly privatized, it feels like the regular chow hall food is slowly turning into Nutraloaf.

    Over the course of the 28 years I’ve spend incarcerated, fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy have disappeared. At South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF) in Tennessee, where I’m currently housed, it’s not uncommon for a day’s worth of food to be a one bologna sandwich, one cheese sandwich and a few crackers.

    SCCF is one of four Tennessee prisons currently operated by for-profit contractor CoreCivic, the second-largest private prison operator in the country. For every person it incarcerates, the company makes around $90 per day.

    Australia spends the equivalent of over $5 on food per prisoner per day. Canada spends over $6. In the US, especially in the South, many prisons spend under $2. And increasingly outsource operations to private contractors promising to find ways to keep us alive for less. CoreCivic did not respond to Filter‘s inquiry about nutrition standards or food expenditures.

    Most people incarcerated in the US are served food that no longer has its original nutrients. Instead, the food has been stripped down into starch, then “fortified” with meal-replacement powders, or served with a beverage containing the same.

    Privatization tends to make meat products served in prison evolve into something… more. In addition to being frequently expired or unrefrigerated, meats can be stretched with fillers made from soy or other ingredients of unknown provenance, then mashed together Nutraloaf-style. Then the result will be served as something innocuous-sounding, like “meatloaf” or “casserole.”



    One might look at the above menu for SCCF prisoners and think, That looks pretty good! But nothing is ever as it seems on paper. The fruits and vegetables are dehydrated, rock-hard, slimy or some combination thereof. All potatoes are dehydrated, and usually not quite rehydrated when served. Biscuits are not the kind you’re picturing, but flat squares cut out from a sheet pan. The beef is a vile, grayish substance we call “smeat.” It has the texture of dog food.

    CoreCivic oversees SCCF, but is only responsible for operating the facility itself. Kitchen service is outsourced to another for-profit contractor, Trinity Services Group, which in the past has reportedly used deli meats labeled “not for human consumption.” Trinity did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.

    There are around 150 privately operated prisons in the US, and only around 8 percent of the nation’s prisoners are housed in one. But kitchen service at publicly run prisons is still outsourced to private companies for profit.

    In some facilities, Trinity or another private contractor also operates the commissary. Of course, when the same company controls both kitchen and commissary, you can expect that the food served in the chow hall will be as cheap and repulsive-tasting as possible, with extra servings of mold and maggots. Thus driving more prisoners to the commissary items, which are marked up as much as possible.

    When prisoners are tasked with the food service, rather than everything being contracted out to private companies, the food is better.

    Even in facilities run by the state or federal government, prisoners do not necessarily get three meals per day. Some corrections departments have cut back to two on the weekends. Some only guarantee three daily meals to prisoners with jobs. Meanwhile, the portions themselves have grown smaller. Even the two portions of milk we used to get per day have been reduced to just one.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. Some prisons have their own gardens, with watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and the like. Some even facilitate horticultural trainings. Some bake their own bread.

    When prisoners are trained as cooks and bakers and tasked with running a facility’s food service, rather than everything being contracted out to private companies, the benefits go beyond just those prisoners who gain hireable skills. The food is better.

    One way of keeping a prison population’s health care costs down is to ensure they have adequate access to fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein. Another is to pay a for-profit company to replace these with wet bread while the medical bills are either ignored or sent to a different private company



    Top photograph via Office of the Inspector General. Inset photograph via Filter; menu and other materials were received by mail.

    Correction, May 1: This article has been updated to remove an incorrectly named health care contractor.

    • Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He’s also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.


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