This won’t surprise anyone: The food served in correctional institutions is generally not very good. Even though most Americans have never tasted a meal dished up in a correctional kitchen, occasional secondhand glimpses tend to reinforce a common belief that “prison food” is scant, joyless, and unsavory—if not even worse. In August, the Detroit Free Press reported that a prison kitchen worker was fired for refusing to serve rotten potatoes. You can find nightmarish stories about maggots in national outlets like U.S.A. Today. Meanwhile, The Marshall Project’s more thorough, pictorial anatomy of daily correctional fare across the country found that most offerings barely fill a cafeteria tray—let alone a hungry belly. Reports like these reinforce the sense that criminal justice has a gastronomic dimension, that unrelentingly horrid food is a standard feature of the punishment prisoners receive behind bars.
But new evidence suggests that the situation is worse than previously thought, and not just because prison food isn’t winning any James Beard awards. It’s also making inmates sick.
According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), correctional inmates are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a food-related illness than the general population. The report—which looked at confirmed outbreaks across the country between 1998 and 2014, and is the first update to the data in 20 years—underscores the fact that prison food is more than just a punch line, a flash point, or a gross-out gag on Orange Is the New Black. It’s a hidden public-health crisis.