On the first day of the sixth week of the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ master menu cycle, inmates across the state have a slice of mixed meat bologna for lunch.
A man may have been sent to Kershaw for writing bad checks, to Lee for fatally shooting a stranger or to Tyger River for dealing cocaine. Regardless of his crime, on a recent Monday morning, he was served a tray that looked very much like the one I faced at Kirkland, where I’d gone to learn more about food service in the state’s prisons.
Only four of the plastic tray’s six molded compartments were occupied. In addition to the warmed-over round of bologna streaked with a half-inch band of gray, there was a sour-smelling heap of macaroni salad, two misshapen pieces of bread and shredded iceberg lettuce.
“How is that?” asked support services division director Mark McCown, one of four Department of Corrections staff members who joined me in the mess hall. None of them ate there. Nodding his head knowingly, McCown continued, “You probably want mayonnaise for the bread, salt for the macaroni and salad dressing for the salad.”
Or as the department’s food service administrator, Willie Smith, put it: “The reality of it is we do institutional cooking, and that’s bland cooking. We don’t season. We don’t cook it like momma used to cook it.”
Canteen is cooking
Plain meals are the norm behind bars. But according to the master menu, which prison food directors are instructed to follow faithfully, there actually was supposed to be mayonnaise, mustard and sliced tomato on the tray. When I later e-mailed Smith about the omission, he assured me the overlooked items would be served with dinner “to ensure nutritional standards are met.”
It’s impossible to infer from one instance of missing condiments how frequently prison kitchens deviate from the state’s meal plan, which was designed to fulfill the minimum daily dietary requirements established by the federal government. Officials say they’re aware of the health and behavioral risks associated with underfeeding inmates, and maintain incarcerated men and women receive a sufficient amount of clean, safe and nourishing food. Inmates, on the other hand, claim their welfare is secondary to budgetary and security concerns, resulting in meals that undermine their physical strength and mental resolve.
Still, formal complaints to the Department of Health and Environmental Control are few. It’s possible that’s because inmates with the financial ability to do so have essentially opted out of the food service system, purchasing everything they eat from the prison canteen. “I can’t tell you what percentage, but I can tell you there’s a lot of (that),” canteen manager Eddie Huddle said.
According to S.C. Department of Corrections data, about half of the state’s 20,652 imprisoned offenders shop the canteen on a weekly basis, spending a total of almost $17 million over the course of a year, with any profits going back into the agency's coffers. That figure includes batteries, toilet paper, curling irons, tennis shoes and chess sets, but it also encompasses four different kinds of Girl Scout cookies, frozen chicken wings, barbecue pork rinds, frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts, jalapeno cheese sandwiches and kosher pickles, among many other food items.
To put that statistic in perspective, the Department of Corrections in fiscal year 2016 spent nearly $16 million on food. The exact number works out to $2.07 per inmate per day.
“I don’t eat that prison food,” said a Lieber Correctional Institute inmate contacted through Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a national human rights organization that supports prisoners. “The guys on what they call lockup, they’re the ones who mostly fall victim to that. Me personally, I would have to be rock bottom with no choice at all to eat that.”
On the farm
South Carolina is unusual in handling its own food program. Aramark, one of the leading prison food suppliers, has contracts with approximately 600 facilities across the country, which represents a portfolio 30 times the size of the S.C. Department of Corrections.
But it’s unclear exactly how many states currently outsource all or part of their prison food service. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Bureau of Prisons and National Institute of Corrections don’t track spending on prisoner meals, and the American Corrections Association and the Association of State Correctional Administrators were similarly unable to provide information.
Fifteen years ago, though, when the Bureau of Justice Statistics last tallied up state prison expenditures, South Carolina’s food costs per inmate were less than half of the national average. Prison Policy Initiative executive director Peter Wagner warns those numbers are slippery, because accounting isn’t standardized, but South Carolina’s per inmate spending exceeded that of only six other states, five of them in the South.
“We are constrained by the budget, so we try to do as much as we can with as little as we can,” Department of Corrections director Bryan Stirling said.
According to Stirling, the state saves a significant amount of money by producing its own eggs, milk and grits: The S.C. Department of Corrections is home to 140,000 chickens.
“We teach the offenders how to work with the cows and how to do a hard day’s labor,” he said.
Inmates also staff the kitchens. The department recently instituted a ServSafe certification program, thus far positioning almost 200 inmates to pursue food service work after leaving prison.
As for the farm, officials would like to expand it, especially since the agency can make extra money by selling off surplus product. But McCown said they’re thwarted by the prisons’ storage capabilities. As much as he would like to add collards or other vegetables to the repertoire, facilities built before the prison population surged can’t accommodate the quantity of fresh produce required to feed inmates.
And prisons aren’t just short on space. Severe understaffing is a perpetual problem. To cut down on guard shifts, the Department of Corrections has consolidated its three daily meals into two on weekends, so prisoners now start Saturdays and Sundays with “brunch.”
The abbreviated meal service is a far cry from the “three hots and a cot” image of prison that prevailed in the early 20th century, when malnutrition was a pressing problem throughout the South.
Although prisoners have always taken exception to provided meals — a violent prison riot in Michigan in the 1950s was settled only after officials acceded to demands for a steak-and-ice cream dinner — wardens for many years made sure to mark holidays with sumptuous feasts. The Charleston Evening Post in 1956 reported that residents of the county’s prison farm would “dine royally” for Christmas on roast chicken, roast pork, dressing, rice-and-giblet gravy, green peas, cabbage, cranberry sauce, mincemeat pie, fruit and candy.
According to longtime inmates, even after South Carolina prisons scaled back their seasonal festivities, daily meals regularly featured ingredients that didn’t come from a can. “When I first came to prison, guys used to talk about salad bars,” the Lieber inmate said. “They used to have fruit on the regular line.”
Fruit has been mostly struck from prison diets, “because male inmates like to make something called buck,” Huddle said, referring to prison wine. In officials’ estimation, vegetables pose an additional security risk, since it’s relatively easy to slip contraband into food that wasn’t packaged up and sealed at a faraway factory.
Otherwise, though, Smith claims complaints about food service are somewhat exaggerated. Inmates may like to speculate about which creatures they’re eating in the guise of meatloaf or sloppy Joes, but all of the meat served in the state’s prisons is USDA-inspected, he points out.
“It might not look the best, but it is nutritionally the best,” he said. “When the inmates compose them pictures and send them out there on those illegal cell phones, they are the ones composing the pictures, not us. When the inmate is locked down, and we send food to their living area, he or she can do anything they want with it and make the picture look any way they want it to look.”
Earlier this year, a prisoner surreptitiously shot a video of maggots crawling through cornmeal at Turbeville Correctional Institution. Circulated in conjunction with the nationwide prison strike on Sept. 9, the 27-second video has been viewed 195,000 times.
“These are the bugs that are found in the cornmeal for the last few weeks,” the video’s unseen narrator bellows. “South Carolina prison: This is what they’re feeding us.”
Two months after the video was posted, word of it still hadn’t reached Stirling, the Department of Corrections director. His experiences in prison mess halls have been considerably more benign:
“I will sit down and I’ll eat the meal and you know, one place I went, the cornbread was dry,” he said. “So I called the warden and said, ‘The cornbread was dry, what’s the deal?’ She called the head food service worker at the institution. He said, ‘Well, I tried something different today and it didn’t work out.’ I forget what he did, I’m not a cook. But then I actually went back later, and it was better.”
A Department of Health and Environmental Control inspector on Oct. 24 “partially verified” a complaint regarding maggots in the grits at Ridgeland Correctional Institution. Although she didn’t see any maggots, “small live bugs similar to weevils were observed in a bag of dry grits.”
In February, another inspector came across dead bugs in the grits at Leath Correctional Institution.
Still, the vast majority of violations recorded in the latest round of prison kitchen inspections involved holding temperatures for food, as well as aging facilities and equipment; prisons were marked down for peeling walls and cracked pitchers. Inspectors also noted code violations by inmates, such as eating sausages while preparing food. “It’s not like the restaurant business, where you get someone’s that been working there for five years,” McCown said.
Overall, though, every prison is currently rated within DHEC’s acceptable range: The average score statewide is 96.76.
DHEC monitors sanitation, not nutrition, which is the province of two full-time Department of Corrections employees. But after independently plugging the agency’s sample menus into a dietary analysis program, Coastal Carolina University’s health promotion professor Sharon Thompson became concerned. She and a student in 2012 co-authored “What Are We Feeding Our Inmates?” published in the Journal of Correctional Health Care.
“We did find the meals had a lot of problems, as far as being high in cholesterol and sodium, and low in potassium, magnesium and Vitamin E,” Thompson said. “All of those are protective against heart disease, stroke and cognitive decline. So the dietary offerings may be inexpensive to purchase, but someone’s going to be paying for medical care.”
Thompson added, “This is a population that maybe people think deserves bad food. But the health consequences eventually may affect all of us.”
Prison doctors have already ordered therapeutic diets for approximately 2,900 inmates in connection with diagnoses ranging from cardiovascular disease to diabetes. When other inmates are dining on chili macaroni and cornbread, for example, the chow line designated for therapeutic dieters features sauteed poultry, steamed rice and spinach.
If an inmate on a therapeutic diet misses more than one out of every five meals, the prison’s medical authorities are alerted. “Oh, that definitely happens,” Smith said of chronic absenteeism in the cafeteria.
The Department of Corrections is bound to prepare enough food so every inmate can eat. The leftovers are “reracked,” meaning they can be served again and again for the next seven days, so the system doesn’t lead to a staggering amount of waste. But there only a few meals on the master menu guaranteed to draw a crowd.
“Thanksgiving; Christmas; hot dogs; anything Fourth of July related,” Smith, said, ticking off the inmates’ favorites. (Chicken used to be a big deal back when it was fried, but it’s now served teriyaki style.) “We have what we call the Big Mac meal. If they come in and for some reason, the hamburgers are gone, that’s when they get upset: When those popular meals appear, we feed everyone.”
But when dinner is poultry gravy or chicken livers, inmates are apt to eat “set-up,” a meal improvised from canteen purchases. “They take a soup, and they add whatever meat they want, like sausage or chicken or whatever, and hot sauce,” Huddle said of the ramen-based cuisine.
While Thompson can appreciate the appeal of salty foods, she said years of subsisting on convenience foods can take a toll.
“They did a study on cruise ships, and found if people even have a week where they eat sugar and saturated fat, it can take a few months for your body to recover,” she said. “It’s not necessarily something where you get out of prison and you’re automatically back to normal a week later.”
Yet the Lieber inmate said short of coaxing a warden into creating special programs at which refreshments are served, eating from the canteen represents the only viable way of attaining desirable flavors and nutrients. It’s a luxury not available to every inmate, though. Inmates are no longer given opportunities to earn money while in prison, so they’re dependent on friends and relatives to deposit money into their canteen accounts.
“Some guys’ families are a little more fortunate,” the inmate said.
Inmates are permitted $150 in spending money per week, with the cap bumped up to $175 during the holidays. Families also can order care packages at certain times during the year, such as Easter, when the standard list of canteen items is supplemented with treats such as chocolate bunnies.
Any inmate who has less than $6.43 in his or her account is considered indigent, and granted a hygiene package with items such as razors. As for self-funding inmates, they can spend their money as they choose. The department marks up the wholesale prices it pays by 35 percent, meaning a canned soda retails for 55 cents. An inmate would pay around 40 cents for a package of crackers.
Just as the meals served in the mess hall have evolved in deference to security concerns, so has the list of foods available through the canteen. In the 1980s, inmates could buy a five-pound sack of sugar. Today, the threat of illicit hooch-making is considered so serious that male inmates are barred from ordering V8. The vegetable drink remains on the canteen list for women, because they’re not prone to distilling liquor, Huddle said.
“They like to cook, and they’re good cooks,” he said.
That means they’ll request vanilla wafers to crush up for pie crust, which they’ll fill with melted Hershey bars and top with cream.
Canteen items are so central to prison life that a Canadian supplier recently started an online store for its Whole Shabang potato chips, previously sold exclusively in prison canteens. As NBC News this fall reported, former convicts have created Facebook pages in the chips’ honor and schemed to smuggle them out of prison.
Yet ramen-style soups remain South Carolina’s bestseller, although Huddle said they aren’t used as currency, a phenomenon documented earlier this year by a University of Arizona doctoral student in sociology. Michael Gibson-Light found inmates pay other inmates in ramen to clean their bunks or wash their clothes.
In South Carolina, Huddle said, that kind of swapping occurs primarily when an inmate is put on “restriction,” meaning he or she can only buy hygiene items or a padlock from the canteen. Typically, those are traded for food, such as instant grits or beef stew.
But the Lieber inmate confirms there is a thriving black market for vegetables in the state’s prisons.
“A guy’s underground hustle may be to make salad,” he said. “Real good salad, with lettuce, tomatoes and carrots. He may sell it to you for $4 or $5, and it would be worth it.”