Prison Food

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Food is a critical aspect of our lives. Additionally, eating is a natural part of being human, and sharing delicious meals strengthens our bonds.

Moreover, food nourishes our bodies and expresses our identity, connections, and ideals. In light of these realities, Impact Justice, which is an American-based advocacy group, argues that giving inmates unhealthy and unappetizing food robs them of their health and human dignity.

Reading the observations above, you may wonder about the typical food in the United States (U.S.) prisons. Does the country’s prison staff serve U.S. inmates fresh produce such as fresh fruits and vegetables? 

Are there cases of malnutrition in U.S. prisons? How does prison food affect the inmates’ health before and after their reentry into society?

Furthermore, as a personal concern, you may want to know if your incarcerated family member is eating fresh food while in prison. is a free access website that can provide you with inmates’ information, such as their penitentiary location. This site also has various content related to prison life.

This article identifies and describes the usual meals that prisoners eat in jail and how this food affects their overall health.

What is in a Prison Meal?

Prison meals may vary in serving portions and nutritional content. Some studies showed that prisons do not always provide inmates with well-balanced meals. 

For example, a report from the Southern Center for Human Rights indicated that inmates at the Gordon County Jail in Calhoun, Georgia, did not receive wholesome meals.

In fact, the meager meal portions per day were not able to sustain the inmates as some individuals may have resorted to eating toothpaste and toilet paper. 

Another similar incident was when several prison inmates at the Schuylkill County Prison in Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights lawsuit asserting that they received meal portions that were “not even enough to fill a 5-year-old child.”

A combination of local policies, state laws, and court rulings typically governs the nutritional standards of state and local correctional facilities.

For example, a Texas law mandating that inmates receive meals three times a day only applies to county jail inmates, not state prisoners. 

Some prisons and jails require low-sodium or low-fat diets, while other facilities require that inmates receive a particular amount of calories.

Furthermore, the American Correctional Association obligates detention facilities to have a licensed dietician to evaluate their menus before accreditation. Additionally, the association advises—but does not mandate—that correctional facilities offer inmates three meals daily.

What Do Inmates Eat in Prison?

Curious individuals typically ask, “What do inmates eat in prison?”

Many movies and TV shows portray many U.S. inmates as eating low-quality food. However, in reality, imprisoned individuals under the Federal Bureau of Prisons jurisdiction receive three nutritious meals each day, two of which are hot.

Breakfasts may consist of cereals (hot or cold) and milk. Regular meals include hamburgers, chicken, lasagna, hotdogs, burritos, fish patties, and tacos.

Typically, general population inmates receive their meals in a dining room — called “the Chow Hall”— a large cafeteria area containing a serving bar and tables.

However, correctional institutions may modify the meal plan depending on whether the prison is under lockdown conditions, such as during the pandemic or the prison inmate is in intensive confinement. 

In such cases, the meal staff often brings the food to inmates’ prison cells on a tray.

So even though many prison foods do not always receive a favorable review from inmates, the meals are nutritionally sound. 

Prison Food

Some prisons assign inmates to “food service” to cook and serve food to other inmates. Still, other institutions may hire staff from on-site catering services.

Imprisoned individuals cannot choose the food they will receive. 

Another common feature of prison food is its standardized serving portions. Some federal prisons even provide ID card scanners to ensure that each inmate only eats once per meal session.

On the other hand, federal prisoners with money in their trust fund accounts can purchase items from the prison commissary. These purchases may include food, such as pizzas and burritos.

Ten Sample Prison Food Recipes

Listed below are several examples of prison food recipes.

Jailhouse Tamales

  1. Smash a bag of Fritos corn chips and spicy hot Cheetos.
  2. Mix the chips in a single container and add hot water until you form a thick mush.
  3. Roll the mixture inside the chip container into the shape of a tamale after kneading the bag and dripping off any extra water.
  4. Remove the bag after five minutes and add some hot sauce.

Prison Lattes

Inmates do not have to give up on coffee just because they are in prison. 

  1. Submerge a milk carton in hot, flowing water until it begins to steam.
  2. Add three teaspoons of instant coffee and a breakfast package of maple syrup. Serve warm.

Pad Thai

Combining some peanut butter and spicy sauce with cooked ramen noodles is a quick and straightforward way to make Pad Thai.

Prison Pizza

Ramen noodles are a crucial ingredient of prison pizza.

  1. Crush some crackers and noodles in a container or a bag, 
  2. Add boiling water to the mixture and, after a while, shape the mixture into a circle for the crust.
  3. Sprinkle any desired toppings, such as salsa, cheese spread, or summer sausage. 

No Bake Cheesecake

No bake cheesecake gets inspiration from the popular TV show “Orange is the New Black.”

American author Piper Kerman is a former inmate and the writer of the book the famous show was based on. She wrote about the recipe for prison cheesecake in her book, indicating that its primary ingredients are graham crackers, vanilla pudding mix, lemon juice, stolen margarine, and coffee creamer.

Flavored Water

Flavored water gets its taste from the seasoning packets that come with the noodles. Inmates create flavored water by adding a particular ramen mixture to their water.

Crab-Apple Jelly

Well-known TV personality Martha Stewart, a former inmate, helped popularize crab-apple jelly.  She used crab apples from trees on the Alderson Federal Prison Camp grounds to make this jelly.

The Spread

“The spread” consists of whatever an inmate might have leftover from prior cooking activities. The spread typically uses ramen noodles.

Inmates can add and mix food products such as canned tuna, hot sauce, salsa, Doritos, and flavored popcorn. 

Fried Chicken

Some people suggest that inmates can wire a heating source into a plastic trashcan to fry chicken meat.

Correctional Cake

The correctional cake is made of Oreo cookies, peanut butter, and M&Ms. Inmates can crush Oreo’s cookie portion and shape it using water to make the cake layers. 

Moreover, inmates can sprinkle M&Ms to finish the cake. Also, peanut butter can add another layer of frosting.

How Small Changes to Prison Food Drastically Cut Inmate Violence

A study indicated that self-harm is one of prisoners’ leading causes of death. Consequently, state and federal penitentiaries must invest in reducing inmate violence, including self-directed ones.

The prison food-related suggestions below indicate a cost-effective, low-risk approach to improving inmates’ physical and mental health. 

Nutrition and Behaviour in Childhood

Studies indicate that nutrition correlates with human behavior.

For example, omega-3 fatty acids play a critical role in developing the central nervous system. This observation suggests that dietary fats are crucial during a child’s early brain development.

Development issues in the brain may cause adverse long-term behavioral outcomes, such as antisocial or violent behavior. 

Another related study showed that malnutrition has a link with a child’s misconduct. This behavior may signal whether a child will likely participate in adult criminal activity.

The Prison Studies

It would be a misleading claim to say that poor nutrition is the primary or sole factor in causing criminal behavior.

Other factors that may increase the risk of criminal activity include:

  • Living in abject poverty
  • Having mental health issues 
  • Experiencing parental stress 
  • Being socially excluded
  • Frequently interacting with other trouble-makers

However, solving the problem with nutrition is one of the most readily available and immediate actions to help reduce prison misbehaviors.

Below are some “prison studies” related to prison food and nutrition problems among U.S. inmates.

Studying the State of Food in the Nation’s Prisons

 One of Impact Justice’s reports examines food service policies and regulations that affect more than 1.3 million individuals incarcerated in state prisons nationwide through original research. 

The research titled Eating Behind Bars shows that:

  • Incarcerated people experience routine humiliation due to their eating conditions in prison. This negative experience has an immediate and long-term impact on inmates’ physical and mental health.
  • The current dietary standards are unacceptably low in prisons. The prison system disregards inmates’ health for the cheapest and highest efficiency prison food system. 
  • Increased accountability and transparency are critical to system-wide change.

How Prison Food Is Improving at a U.S. Facility

A 2021 report indicates an improvement in prison food at one Maine-based correctional institution.

Transforming the Experience of Eating Inside

A dehumanizing criminal justice system increases violence and traumas in various communities. 

Transforming eating habits in prison is a significant issue that may require national dialogue and cooperation among different groups to bring about complete and transformative change. 

Serving better quality food in prison can help a country: 

  • Build safer and healthier communities
  • Spend less on healthcare
  • Develop people’s potential for post-release

Can Poor Food in Prisons and Jails Cause or Worsen Eating and Health Problems?

Mediocre meal plans can worsen several health conditions.

For example, individuals in the prison system may have high rates of diabetes, heart disease, behavioral and mental health issues, and illnesses brought on by foodborne pathogens caused by unhealthy diets.

Will the Effects Linger Long After Release?

Most of the time, the negative impact of poor prison food will last long after an inmate’s release. One of these long-term outcomes includes a significant disruption of the prisoner’s overall health.

Leslie Soble and her fellow researchers for the Food in Prison Project at Impact Justice noted that restoring citizens’ physical and mental health should be a “community and societal concern.”

Prison Food Is Worse Than You Would Expect

Many people suggest that substandard prison food constitutes a public health crisis. 

Feeding the Imprisoned Masses

It is challenging to minimize the difficulties in feeding a sizable prison population while keeping costs low enough to prevent taxpayers from protesting. 

Feeding many incarcerated individuals is expensive. For instance, estimates for each state range in millions of dollars annually.

Preparing prison food is also complicated. One kind of meal does not fit everyone. Some prisoners must follow particular diets due to health concerns or religious requirements.

Consequently, incarcerated individuals may go to court to petition state prisons to recognize their right to meals that do not consist of cheap mystery meats.

But They Are Prisoners, Right?

There is a claim that inmates are unworthy of anything because they committed crimes that called for incarceration.

Still, the food basics ignore the fundamental truth that bad food makes unhealthy eaters. Health issues can result from eating poorly, resulting in expensive health care.

The observation above indicates that the inmates’ welfare may have significant links with the public.


  1. What is prison food called?

Individuals call prison food differently depending on where they reside.

  1. Why is prison food so bad? Why is jail food so nasty?

Minimizing the cost of food preparation at the expense of inmates’ health is one of the primary reasons why jail or prison food is so bad.

For example, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization, a Thanksgiving meal at Maricopa County (Arizona) jail under the former hardline sheriff cost 56 cents. 

The meal included mashed potato, a cup of carrots, and the main dish, which is 5 ounces (141 grams) of turkey soy casserole. 

  1. What kind of food do prisoners eat?

Prisoners eat different types of food depending on the prison they are in. Some prisons and jails require low-sodium or low-fat diets. At the same time, other facilities mandate inmates receive a particular amount of calories.

  1. Can I send food to a prison?

Yes, you can send food to loved ones in prison. However, typically, you need to go through authorized private vendors or care package providers. 

  1. What fancy food is served mainly to prisoners?

Inmates may receive slightly better meals during special occasions such as Christmas Day. These meals may include mashed potatoes, salad, and meat-based dishes. 

  1. What country has the best prison food?

Each country has correctional facilities that serve quality food. Still, countries with homely prison conditions, like Norway, may be among those that serve the best prison meals.


1. Studying the state of food in the nation’s prisons–and seeking to transform the experience of eating inside
2. Human rights group alleges Gordon County inmates inadequately fed
3. What’s in a Prison Meal?
4. In Bid to Cut Costs at Some Texas Prisons, Lunch Will Not Be Served on Weekends
5. Food Service Manual
6. Risk factors for self-harm in prison: a systematic review and meta-analysis

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