The federal lawsuit filed this month over the food at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton was greeted with skepticism by many who have never been in jail.
Of course food, like much else in prison, isn’t good. Life behind bars isn’t supposed to be good or appealing. Many feel, quite the contrary, that prison conditions should help motivate people to avoid the crimes that would put them there. If you can’t eat the slime, don’t do the crime.
There’s something to that, but punishment can only be one goal of imprisonment. More important to society is the rehabilitation of inmates and trying to prepare them for a law-abiding and productive life when their punishment is finished. Diet matters because it influences health, and that’s a factor in successfully reintegrating into society.
This doesn’t mean the lawsuit by inmate Raymond Skelton has merit.
The suit says Skelton has chronic health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. That’s not surprising. About 44 percent of state and federal prisoners have experienced chronic disease, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, compared with 31 percent of the general population. Such long-lasting illnesses often begin to develop early in life, so their higher rate among inmates suggests not only that incarceration might be a contributing factor but that unhealthiness might contribute to making the poor choices to behave criminally.
Skelton alleges that the prison diet is much too low in fruits and vegetables, too high in starches like potatoes and rice, and includes processed meats too often as the main protein. The choices in the inmate store have too much sugar and sodium. His lawsuit, which his attorney is seeking to make a class action, alleges this is cruel and unusual punishment.
Food is a common source of inmate discontent. A few years ago a class action also accused the Oregon Department of Corrections of cruel and unusual punishment for serving sub-par food. Food complaints were a factor in a 2018 strike at prisons around the nation. That year Michigan, after a review of prison nutrition, spent $14 million to improve it.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health suggested there is widespread room for improvement. It looked at two decades’ worth of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and found that inmates were six times as likely to be sickened by one. In 2014, outbreaks made 1 in every 3,000 prisoners ill, compared to 1 in 25,000 among those not in prison.
Prison food programs vary greatly, from in-house efforts using inmate labor to meals outsourced to big food-service companies. Another challenge is that regulations vary across federal, state and local institutions, and inspections are performed at different frequencies by officials at various levels.
Given all this, a review of food provision at South Woods and other prisons in New Jersey could well find areas to improve, so if the lawsuit prompts that, good. Such reviews probably should be done regularly, at least every few years, since food science is always advancing and any problems are best caught early.
But whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, correctional departments must continue to serve all the interests of society — maintain security, discourage crime, keep costs down and more. Providing a diet that meets minimum health standards and supports inmate efforts to reform and rejoin society is one of those interests to be balanced.