‘Not For Human Consumption’ – What are they feeding the inmates in our prisons?

Bridging the Gap is a biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change. This piece originally appeared in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

While conducting interviews with formerly incarcerated men for a community-based research project about health equity during incarceration, I have heard many examples of how these men have had their humanity undermined during the time that they served their sentence.

One of the examples given to me by a few of the interviewees is so clear and basic that the inhumanity of this practice cannot be denied — serving inmates food marked “Not For Human Consumption.” The message rings loud and clear: the Department of Corrections does not view inmates as human beings. If they did, how could such a practice ever be considered an option, let alone be carried out over and over again?

No, this is an intentional and continuous practice that is happening at multiple (if not all) prisons. At some point the idea of feeding this “food” to inmates was brought to the table where decision-makers in the Department of Corrections gave their approval, green-lighting the on-going purchase of food stuffs from vendors whose products state implicitly that they are not to be eaten by humans.

In our nation of abundance, are we really to believe that feeding real food for those incarcerated is too much to ask? It is despicable to force this vile diet on the incarcerated population while knowing that those who approved its use would never be willing to eat it themselves.

One of the men I spoke with told me that the majority of the meat is delivered in boxes marked “Not For Human Consumption.” Another man who is currently incarcerated validated this by saying, “[When locked up] don’t eat no spaghetti, no chili, no burritos, no types of sausage or the sausage gravy, no meatloaf or no Salisbury steak. It’s all bad! It’s all made from that meat marked ‘Not For Human Consumption!’”

Another nutritional detriment for the incarcerated population is the use of expired foods. A couple of examples that were shared with me were puddings with expiration dates greater than one year and spoiled meat.

For those fortunate enough to have money on their books, they have the option not to eat food from the chow hall when these items are served. They can opt to purchase food items from the canteen instead, although those items consist of processed foods — not much of a healthy alternative. If they don’t have the funds, then they are forced to make the decision between eating the “food” served or going hungry until the next meal is served.

From what I’ve been told, constipation has become normal for inmates. While this must surely be an uncomfortable part of daily living, what effects does this have on the body over time, especially for those serving years of a long or life sentence?

We should all be worried about the psychological effects on inmates of being given “food” that is meant to drive home the message that they are not worthy of being nourished as human beings, as well as the physical health effects that this will cause long-term.

Although there are periods of time where our incarcerated brothers and sisters are not in the community, they are still of the community. They are from the community, and many will return to us. If we, the community, do not speak up on their behalf about the crimes of inhumanity enacted upon them, what does that say about us?

Bridget Moore is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.

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