I read an article last week in the Wall Street Journal that brought back memories of features I’ve written over the years on prison foodservice.
The article, entitled “Jailbirds Order Up Hot Wings,” discussed an Aramark-run program in several prisons nationwide in which inmates can order food from outside the prison for a price. (See article here).
According to the article, inmates—or relatives on the outside—can order an array specialty items through Aramark’s “iCare” Web site. The program can bring a windfall to departments of correction—the WJS article stated that Indiana’s prison system could earn more than $2 million this year as its cut of the action—and definitely has started a debate about the appropriateness of the program.
Supporters say that arrangement is really no different than other types of perks given to well-behaved inmates, and happy inmates are less likely to cause problems. Critics suggest the program could lead to problems between have and have-not inmates, as well as cause health problems for inmates who overindulge in junk foods. Furthermore, they say, this is not how to treat criminals.
In my time as an editor at Food Management, I visited several state and federal correctional institutions and saw and heard about what prison foodservice directors do to try to satisfy the nutritional needs and taste preferences of inmates.
One of my trips took me to FCI-Raybrook, a federal institution near Lake Placid, N.Y. The name of the foodservice director escapes me, but something he said has remained with me all these years. On the day I visited, among the offerings on the cafeteria line was shrimp etoufée. In the course of my interview, I asked him about this special item, pointing out that critics might castigate him for coddling inmates and wasting taxpayer money on items such as shrimp.
After explaining to me that he had gotten a “good deal” on the shrimp, he said, “These men in here have been punished by being taken off the streets for two years, five years, whatever. Nobody told me when I took this job that I had to punish them twice. Besides, I’m a CIA graduate. I don’t know how to serve bad food.”
When it comes to food, there is a fine line between satisfying inmates and coddling them. In my opinion, Aramark’s program crosses that line. “iCare” is not about keeping inmates happy; it’s about making money for Aramark and the institution.
Still, it suggests that there are ways to improve the quality of prison foodservice programs, many of which operate on a frayed shoestring financially. If inmates have the means to buy food from the outside, perhaps departments of correction should operate foodservice accordingly. Improve the quality of the meals and charge inmates or their families the difference between the taxpayer support and the actual cost of the meals.
Charging inmates for their meals is not a new idea, and it certainly would not be a simple one to implement. But Aramark’s program demonstrates the feasibility of it.