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What's wrong with the way Pennsylvania Department of Corrections feeds its 39,000 inmates?

Lynette Hazelton, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA — Even as Pennsylvania's prison population grew rapidly in the 1990s and sentences became longer, the state's food bill was plummeting. By 2018, the state's Department of Corrections (DOC) had one of the steepest drops in carceral food costs in the nation.

A recently issued report from the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Hungry and Malnourished in Prison Food Service in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, explained that the cost drop was built on using poor quality food that often failed to meet inmates' basic nutritional needs and left them hungry, malnourished, prone to diet-related illnesses and dissatisfied.

"I can tell that in 2023 and 2024 there were simply not enough calories and what calories there were relied on starchy filler."

Claire Shubik-Richards

After analyzing the Department of Correction's master menus for a year, Prison Society Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards called the culinary nightmare faced by about 39,000 inmates in the state's 24 prisons "nutritional neglect."

"I can tell you that in 2023 and 2024 there were simply not enough calories (for inmates) and what calories there were relied on starchy filler," Shubik-Richards said.


The DOC has both challenged and acted upon the Prison Society findings.

The pandemic

The Prison Society routinely fields hundreds of complaints a week about prison life but when the pandemic required inmates be served meals in their cell to halt the spread of COVID-19, the number of food related complaints increased drastically.

A 2021 Prison Society survey showed almost three out of four inmates admitted to receiving rotten food and smaller portions. Others said dishes sat out for hours before being served and when there was an hot food item on the menu it often arrived cold — a violation of DOC's food safety policy. Less than a third said they preferred in-cell dining but it was because it was better than dealing with mealtime dining hall issues.


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