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Enduring the “Hidden Punishment” of Prison Food

by | May 14, 2021

“Give me neither poverty nor riches — Feed me with the food allotted to me.”
— Proverbs 30:8 (NKJV)

“You know it’s bad when you can’t even give this stuff away!”

I’ve heard or said some version of this exclamation countless times over the years. It’s said with a mixture of disgust, frustration and wry humor. And more times than not, it’s followed by something like, “I wouldn’t feed that trash to my dog,” or, “If I gave my five-year-old that small of a portion, he’d cuss me out and tell his mom I was trying to starve him!”

When it comes to talking about prison food, I’m torn. In the practice of my faith I have learned to be content whether I have much or little, whether I think the food isn’t fit for an animal or wish I could get a double-helping. I fast occasionally and am disciplined about what, when, and how much I eat. I’m also blessed enough to be able to keep some supplementary food items in my tote for when the meals just don’t cut it. This wasn’t always the case.

Up through my mid-twenties, I was hungry all the time. When other men were disgusted by the food being served and ready to throw it in the trash, I was the one saying, “I’ll eat it!” My best friend called me a human garbage disposal with a cast-iron stomach and a hollow leg.

I commend Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty for creating the Master Gardener and Beekeeping programs here at Maine State Prison when he was warden. I greatly appreciate the fact that current Warden Matthew Magnusson ate the food here during the initial pandemic lockdown last year and acknowledged the fact that it was insufficient to sustain a grown man. He subsequently worked with Kitchen management to increase the amount of food we receive. As in most institutions, the consistency of follow-through has fallen short of expectations. Nonetheless, it was nice to have our frustrations validated by someone in authority.

The fact remains that there is a fundamental difference between calories and nutrients. Bread, pasta/rice/potatoes and cake does not qualify as a nutritious meal — even when you add a scoop of overcooked frozen veggies and a sprinkle of meat. There are occasional exceptions when we’ll get a truly decent meal, but this is the rule.

I have a history of diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure in my family. I also have no pressing desire to die young and unhealthy. So after I strip my meals down to what I am willing to put into my body, I am left wanting.

Which brings me back to my younger self. When I am reminding myself and my celly that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God,” and that, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” I am also holding in my heart those young men who don’t have extra food in their cells to stave off the hunger. I’m thinking of those older men who refuse to subject themselves to the chronic health issues that stem from poor nutrition and empty calories, who give away most of their food and spend most of their money on the few healthy food options we have on commissary.

Thankfully, we are coming into the summer months, when we get some fresh vegetables. I know the kitchen manager and crew do what they can with what they have, but something has to change. The pandemic opened the doors enough for us to get a taste of fruit that didn’t come out of a can and wasn’t an apple or banana; we got some decent-quality meat and had a few good meals. With the world returning to some semblance of normalcy, I see this food disappearing again.

For her recent New York Times article, “The ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food,” Patricia Leigh Brown talked to the executive director of Farm to Institution New England, Peter Allison, who believes “Correctional institutions can potentially play a vital role as stable outlets for farmers, fishermen and other producers.”

Bringing healthier food into prison means receiving healthier people back into your community. “Improving the health of incarcerated people through more palatable and wholesome food will mean bringing together farmers, chefs, corrections officials and legislators as well as people who have lived behind bars,” Brown wrote. “There is just one missing ingredient.”

She let Allison give the answer: “It’s really a question of political will,” he said.

Political will is supposed to be the will of the people. Yes, that means you. If you, or someone you know, is willing and able to help bring one of these stakeholders to the table, please reach out to your local legislator, to Commissioner Liberty, Warden Magnusson, and/or Peter Allison at FINE.


Leo Hylton’s sister, Rosie, is organizing a fundraising campaign to cover tuition expenses for Leo’s pursuit of a Master’s degree via George Mason University. Click here to donate.             


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