Blog Posts > The High Costs of Cheap Food: Eating in West Virginia Prisons
September 12, 2023

The High Costs of Cheap Food: Eating in West Virginia Prisons

Since 2015, West Virginia prisons have sent more than $57.1 million out of state to pay for food served in its prisons. Privatizing prison food has resulted in poorer food quality and worse health outcomes. A 2022 class-action lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) alleged unconstitutional conditions of confinement, including the serving of rotten food and inadequate portions. The complaint included sworn affidavits from four correctional officers at the jail who said that residents were “regularly served spoiled milk for breakfast” and “commonly given what appeared to be undercooked or rotten meat.” 

The WVCBP’s new report examines the impacts of cheap food on the health of those incarcerated in our state’s prisons. A 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found people behind bars “suffer from higher rates of diabetes and heart disease than the general public, conditions caused or at minimum exacerbated by the typical prison diet.” Those results mirrored what WVCBP researchers learned from formerly- and currently-incarcerated West Virginians. One man who had been prescribed a medical diet for kidney disease by the prison medical provider found that the dining service would not accommodate his medical needs. These health conditions developed in prisons come home to our communities, since roughly 3,200 West Virginians leave prisons each year. 

The report was authored by WVCBP criminal legal policy analyst, Sara Whitaker, and criminal legal policy fellow, Teri Castle. Ms. Castle shared her own experiences from Lakin Correctional Center via first-person accounts throughout the brief. 

“Since coming home, I have lost 40 pounds and reversed my pre-diabetes. I no longer need laxatives or blood pressure pills. My overall health has greatly improved. People who are still in prison don’t have options to change their food or exercise routine. They can only eat, drink, and exercise at the leave of the prison they are in.” -Teri Castle

Privatized prison food has resulted in a profit motive guiding the quality and quantity of food rather than the needs of people who live in our jails and prisons. Since 2015, West Virginia has sent more than tens of millions out of state to pay for the food served in its prison, despite legislation passed in 2019 requiring state-funded institutions to purchase at least five percent of their fresh food from West Virginia producers. According to the Department of Agriculture, DCR has failed to submit any required documentation to the agency since 2019. Worse, DCR actively profits when incarcerated people are forced to buy food from the commissary that is not available for free from the kitchen. Under contract, DCR gets a 10-20 percent cut of all sales from the prison commissary.

“Prison food is one example of how government agencies pay out-of-state companies millions of dollars for a low-quality product. When we add up the harms created by privatized prison food service, we see that West Virginians end up paying more for less.” – Sara Whitaker

You can read the full report here.  

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