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Abolitionist Organization Takes On Maryland’s Prison Food System

A new report examines the ways food is weaponized behind bars.

In this file photo, incarcerated cook Antoine Money stands in front of two plates of “nutraloaf,”a meal typically given to incarcerated people as punishment, in a kitchen at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del. Maryland ended its use of nutraloaf in 2016 but, according to a new report, food is still weaponized within the correctional system. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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The food served in Maryland prisons has been described as “unfit for animals, much less human beings.” It’s not uncommon to find insects, maggots and rat droppings in meal trays. Food deprivation and perpetual hunger is the norm, forcing many to spend high prices to subsidize their diet through commissary providers.

These are just a handful of issues summed up in a new report, a first-of-its kind investigation into a state’s prison food system from an abolitionist lens. “I Refuse to Let Them Kill Me”: Food, Violence, and the Maryland Correctional Food System, released this month, is a six-part series that reflects more than two years of research, interviews, dialogue circles, and conversations with people currently and formerly imprisoned in Maryland.

The report was created by the Maryland Food and Prison Abolition Project, founded in 2018 as The Farm to Prison Project with the goal of connecting urban and small-scale farms in Baltimore to prisons across Maryland, increasing fresh food access to the people incarcerated there. But when those efforts were cut short due to COVID-19, the small team took a broader look at the state’s broken prison food system and all the ways food is weaponized inside. “We realized that simply sourcing food to the inside was one small part of the problem,” says co-founder Kanav Kathuria.

Since its founding, the project has been invested in how healthier food access, and strengthening ties between farmers, food justice advocates and incarcerated people, could be used as a form of resistance against mass incarceration. The original plan was to start with a pilot at a Jessup state prison, engaging people incarcerated, Baltimore farmers and Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to introduce fresh produce specifically to that facility.

The pilot was expected to launch that May, but COVID-19 put all Maryland prisons on lockdown. The project shifted its focus to document and break down the state’s prison food system “for purposes of political education, research and advocacy,” Kathuria says. “We realized just how little information there was on the experience of eating in Maryland’s prisons.”

Kathuria forged partnerships with local organizations to interview people coming home from prison about food. The team compensated about 30 people to share their experience of food conditions before and during COVID-19, as well as the various impacts prison food had on their lives. The result is a first-of-its-kind, nearly 200-page report on what it’s like to eat in prison.

“I wanted Kanav to really understand that food is used as a tool of violence,” says Antoin Quarles, who is formerly incarcerated and helped lead outreach through his reentry organization HOPE. Poor food quality and scarcity leads to tensions among people incarcerated. Prison administrators also use food as punishment, by tampering with it or depriving people from it, despite the state’s ban on “the use of food as punishment or reward” in a correctional environment.

Kathuria and Quarles made connections between prison food and the food insecurity of low-income neighborhoods hardest hit by incarceration. Connecting those dots, the team realized the importance of framing prison food as a public health and human rights crisis within the larger food sovereignty movement. This summer, Farm to Prison Project rebranded to the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project to raise awareness around the “ways food is used as a tool of control and oppression,” Kathuria says.

Beyond unearthing the entirety of the state’s correctional food system through the report, the goal was to frame the work with an abolitionist lens. “As our work has deepened, we’ve tried to position it more at the intersection of food sovereignty and abolition,” he says.

The 189-page report is broken down into six sections. Section one details the prison eating experience; section two breaks down the prison industrial food system; section three covers health implications and how prison food leads to premature death; part four details changes in prison food over time and place; part five emphasizes prison food as a tool of violence, punishment and dehumanization.

There are insights from formerly and currently incarcerated people throughout. “Terrible, terrible, terrible,” J.G., formerly incarcerated during COVID-19 at the Maryland Correctional Training Center, is quoted in the report. “They prepare your meals in filth, basically … that’s definitely inhumane. But who can you complain to? And as I say, I’m one of the fortunate ones, because I refuse to let them kill me.” L.G., formerly incarcerated in Baltimore and Jessup, said: “To me, all the food is punishment.”

Part six of the report, out today, outlines what can be done to dismantle the “prison food industrial complex.” It’s broken down into two sections: section one proposes changes within Maryland prisons “to mitigate the violent experience of eating in confinement,” while section two outlines “non-reformist reforms” — essentially steps to dismantle the prison industrial complex as a whole.

The first section is informed by currently and formerly incarcerated people. Recommendations include food with more nutritional value, fresh produce, greater quantities of food, longer meal times and more flexible meal timings, more choice, and lower prices at the prison commissary — which many people depend on to supplement their diet.

The second section pulls from abolitionist thinkers like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Recommendations include divesting from all food service corporations managing or providing food or commissary services to correctional institutions; divesting from all corporations—both food and non-food related—extracting profit from prisons and from incarcerated individuals; and defunding and working toward abolishing the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

This report marks a first step for the Maryland Food and Prison Abolition Project to raise awareness around this issue, educate organizers, and better position food justice within the criminal justice reform and abolition movements. “We hope the report links these two movements that have been historically separated — one being criminal justice and the other being food sovereignty or food justice,” Kathuria says.

To further engage people, Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project hosted two four-week workshops on food sovereignty and abolition this summer. This fall, they will host a public panel featuring people doing work in this space.

“The interest is certainly there,” Kathuria says, especially considering so little information has been released on the issue previously. “We want to be sure the connections between food apartheid and prisons, from an abolitionist lens, is front and center.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: prisonsfood

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