JOHN KIRIAKOU: Poison in Prison

A private food service company “accidentally” sold dog food to feed prisoners mis-marked as “ground beef for tacos.” There was no punishment for the company or its executives.

A federal prison in Littleton, Colorado, 2011. (Vetatur Fumare, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

A friend recently forwarded to me an article from The New York Times which talked about a group of Maine state prisoners who have taken to raising their own fruits and vegetables in the prison yard because there was literally no healthy or nourishing food provided to them by prison authorities.  One prisoner likened the daily meal to “a ground up gym mat with spices.”  The article said: 

“Of the seemingly endless tally of injustices of mass incarceration, one of the worst humiliations gets little attention from outside: the food. This shadow issue — the 3,000 bologna sandwiches, mystery meats slathered on white bread, soy filler masquerading as chicken and other culinary indignities consumed during a prison sentence — permeates life behind bars and instills a nearly universal sense of disgust.”

Prison food is high on refined carbohydrates, sodium and sugar and low on nutrients — diets the rest of us have been told to avoid. Like everything about prisons, it disproportionately affects people of color, and it has grown worse during the pandemic. With most states spending $3 or less per person a day for meals, penitentiaries have become hidden food deserts, paralleling the neighborhoods from which many inmates have come.”

I can tell you definitively that this is true.  My first full day in prison after blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program was a Friday “fish day.”  One of the members of the “Italian contingent” warned me on my way to the cafeteria.  “Don’t eat the fish.  We call it sewer trout.  We’re not even sure if it’s fish.”  When I got to the cafeteria and got in line, I saw cases stacked up behind the servers.  They were in plain view and were clearly marked, “Alaskan Cod–Product of China–Not for Human Consumption–Feed Use Only.”  I threw lunch away.

Mid-Week ‘Tacos’

Pet food aisle in New York, 2007. (Jeffrey O. Gustafson, CC-BY-SA-2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesdays in all federal prisons are “Mexican food days” and dinner is always what authorities call “tacos.”  They’re unlike any tacos I’ve ever seen.  I realized why when I read an article in Prison Legal News magazine, a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center.  It said that, “a private food service company, John Soules Foods Inc., ‘accidentally’ sold dog food to prisons to be fed to prisoners mismarked as ‘ground beef’ for tacos.” There was no punishment for the company or its executives, other than a $392,000 fine, the cost of the investigation, paid to the U.S. Treasury.

Prisoners got nothing. Not even an apology. And the shame of the story is that nobody could even tell that it was dog food. It tasted the same as everything else prisoners are served.

In the two years I was in prison, for example, I never saw the crown of a stalk of broccoli. Prisoners only get stems and only fruits and vegetables that are so damaged and ugly that they can’t possibly be sold in a grocery store.  “Special meals,” like those on Thanksgiving and Christmas, called for a “selection of holiday pies,” according to the prisoner handbook.  Well, the selection of holiday pies was a chocolate “Cliff Bar” that had expired a year earlier.

“Nobody could even tell that it was dog food. It tasted the same as everything else prisoners are served.”

Once we got bagels. But they were all dyed green from the previous year’s St. Patrick’s Day, they hadn’t sold, and they had been frozen for a year.

Things got so bad that one Iraqi prisoner and I once scoured the prison yard for dandelions, with which we made a salad with stolen olive oil from the cafeteria and salt and pepper.  It was the only salad I had in two years.  And I had to eat it secretly, lest I be sent to solitary. 

The Warden in Maine

With that said, there’s a relatively easy fix to all this.  The New York Times article that I cited above introduces us to the warden of a Maine state prison, Randall Liberty.  Liberty is the son of a former prisoner who grew up on public assistance and who became a master certified gardener and beekeeper.

When he became a warden, the article says, he was “horrified” to learn that leftover food was being thrown away every day.  He introduced a class to teach prisoners how to compost, and he immediately instituted a mandatory composting policy.  This resulted in a fertile two-and-a-half acre garden that now produces much of the prison’s food, including 77,000 pounds of apples annually. 

Many are consumed in-house, and all the excess is sent to neighboring prisons.  The program saves millions of dollars a year and it keep prisoners healthy, busy, and learning how to farm.  There’s literally no downside.  So why isn’t every prison doing this?

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


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13 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Poison in Prison

  1. March 11, 2021 at 12:25

    Prison sucks.

  2. John Neal Spangler
    March 10, 2021 at 17:19

    The reason why is prisons are where sadists to find work that pays off, both i salary and psychological satisfaction

  3. J Joon
    March 10, 2021 at 15:32

    No one is surprised, are they? This is how America, as controlled by gangster-capitalist neoliberal fascist capitalists, is operated. They will sacrifice all of you, and then remunerate and reward themselves massively. Ever notice? No matter how incompetently, criminally, stupidly, that neoliberal fascists run things, no matter if they bankrupt and ruin companies and institutions, they will pay themselves more than you and everyone you know will ever have. They never suffer, and never pay for anything in any way. I think there is a slow genocide underway. All they have to do is call themselves “job creators”. They certainly have created a bunch of “Jobs”.

  4. Ron Linker
    March 10, 2021 at 12:28

    the cheapest foods, cabbage, carrots and beans are served every day sometimes for all 3 meals. When the beans tray gets low they just add water. cream of wheat was called “grits”. Another item was “Texas Hash” but there was never any hash. I think it was there way of renaming cabbage.

  5. Anne
    March 10, 2021 at 12:02

    Mr Kiriakou I think there was something a couple of years ago, too, about dog food being served in prisons…Soy is good for you however. Asians eat much of it in many ways and it is far healthier for humans, the planet and the poor animals raised in those grotesque prisons called factory farms. But the composting of waste foodstuffs is good and then to use them to grow the fruit and veg that should be a goodly proportion of prisoners (and all people’s) diets is truly excellent and something that should be adopted by all prisons (BUT NOT as an exploitative, financial bonus for prisons…). It would also get prisoners out into the fresh air, giving them a beneficial connection to the earth, and perhaps expanding their horizons a little…

    Vis a vis the near to rotting fruit/veg…when I walk (since my husband died that is my mode of transport) to the nearest grocery store – a Neighborhood one, so I’ll leave it to you to recognize its ownership – I arrive when it opens. Often enough I see the produce shelf fillers checking out and removing the less than saleable toms, peppers, apples etc., etc. So I asked one of the friendly stockers what happened to the bruised, damaged, flecked, sometimes slightly molding items, and he told, sincerely, that they went to food banks…With this piece, I wonder. Or perhaps the better of the less than attractive produce goes to the food banks (after all, the attitude must be: they’re too poor to care) and the markedly unattractive goes to prisons….???

  6. Vera Gottlieb
    March 10, 2021 at 11:02

    Is there no end to the shamelessness of American businesses??? Is there ever an end to all the cheating? People with no integrity, no moral compass? But honestly…what is to be expected of a mentality that believes “cheating is OK, just don’t get caught”.

  7. ks
    March 10, 2021 at 10:23

    This is a huge issue and one that affects all of us as investors increase their death grip on our system of food production and supply. Thanks for using your unique position to help expose the ill-treatment of prisoners.

  8. John Rowland
    March 10, 2021 at 09:50

    In the 1950’s in my Canadian City, our local prison was producing all of its own food, and actually selling into the local market at a profit. The local food growers association got into the act, and lobbied the local (Provincial) government to have the prison farm shut down, so they did not have to compete.

    More recently, the Harper Government (Federal) shut down all the prison farms in Canada.

    The irony is that now, there are no prison farms, and most of our fresh food is imported from Mexico or California. (A small amount does come in from another province – BC)

  9. dfnslblty
    March 10, 2021 at 09:38

    A good look at the inhuman result of vulture capitalism.
    None should be treated in this manner.
    $$$ and avarice motivate privatization by govt – prosecute legislators who persecute We, The People.

    Keep writing.

  10. March 10, 2021 at 09:26

    Do you really think that saving money, or to correct criminals are motivations for the legal system? Don’t be naive. The legal system is the enforcer for the status quo:go to college, be indoctrinated, get married, buy a house and a new car, put yourself in debt, work for rich bossman making him richer, be obedient in every way, or you lose it all and end up in prison. The alternative is to join the military and be a murderer for hire, or to work minimum wage slave labor. We are a free country, and you must agree or go to prison. Prison is in no way corrective, is not a deterrent for crime, and is mostly filled with drug-related offenders. Many pleaded guilty to prevent worse sentences, and of them, many were innocent. You were a common criminal, and so was I. Where I was the food was somewhat better, but being that I have done research on the legal system, and have the courage to tell the guards what I know, and to admonish them and ask them how they can live with themselves, I was diagnosed with a mental illness, and forced to take chemicals which removed my appetite and willingness to exercise. After all, us criminals must be controlled. My crime was to write a book EXPOSING THE MONEY MACHINE which exposed who the powers really are, and which promoted socialism, debunked the medical and psychiatric fields, and exposed some repugnant policies of the US rulers.

  11. Patricia Tursi, Ph.D.
    March 10, 2021 at 09:15

    People in prison may be guilty of a crime or not. Either way, they are humans who deserve a healthy meal. All private prisons should be banned. Prison industries should not be free of taxes, or the pay from the industries totally confiscated for prison charges. “The Maine State Prison Showroom, still located on Route 1 in Thomaston, Maine (207-354-9237), is the largest retailer of over 600 crafted products, but there are also over 60 private vendors approved to resell prison-made goods throughout the State of Maine.” This is a good shelter for some industries who have a captive work force. It is wrong how it is handled, but working and learning a trade is a positive. It’s all in how it is handled.

    • Vera Gottlieb
      March 10, 2021 at 11:03

      The American mentality is: make a buck, not matter how.

    • Dwight
      March 10, 2021 at 15:43

      I agree. Growing healthy food would also be a positive. Artisanal organic sauerkraut, for example, looking at an item in my frig I’m blessed to be able to buy. Let prisoners grow and sell healthy foods to stores in their communities, and eat the same food. Feed their bodies and souls. The punishment is incarceration, it shouldn’t be malnutrition and other physical torments.

Comments are closed.