JOHN KIRIAKOU: Animal-Grade Prison Food Indicts US Society

Prisoners in the U.S. face chronic hunger and illness due to substandard and disgusting food, as new Bureau of Prisons director Collette Peters reportedly battles bureaucracy to reform the system.

US prison food is continuing to detrimentally affecting inmates’ health and wellbeing. (Creative Commons/Pexel)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

 I’ve written in the past about an awful experience I had in prison a decade ago while serving 23 months in prison after blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program.  I was doing my time at the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania, a low-security prison in the Appalachian Mountains.  One of the very first things I found, on my very first day, was that the food was bad. Very bad. 

I arrived in prison on a Thursday.  The next day, Friday, was “fish day.” A fellow prisoner warned me to skip the fish. “We call it sewer trout,” he said. “you don’t want to put that in your body.” Sure enough, when I got in line in the cafeteria, I saw boxes stacked behind the servers. Every box was very clearly marked, “Alaskan Cod.  Product of China. Not for human consumption. FEED USE ONLY.” That’s what the servers were slopping onto our trays. 

Things only got worse from there. I won’t go into detail about the rat that drowned in the Kool-Aid dispenser. I suppose things like that will happen from time to time. But one incident still makes me angry 10 years later. Every Wednesday evening was “taco night.”  This disgusting concoction was ground beef, some sort of “sauce,” and a little onion. It was truly inedible and I threw it away more often than I ate it.

One day, guards posted a memo from the warden in every housing unit saying, “Sorry. Through no mistake of our own, the company that sends us the ground beef for tacos accidentally mismarked a shipment of dog food as ‘ground beef’. That dog food was served to inmates. The Bureau of Prisons will fine the company.”

I later read in Prison Legal News magazine that the company was fined and the BOP kept the money.  But the real shame here isn’t even that we ate dog food.  The real shame is that we didn’t even realize that it was dog food because the food is so bad every day. I can’t tell you how many expired foods we were served, still in the packaging, and how many years-old frozen bagels, dyed green for some previous St. Patrick’s Day, we were served every Sunday for a year.

Diet Leaves Prisoner’s Legs and Feet Swollen

Inmates are resorting to eating toothpaste and toilet paper to stave off hunger and supplement meager portions of poor quality prison food, it has been reported. (Rawpixel/Public domain) 

A new study by Impact Justice has found that this level of food quality is consistent in federal, state, and local prisons across America. The report says that,

“Like every other aspect of life in prison, the food is dreary and monotonous and, with rare exceptions, relentlessly bad: two slimy pieces of bologna sandwiched between flimsy slices of white bread, a packet of mustard, and a handful of potato chips one day; two boiled hot dogs, the same white bread, and a scoop of under-baked beans the next.  There are concoctions too similar to differentiate, in which chunks of mystery meat swim in a dull gravy, sometimes atop mushy white rice, or a clump of pasta with the same watery tomato sauce week after week.”

In 2019, prisoners in Nevada complained to state officials that the food they were being served was unhealthy, of poor quality, highly-processed, and too high in fat and sodium.  The state’s response was to cut portion sizes.  Last week, with prisoners quite literally starving from the meager portions, a local newspaper reported that many prisoners were eating toothpaste, salt, and even wet toilet paper to try to stave off the hunger. 

A former prisoner told the paper when he was released from a Nevada minimum-security work camp that a doctor told him that his legs and feet were swollen because of the poor diet that he had for the six years that he was imprisoned.  What he was given may have met state standards for “nutrition,” but maybe the problem is with the state standards.

When the newspaper first brought the issue to public attention last week, a spokesman for the Nevada state Department of Corrections said,

“There’s a diet.  It may not be what we want, but a dietician reviews is, saying that it’s the vitamins and requirements, at a minimum, that you need.” 

I wonder if he knows about the dog food or the Chinese “Alaskan” cod animal feed. I wonder if his legs and feet are swollen or if he’s malnourished.

New Bureau of Prisons Director ‘Wants to Do Right Thing’

US Attorney General Merrick Garland officiates the investiture of Colette Peters as the 12th director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons on August 2, 2022. (Bureau of Prisons)

I had occasion last week to have dinner with another former federal prisoner. He said that he had tweeted so regularly about the poor conditions in American prisons that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) finally asked him to come on as a paid advisor. One of the first issues he raised was that of food quality. He told me that the new director of the BOP, Collette Peters, genuinely wanted to do the right thing. 

He said her tenure as head of the Oregon Department of Corrections was successful and that she implemented positive changes there. But he went on to say that Peters is up against an entrenched bureaucracy at the BOP. It’s a bureaucracy that sees her as an outsider trying to push career BOP officials aside. They’re doing whatever they can to block her reforms, waiting until she finally resigns or is fired, so they can then go back to business as usual.

That means that the rest of us have to keep up the fight. Outrage is motivating. We shouldn’t be proud that prison food in some of the worst countries in the world is better than what we have here. We’re supposed to be the greatest country in the world, right? We have to fight it. Either Mahatma Gandhi or former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, depending on what source you use, said, “The measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members.”  The prison system, and prison food, certainly indict our society.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He 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: Animal-Grade Prison Food Indicts US Society

  1. Nathan Mulcahy
    September 19, 2023 at 15:40

    It’s over, done …. with this country….. with this shining city on the hill ….

  2. Vera Gottlieb
    September 19, 2023 at 09:36

    Instead of elegant food for politicians at Capitol Hill – serve them this garbage for them to ‘enjoy’.

  3. Me Myself
    September 19, 2023 at 02:17

    No person can say with a straight face that prison is not a form of torture.

    The people responsible for social management need a dose of their own medicine.

    Just like Jack Nicholson said “The government can’t handle the truth” in A Few Good Men, so they jail people for saying it.

    Torture is still the name of the game.

    Been there done that.

  4. Tony
    September 18, 2023 at 21:54

    This is truly sickening.

    How many of these prisoners actually get a trial rather than a plea bargain?

  5. Rafi Simonton
    September 18, 2023 at 19:51

    Prison “Meritocracy”

    Apparently Mr. Kriakou’s crime was so heinous he didn’t merit a Club Fed. My ex was an elected state official and contractor who was discovered because he received payoffs from a company doing the same for Spiro Agnew. The ex served his time in a place for high level well connected “non-violent” crooks like shady businessmen and politicians. The only non-whites were a Black millionaire drug dealer/real estate developer and a Mexican-American banker/money launderer.

    He and ex-MD Gov. Marvin Mandel found enough other Jewish guys to form a minyan. Claiming it was part of their religious tradition, they had very good kosher food delivered on Fri–some of which was flown in. Others found similar reasons, such as health restrictions, for getting special food or whatever. All had access to the niceties provided by the prison like tablecloths and phones, which were available on each wing. Absolutely unheard of in prisons for the non-privileged.

    My ex thought it was ridiculous; grossly unfair. He said white collar crime could be drastically reduced by throwing them in with the general prison population. And perhaps conditions might improve since these important people likely would be believed.

  6. CaseyG
    September 18, 2023 at 16:46

    A person commits a crime and—they go to prison.
    A prison gives the inmates uneatable food, so that many are afraid to eat the “Whatever is it? ” that is served.

    Perhaps it is the staff of the prisons which needs to be incarcerated?

  7. Jeff Harrison
    September 18, 2023 at 13:47

    Shining city on the hill, indeed.

  8. HM
    September 18, 2023 at 12:46

    Which company supplies the food to that prison? Does it have any links with prison food suppliers in the UK?

  9. Alex Cox
    September 18, 2023 at 11:36

    Thank you for this report. It was a great injustice that you had to ‘do time’, but as a result, like Craig Murray, you are giving us valuable insights into the prison industrial complex.

    • Mike
      September 19, 2023 at 12:09

      Good point. Wonder why Assange had a stroke?…

  10. Greg Grant
    September 18, 2023 at 10:05

    I often wondered about this, thanks for the cogent insider scoop.
    Is it different from women’s prisons?
    I watch this show Love After Lockup, it’s one of those shows you hate but can’t stop watching.
    I’ve noticed that female prisoners almost invariably come out of prison overweight.
    Doesn’t matter what they look like when they go in, they weight like 50-100 pounds more when they come out.
    Reading this article it seems there should be no better diet than going to prison.

  11. Valerie
    September 18, 2023 at 09:35

    And another example of cruelty visited upon inmates unfortunate enough to be incarcerated there:

    “Kenneth Smith is one of two living Americans who can describe what it is like to survive an execution, having endured an aborted lethal injection last November during which he was subjected to excruciating pain tantamount, his lawyers claim, to torture.”

    “Nine months later Smith has been singled out for another undesirable distinction. If the state of Alabama has its way, he will become the test dummy for an execution method that has never before been used in judicial killings and which veterinarians consider unacceptable as a form of euthanasia for animals – death by nitrogen gas.”

    “Alabama has announced its intention to become the first state in the nation to kill a prisoner by forcing him to breathe pure nitrogen. The attorney general has asked the state supreme court to set a fresh execution date for Smith using the untested system.”

    From an article in the Guardian 2nd September

    Mr. Kiriakou’s and this article read like something out of the middle ages.

    • Litchfield
      September 18, 2023 at 17:32

      It is a horror to read of an “experiment” on a living person in order to kill him.

      What has the USA come to.

      What is the shtick with nitrogen gas anyhow?

      Can’t they give a morphine injection to end this man’s life gently?

      Or, just bag the execution.

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