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Food Insecurity in Prison Makes People Like Me Vulnerable to Labor Exploitation

The inadequacy of prison food exposes us to forced labor and sexual abuse in our desperation for adequate nutrition.

Food Insecurity in Prison Makes People Like Me Vulnerable to Labor Exploitation

The inadequacy of prison food exposes us to forced labor and sexual abuse in our desperation for adequate nutrition.

Since my incarceration began in 2004, I have been housed at three different women’s facilities in Georgia. During the first 15 years, I have often been pat-searched as I leave dining halls to ensure I’m not in possession of any food from my tray. At the end of each shift, kitchen workers were formerly required to throw away pans and pans of unserved food. Knowing that food was being intentionally wasted, people often tried to smuggle an item from our meager portion back to our cellblock for later. But this was prohibited, and if discovered, could have resulted in a write-up for theft, and lead to sanctions or isolation. The message was clear: You are not worthy of fulfillment. Incarcerated people must stay in a perpetual state of need, desperate for their humanity and vulnerable to coercion and abuse.

A lot has changed over the last five years in women’s services in Georgia prisons. The food service is no exception. It has never been good, but now it is deplorable. For one thing, the portions are always shamefully small. As a result of grave issues with food storage in prisons, I have personally seen roach legs in cornbread and rats climbing over the dry goods in the warehouse.

Additionally, the meals are poorly prepared — beans are half cooked, eggs are scorched and everything is cold. The food is sometimes inedible and always difficult to swallow. No one is searched leaving the dining hall anymore. There is a staff shortage in the Department of Corrections, so there isn’t enough staffing to micromanage meal times, but no one takes food from their tray unless they absolutely have nothing else to eat. Anyone who can will avoid meals altogether by eating commissary food or food from their work details.

Commissary items — honey buns, chips, candy bars, instant beans, rice, ramen noodles and soda — can be purchased once a week and play a huge role in an incarcerated person’s diet and in prison culture. The store supplements the meals provided by the state in taste, sanitation and quality. But they also result in a devastating lack of fiber and nutrients. Incarcerated people are desperate for food that cannot be found in the commissary or in the kitchen, such as fresh fruits and vegetables or unprocessed meat.

It’s strictly against policy for anyone to give an incarcerated person any personal item, including food. Most work detail supervisors follow this rule to the letter, while others are more inclined to sympathize with a person who works day in and out without pay. You may be hard pressed to find an incarcerated person who hasn’t eaten out of the trash. It’s a common practice for detail officers to intentionally leave half-eaten food in their waste baskets and then ask “their inmates” to come change the trash. On some work details, cleaning out a refrigerator or getting leftovers from a staffing event is equivalent to hitting a jackpot and will motivate an incarcerated person to seek work, in some cases, for a lifetime.

These abuses are possible because of persistent scarcity and deprivation in the prison system. Unmet needs motivate incarcerated people to work without pay and compromise their dignity. Some would argue that it’s just the nature of criminals to steal and degrade ourselves for scraps. But this argument can only be made by someone who has never been in a similar situation. The desire for a stable food source is a basic human need, and the carceral system operates by exploiting that desire, saving itself millions of dollars by feeding millions of people leftovers and stale popcorn.

In the state of Georgia, work for an incarcerated person may be forced, and 99 percent of all prison labor is unpaid. (One small exception: Union Supply Company employs 18 women who earn a federal minimum wage but are forced to pay room and board for their meals and contribute to victim services, leaving them with half of their earnings.) Almost every incarcerated person depends on financial support from home. People who do not receive money from home will often work for other residents who do, performing chores such as hand-washing laundry or tennis shoes, and providing services like sewing, writing motions to file in court or braiding hair. Being in a perpetual state of deprivation compels workers to pursue these opportunities. Work is the only path that has ever led to extra, or better, food, though never quite enough.

Many incarcerated workers are rewarded for … tasks with a promise of a quarterly incentive meal provided by the state.

Having a detail provides the opportunity to gain access to food or incentives, such as office supplies, that can be consumed or bartered for what a person needs. This often includes transactions between individual staff members and the residents that have been assigned to essentially do staffers’ jobs. Work in this sense looks like everything from electrical work, to keeping the books and even sexual favors. (An alarming amount of sexual abuse allegations are reported between food service workers and incarcerated kitchen workers, where incarcerated people are the most vulnerable due to the absence of provisions for their basic needs. Over the years, at every facility I have been in, I have heard countless stories of women getting involved with male staff because they would bring them gum or snacks or maybe a slice of pizza.)

In-house prison work uses 80 percent of the total prison labor force, which would amount to an estimated $9 billion of equivalent hired labor. The conditions of these work assignments are poor and even dangerous due to chronic scarcity of necessary supplies or protective equipment. The workloads often exceed safety regulations and sometimes result in permanent injury.

Yet, many incarcerated workers are rewarded for these tasks with a promise of a quarterly incentive meal provided by the state or the elusive “Warden Bag” that is distributed for exceptional behavior. A Warden Bag consists of $10 worth of (mostly expired) snacks. In the position of scarcity and unfulfillment, many incarcerated workers labor in the hopes of receiving these small rewards. Over the course of the last 20 years, I have kept the grounds, washed clothes, shined floors, scrubbed toilets, prepared food, unloaded trucks, painted walls, repaired plumbing and hauled trash. These work detail assignments required around 40 hours of labor each week. Such assignments are a common aspect of prison life.

My longest stint, lasting for almost 10 years, has been as a teacher’s aide. It’s one of the in-house support jobs that require an extra level of skill and education that can be used to supplement the role of non-security staff, such as teacher, librarian or food service worker, within the institution. In most cases, the teacher is a state employee on salary, and is assigned a resident, or two, to do their job. After earning high scores on the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), which is given to incarcerated people entering any educational track in the prison system, I was assigned to teach math to other residents who were preparing to earn their General Education Development diploma equivalent.

I was required to make lesson plans, teach class, assign homework, grade papers, administer tests, keep attendance, order supplies, manage the budget and clean the classroom. During this time, I worked for a slew of educators who were able to read novels, plan weddings, cross stitch, nap — and earn $60,000 to $80,000 annually thanks to my labor. They even received promotions, bonuses and appreciation awards for the passing rates and stellar records of residents, while my labor went unrecognized.

The staff members that are assigned incarcerated workers often appear to act as if the humanity of these workers begins and ends with their labor. Once, an educator I worked for entered a hallway full of residents and said, “My God, I just wish I could load you all up in a bus and take you to my house.” Everyone smiled, some cheered until she continued: “I need so much work done in my yard. Y’all could fix it right up.”

I clearly remember the last day that I worked for this educator. I was grading homework assignments as she sat beside me, talking and eating. When she had scooped the last shred of carrot from her salad, she said, “Hey Simmons, do you want to take my bowl and wash it in the bathroom?” Confused, I asked her if she wanted me to wash her takeout container. She said, “I mean, I thought you might want to, wink, wink, wash it for me.” I asked her to please clarify what she wanted me to do. She said, “Well, I know sometimes Princess (her dog!) just likes to taste it.”

It took a few moments for it to sink in: She was suggesting that I would want to take her empty plastic dish into the bathroom and lick the Italian dressing mixed with her saliva from the bottom, like her dog. Perhaps it wasn’t a malicious suggestion, but her version of kindness — a payment of sorts in return for doing her job — was horrifying. My emotions spiked, and the room began to spin. I would’ve liked to ask her why she thought I would have any desire to do that, or point out it was one of the most degrading things anyone has ever said to me. But for hours, I was speechless. I cried myself to sleep.

Being in prison already has adverse psychological ramifications for incarcerated people. The additional punishment of needing to constantly labor in a vain attempt to ease our hunger only deepens the suffering. It can lead to physical disabilities that result from years of back-breaking work. Spending years in a workforce with little to no pay gravely reduces our chances of a successful reentry. This essentially leaves the unfree laborer physically compromised and mentally and emotionally damaged from years, if not decades, of coerced labor. Labor that is compelled by the basic need and desire for adequate nutrition, or mere satiation, is especially unjust. This pressure to work while deprived of the most elemental human need is a farce of rehabilitation.

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