Studies: Healthy diets tend to
reduce antisocial behavior,
mental health symptoms
Jokes about prison food are hardly new, but emerging research shows that the poor nutrition common in prison diets can lead to increased incidences of violence and mental health problems.
Conversely, better food and nutrition can improve conditions in prisons for both the incarcerated and those who work with them.
“When you watch TV shows about prison, it’s all about the fights. They never talk about our food,” said John Avila, who was formerly incarcerated, to the Arizona Republic.
Yet data show the two topics are related.
A series of scientific studies conducted in a variety of prison settings over several decades found a 30% decrease in violent incidents on average when nutrition was improved, according to a 2022 article in BBC Science Focus.
The BBC reports that this sharp reduction in violence is superior to the outcome of psychological-based treatments for violent offenders.
The studies used nutritional supplementation in randomized, blind, and placebo-controlled trials — considered the gold standard for medical research — in prisons to test the effects of addressing nutritional deficiencies, BBC reported.
“Anti-social behavior in prisons, including violence, is reduced by vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids …,” wrote Bernard Gesch of Oxford University, the lead researcher of one of the studies.
BBC reports that these conclusions are consistent with studies of children that link low intake of beneficial omega- 3 fatty acids to negative behaviors like physical aggression, defiance, and vandalism.
With little downside, relatively low cost, and other benefits to mental and physical health, the BBC article notes that improving food and nutrition in prisons appears to be a cost-effective way to reduce expenditures on health care and security in carceral settings.
This matches the conclusions of a report by Impact Justice titled Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison.
“Along with declines in physical health, nutrient deficiencies contribute to a wide range of mental health and behavioral issues, including depression, aggression, and antisocial behavior,” the report states.
Security and healthcare are the most expensive line items in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s annual budget.
California spends an average of $106,131 a year per incarcerated person, according to 2022 government figures. Of this, 31.7% goes to healthcare of all types and 42.3% goes to security while only 2.3% goes to food service. That’s about $3 a day per person for all three meals, although this number was recently increased to over $4 a day to account for inflation.
For context, the National School Lunch Program’s reimbursement rate of $3.66 per meal, as reported by the Arizona Republic in 2022, would equate to $10.98 a day. Another state-run institution, the California Department of Veterans Affairs, allocates about $8.25 per day to feed residents in its long-term care facilities as of 2020, as reported by Impact Justice.
According to CDCR’s operation manuals, the standardized menu used by its institutions follow a low salt, low fat, “Heart Healthy” diet consistent with the daily dietary guidelines issued by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine. The menu specifies 2,200 to 2,600 calories per day, assuming that a person eats all the items for all three meals.
The Impact Justice report, however, states, “Most prisons now rely on refined carbohydrates (e.g., white bread, biscuits, and cake) to reach the mandated calorie count, and many have turned to fortified powdered beverage mixes as the primary source of essential nutrients — a cheap but woefully inadequate alternative to nutrient-dense whole foods.”
Given all the money spent incarcerating them — more than the cost of an Ivy League education — some residents of San Quentin wonder why the food isn’t better and more filling.
Resident Martin Martinez said the food often doesn’t taste good and the portions are “happy meal-sized.” He said when he was incarcerated over ten years ago the portions were bigger, meaning he didn’t have to spend as much on canteen food.
“I was exercising and was in great shape, but now I’m afraid to work out because I’ll starve,” he said, explaining that he can no longer afford much at the canteen.
According to the Arizona Republic, this is common. “Starvation and poor-quality food send prisoners flocking to the commissary with the money their family sends or with the small sums earned through work,” stated the article.
Yet commissaries feature processed food loaded with sodium, trans fats, and sugary carbohydrates, which are widely known to contribute to high blood pressure and diabetes, among other problems.
At the end of 2019, CDCR rolled out the “Healthier Canteen program,” as noted in a 2022 report on the Inmate Welfare Fund by the Office of State Audits and Evaluations. The new program aims to promote “healthier eating through reduced pricing for healthier items, [educate] inmates about healthier eating habits, and [improve] the nutritional content of meals served at all institutions.”
Kimberley Wilson, the author of the BBC article and a former prison worker, observed, “The discussion around prison nutrition often becomes contentious in relation to philosophical conflicts as to whether the function of prison is rehabilitation or punishment. But whether or not you think offenders deserve quality food, the relationship between improved nutrition and overall prison safety is much less complicated.”
Norway is an example of a correctional system fully focused on rehabilitation. Their prisoners can purchase fresh groceries, access kitchens, and share meals with correctional staff, as reported in the New York Times Magazine. The country’s recidivism rates are among the lowest in the world, according to a study commissioned by the Norwegian Correctional Service.
“Given that 95% of incarcerated people are eventually released, their physical and mental health is ultimately a community and societal concern,” stated the Impact Justice report.