Prison Food: What and Where Are Inmates Eating?

Prison Food: What and Where Are Inmates Eating?

There are more than two million people currently incarcerated in the United States. In fact, our country holds about 20% of all incarcerated people worldwide. 

With so many people living in prison, one must wonder how and what we feed them all! If you have a loved one who is currently an inmate, you likely have many questions, especially regarding prison food options. 

Have you wondered what meals look like in prison? Or how much can prisoners eat?  

Keep reading to find the answers to these questions and more! 

What Do Prisoners Eat?

Each inmate will receive three meals a day. Meals and portion sizes are pre-selected and served on identical trays. If an inmate is still hungry, they may not go through the line again, but most prisons offer a self-serve salad bar at meal times and snack foods in the prison commissary.

Purchasing food and hygienic items from the prison commissary requires real-world money. Prisoners can have money sent to their commissary account via check or earn money from in-prison jobs. Commissary food is mostly snacks like chips, candy, tortillas, and ramen noodles, but many inmates say it is preferable to prison cafeteria food. 

Is Prison Food Bad?

In TV and movies, prison food is usually depicted as tasteless, messy, and lacking nutritional value. In reality, prison food is generally not bad, although experiences vary between prisons. 

Most often, inmates complain about the portions and sizes of their meals rather than the quality of the food. Portion sizes are predetermined, and inmates may not get back in line for more food. Some inmates lose weight during incarceration, but weight gain from high-calorie food is more common. 

Most prison food is highly processed and contains a lot of sodium and preservatives. These foods aren't great for long-term health, but they are nutritious enough to survive while in prison. 

What Do Meals Look Like?

Some people consider prison meals to be better than school lunches. The three daily meals usually consist of protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, and fruit or dessert. The general cost of a prison meal ranges between $0.50 and $3.00. 

These won't be Michelin five-star meals by any means, but they are safe and relatively healthy. Some examples of prison meals might include:

  • Breakfast: toast with margarine, eggs, fruit cocktail
  • Lunch: baloney sandwich, corn chips, salad bar
  • Dinner: meat and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, peach cobbler 

Coffee, juice, and milk are commonly available at meal times. Inmates can access drinking water at meals and in their cells, usually from a water fountain over their toilet. Many prisons restrict sugary beverages like juice, soda, and tea because inmates can easily ferment these liquids. 

Who Cooks the Food?

If you or a loved one will be new to prison, remember not to insult the cook. Prison food is made by prisoners for prisoners. The food itself is often manufactured and packaged by prison laborers before it is sent off to other prisons.  

The Federal Bureau of Prisons tries to maximize profits and minimize expenses, so employing inmates to clean the kitchen and cook meals is common. For internal work like cooking and serving lunch, inmates are paid between 12 and 40 cents per hour. 

Where are Meals Served?

Prisons will serve all three daily meals in the dining hall unless a prisoner is in solitary confinement or other special placement. Dining halls have a serving line and multiple tables with seats or benches. Tables and seats are usually bolted to the floor for safety. 

Meal times in prison are more than a biological necessity; they are also a chance for inmates to socialize. However, mealtimes can also create tension between prisoners and their social groups. Inmates are territorial about tables, which are often claimed based on racial grouping, gang affiliation, or seniority. 

Food Allergies and Special Diets

Inmates with food allergies and special dietary requirements must speak with jail staff to ensure their allergy is on record. Unfortunately, cases of allergic reaction and even death are not uncommon among prisoners.

Allergies and Religious Restrictions

After a medical professional validates a food allergy, the inmate should receive special meals and utensils. Prison compliance with religious dietary restrictions may vary between states, but prison staff will generally honor legitimate diet requests for religious reasons. Foods will still be as similar as possible to the ordinary plated meal, but some items will be adjusted or removed. 

Other Reasons

If there is not a verified medical or religious reason, the prison is not obligated to meet an inmate's request. For example, prisoners on a vegan or vegetarian diet plan may not have their wishes granted. Some policies are in motion for public facilities to provide more meatless options.  

Even if they are not granted special meals, inmates could still choose not to eat certain foods. However, prison staff may intervene if the inmate is clearly starving themself or losing significant weight. 

Prison Food Survival Tips

If someone you know will soon be chowing down on prison food, here are some top tips to help them survive prison mealtime:

  • Don't insult the cooks 
  • Sit at a table with similar people
  • If you sit at the wrong table, simply apologize and move
  • Avoid debts; don't accept, borrow or buy food from inmates
  • Avoid eating too many commissary snacks
  • Don't talk about commissary money
  • Exercise as much as possible

Board Behind Bars

If you or a loved one are going to prison soon, try not to stress about food options. Prison food isn't always ideal, but it will be enough to fuel their body, and eating regular meals will help them pass the time every day. As long as inmates keep to themselves, drink lots of water, and savor their desserts, they'll be just fine. 

Are you interested in learning more about how inmates live while behind bars? Looking for information about a particular inmate or prison facility? 

Jail Exchange is your trusted source for free information about inmates, city and county jails, and federal and state prisons. We can help you find an inmate anywhere! To get started, just click here!