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Prison Meal

The Marshall Project


Inmates at the Gordon County Jail in Calhoun, Ga. — according to a preliminary investigation by human rights attorneys last fall — are starving. The two meals a day weren't enough to sustain them, and some reportedly resorted to eating toothpaste and toilet paper. Inmates at the Montgomery County Jail in New York alleged that meager portions led to increased violence among the inmates; one inmate lost 90 pounds in less than six months. And a group of prisoners at the Schuylkill County Prison in Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming the portions they received are “not even enough to fill a 5-year-old child.”


Nutritional standards at state and local facilities are governed by a patchwork of state laws, local policies, and court decisions. A Texas law requiring inmates be fed three times in 24 hours, for example, only applies to county jail inmates, not state prisoners. Some jails and prisons require low-fat or low-sodium diets, while others mandate inmates receive a certain number of calories. All detention facilities must have a licensed dietician review their menus in order to be accredited by the American Correctional Association. The association recommends — but does not mandate — that prisons offer inmates three meals a day.


Budget-conscience legislators in a number of states, however, have proposed reducing the minimum number of meals down to two per day, and prison officials are increasingly outsourcing food service to private contractors to slash food costs.