One of the often overlooked aspects of mass incarceration is that, as Erika Camplin puts it, “we as a nation are effectively feeding around 2 million mouths at least three times over each and every day.” Prison food has always been a problem; we even had a conference about it nine years ago. What I remember from the conference is that the CDCR nutritionist spoke on one of the panels and showed slides of prison meals that looked decent enough; under pressure from audience questions, however, she admitted that the slides were doctored, and then lashed out, “these people are monsters.” The rest of the panelists, most of whom were prison and jail doctors, immediately said, incensed, “that’s a lie.”

The pandemic has let things drop far beneath even that already low baseline. During the big outbreak in San Quentin, kitchen workers became infected and fell ill, which led, for several weeks, to serving the men an extra lunch in lieu of a hot dinner (to make up the missing calories.) We now learn from reports of people inside that the same, and worse, is happening at other institutions.

The email chain in the image above is making the rounds on Twitter; I don’t know who sent it around, but here is the text, reproduced. The printout is stamped as “Pelican Bay State Prison, Security Housing C-8.” The first email in the chain is from a Bryan Price to a Chad Parry, CC’ing a David Barneburg. I looked Barneburg up, and it looks like he’s Associate Warden at Pelican Bay. Price writes:

Hey Chad how’s your night going.

Well as for here, it’s not going to good. The inmate are starting to act out over the food and I don’t blame them. I thought when we cut one of their hot meals like dinner. In the past we have given them two lunches for dinner to make up for the calorie lost. Right now they got six crackers, two cookies, a small bag of pretzels, block of cheese and a drink mix. They also got 1 peanut butter, banana and a jalapeno. It is hard to believe that two of these lunches and the breakfast meal has the calories that is due to them. I the memo it states they will be getting box lunches with fruit, milk and juice.

So my question is, is this right because it does not seem right. The same lunch they saw this morning is the one they got for dinner. Hope there is something we can do. I think it’s going to get really bad really fast around here.

Any help in this matter would be greatly appreciated.

Out of the obvious awfulness of the whole thing, for some reason I find myself stuck on the mystery of the jalapeño. What is someone who can’t cook, and who has no access to vegetables, supposed to do with a single jalapeño? Is it cooked? Canned? Pickled? Frankly, I’m not sure the problem is only or even primarily the calories (snacks, peanut butter, and the “drink mix” probably pack a punch of calories)–the serious problem is the nutritional content, which seems sorely lacking.

Chad’s response:

Hey Bryan, that’s the correct meal. They were supposed to get the extra stuff you mentioned… not sure what is planned for tomorrow.

Kim, anything we can do to improve upon this meal? The fellas aren’t enjoying it much…

Thank you

Several family members and friends chimed in the relevant twitter thread. One person reported that she received a letter from someone at VSP who reported that “they are receiving 8 tablespoons of food per meal.”

I’m unsure whether this is garden variety incompetence or pandemic-related; the dinner shortage mentioned in the first email suggests the latter. This is pure conjecture, but the numbers of infected staff have shot up, which could explain kitchen worker shortage. I’m also unsure who leaked this printout; it features pretty feeble efforts to mask people’s names, but not their emails, so the names were easily readable.

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