A growing number of U.S. prisons are taking steps to shatter any illusion that the role of prisons is to rehabilitate rather than merely punish. Eliminating lunch on weekends is gaining ground. The New York Times recently reported that Texas prisons scrapped mid-day meals on Saturday and Sunday last April. Still available are “brunch” from 5 to 7 a.m. and dinner between 4 and 6:30 p.m. Then last month they chopped last meals for inmates scheduled for execution.
Texas is not alone in skirting American Correctional Association standards by reducing the number of meals served. Ohio, Arizona, Georgia and Indiana all operate their food services on reduced schedules. Georgia inmates go three days without lunch, Friday through Sunday.
Slashing food budgets may create other financial headaches. On October 11th, inmates in a privately operated Oklahoma prison rioted over the poor quality of food. Kentucky prisoners rioted in 2009 when they were served soup filled with worms and burritos containing human feces. That same year, inmates in a privately-run prison in Texas set fire to the facility to protest inadequate food and health care.
More Than Money at Stake
The practice of cutting meals or serving mediocre food seems like a simple budgetary issue, but the implications may be far reaching. A study of the impact of mild hunger on the decisions made by eight Israeli judges showed they made harsher parole decisions before meal breaks. After analyzing more than 1,000 decisions made by eight experienced judges over a period of 50 days, the researchers found, “The proportion of favorable rulings fell from about 65 percent to nearly zero during each session separated by the two food breaks, leaping back to 65 percent immediately after the breaks. If judges are influenced by mild hunger, prisoners surely are too.
A study currently underway in the U.K. is testing the link between poor diet and violence in prison populations. It is based on the findings of 2002 study showing that prisoners receiving nutritional supplements committed fewer violent offenses. The lead researcher, Bernard Gesch, says the link between behavior and diet is not new. Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso saw a connection between terrorism and poor diet in 1892. Many other studies showing links between diet and behavior are analyzed in a report called, “Changing Diets, Changing Minds: how food affects mental health and behaviour.”
The Impact Is Still Unknown
The impact of reducing the number of meals served to inmates has not yet been the subject of a study. So far the prisons reducing the number of meals are not reporting increases in behavioral problems. In an era of tight budgets, more prisons are likely to join the experiment.
Inmates who protest will not find much sympathy from Texas State Senator John Whitmore. The Democratic chair of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee responded bluntly to questions about the cuts: “If they don’t like the menu, don’t come there in the first place.”
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