The Role of Plant-Based Food in the Prison System

Food justice issues, like access to fresh, affordable ingredients, disproportionately affect communities of color. In jails, sheriffs and wardens reinforce this oppression by restricting inmates' diets and serving poor quality plant-based food as punishment.

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When Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion (XR), was released on bail recently to face trial for allegedly plotting to vandalize trade union office buildings, he complained that there had been inadequate vegan food available in jail. The Times leapt on the comment, running a story about Hallam’s charges with the headline, “Jail has no vegan meals, complains eco-activist Roger Hallam.”

Hallam may be an easy target for ridicule, having been excommunicated from XR this summer after angering the group’s German branch with some offensive comments on the Holocaust last year. After his departure, he helped found the farcical political party Beyond Politics. But none of that invalidates his point that vegan food should be readily available to people being held in police custody or in prison.

And in fact, British prisons and jails must provide for vegan inmates by law; as of January this year, veganism is an explicitly protected belief under the Equality Act 2010, the same as religious beliefs. This protection is not absolute, as Hallam’s complaint indicates, nor does veganism have legal protection everywhere in the world. In the U.S., judges in different jurisdictions have made different rulings on whether veganism is a protected belief, and therefore catered for in prison.

But the role of plant-based food in the prison system is more significant and complex than Hallam’s story makes it appear. 

Layers of oppression

Prison systems such as those in the U.S. and the UK share common ground with the industrial animal agriculture system. Former inmates have even likened their lives on the inside to those of farmed animals, while scholars have identified structural similarities between the two systems.

On an episode of the VGN podcast, athlete and vegan advocate Dominick Thompson, who spent time in prison as a young man, compared his experience of incarceration to the experience of farmed animals. “Animals are boxed in a very closed area, there’s infighting, they’re given food whenever they’re allowed to have food through their oppressor,” he said. “Pretty much everything that happens to farmed animals in the agricultural system happens to prisoners in medium to high-security [prisons].”

Thompson noted that prisoners are not sent to slaughter, injected with hormones or “other poisons,” or deemed as food. But in the U.S., they are, like farm animals, “deemed as property.” Christopher Sebastian, a researcher, lecturer, and Sentient Media senior fellow, explains what this means for prisoners. “In a very real, practical sense if not in the spoken sense, the system of incarceration that we have in the U.S. today is a system of de facto slavery,” he says. “You are still able to use these persons for whatever labor purposes that you want.”

Indeed, prison labor is legally required in America and can include prisoners being put to work in slaughterhouses. And exploiting one imprisoned group in order to exploit and kill another imprisoned group is perverse, to say the least.

But many of the links between the prison-industrial complex and the industrial food system are even more fundamental and affect people outside as well as inside prisons. The book Addressing Environmental and Food Justice Toward Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline, published in 2017, explores how the prison-industrial complex (PIC) and the industrial food system (IFS) in the U.S. are mutually reinforcing systems of oppression and disenfranchisement which disproportionately affect communities of color and other marginalized communities.

One of the ways these systems interact is through the diets of people of color living in underserved communities. Excluded from producing or accessing healthy, fresh food, these communities are plagued by health issues which can impact many other aspects of life such as social mobility and employment opportunities. 

A frighteningly similar level of food insecurity and injustice is replicated in the prison system, where a disproportionate number of people from those same marginalized communities end up. As Caitlin Watkins writes in her book chapter, “The subjection caused by the PIC and the IFS result in the decline of prisoner health. In this way, these industrial systems perpetuate the disenfranchisement of already overburdened populations through the use of food as a means of deprivation and punishment.”

Access to vegan food is not the same as food justice inside or outside the prison system. But accessing plant-based foods, particularly if prisoners forage or grow it themselves, can provide a way for prisoners to look after their own health and well-being. At the same time, it can enable them to avoid participating in the oppression and exploitation inherent to both the IFS and the PIC.

Half of the women Watkins interviewed said that they had foraged for food such as spinach and wild garlic in the prison grounds in order to obtain nutritious food. “This is the ultimate resistance to both the PIC and the IFS,” writes Watkins, “because the women were consuming food outside of the dominant paradigm for their health and well-being.”

Watkins also found that the gardening projects that were available to prisoners helped to provide them with fresh produce and improved the way inmates felt about what they ate. One of her interviewees described her love of vegetables and the gratification she felt after harvesting the food she had helped to grow. Some gardening programs have additional education and employment training components to help prisoners move into decent jobs once they return to society.

Vegan food: luxury or punishment?

Unfortunately, plant-based food is not always a force for good in prisons, as it can also be used as a form of punishment. Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who ran the infamous “concentration camp” jail in Maricopa County, cut meat from inmates’ meager meals in 2013, purportedly as a cost-saving measure. 

Time Magazine later reported that Arpaio’s decision to serve meat-free food caused the inmates’ to “suffer one further hardship.” In Sebastian’s view, “It was something he could do to dehumanize his prisoners.” 

Poor quality plant-based food is served in other prisons too, with carbohydrates of low nutritional value often making up the majority of an inmate’s diet. When Watkins interviewed previously incarcerated women in California, one of the prisoners “equated the environment of the prison dining hall to that of a Concentrated Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) in which animals are force-fed industrially processed commodity food items like corn and soy. She expressed that beyond feeling dehumanized, she felt like an animal in confinement.”

The type of plant-based food commonly available in prisons is thus in stark contrast with the perception of vegan food as a luxury lifestyle choice. By that view, withholding it from prisoners is only right and proper. “If we present prisons as something that is denying people luxury that is a form of retribution and retaliation against people who have committed a crime,” says Sebastian, “then denying them this privileged vegan food or plant-based food is part of their punishment.”  

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