Three state prisoners in Oregon have filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court against four of the state's prisons, saying that they were forced to eat fish and chicken intended to be animal feed or "bait food," as well as spoiled milk and other moldy, rotten or inedible food. The suit accuses the Department of Corrections of civil rights violations and "deliberate indifference to health and safety."
The three state prisoners, who were granted class-action status to represent all prisoners in the four accused prisons, told the court that immediately prior to state health inspections, prison administrators directed them to clean up kitchens and to remove "not for human consumption" food, green meat, and moldy, spoiled food to mobile refrigerator and freezer trucks elsewhere on the compound, only to return the food to the kitchen after the inspection was over. One of the prisoners said she witnessed the delivery of food marked "not for human consumption" being prepared and served to her and her fellow prisoners. In stark contrast, she said, she was ordered to prepare "prime beef roasts" for prison staff.
The complaint says that prisoners were often nauseated during and after meals and that they suffered stomach and intestinal pain and discomfort. The prisoners are seeking unspecified economic and non-economic damages, including punitive damages.
The unfortunate aspect of this story is that this is the norm, not the exception. Aramark, the well-known food service company that was named one of the most ethical companies in the world in 2015, nonetheless was sued and sanctioned repeatedly that year for, among other things, serving prisoners food that had been thrown in the trash; serving prisoners food that had been covered in maggots; and serving prisoners cake that had been partially eaten by rats. When confronted with the reports, an Aramark spokesman said, "I'm not going to comment on an allegation from eight months ago that is one of hundreds of allegations made by special-interest groups against our company and our hardworking employees."
Similarly, in what it described as "an unfortunate accident," John Soules Foods Incorporated, which calls itself "America's Leading Fajita Brand" on its website, served dog food to prisoners in Texas that it says it had accidentally labeled as "ground beef." After the Food and Drug Administration investigated the company over the course of six years, it admitted guilt, paid a fine to the U.S. Treasury of $392,000, and promised to be more careful next time. There were no criminal charges against anybody, and no restitution of any kind was made to the prisoners, one of whom mused that the scandal of the situation wasn't even that they were fed dog food -- it was that they didn't even realize it was dog food because the food is so bad to begin with.
I wrote in my "Letters from Loretto" blog series from prison about my first Friday lunch in the prison cafeteria. My first full day in prison was a Friday. One of my cellmates said that Friday was fish day, to which I replied, "Great. I love fish." He looked at me and said, "Not this fish. Nobody eats it. You shouldn't either." I went to the cafeteria and got in line. When I approached the serving line, I saw the boxes that had held the fish stacked up. They were clearly marked, "Not for Human Consumption. Feed Use Only." Others were stamped "Alaskan Cod. Product of China. For Sale in Asia Only." I never tried the fish in my two years in prison.
There's no easy fix to this problem. Let's face it: There's no "prisoner lobby" on Capitol Hill. Most American voters don't care if prisoners eat food that had first been nibbled by rats. Everybody wants to "get tough on crime," right? The only solution is to do what the Oregon prisoners did. Sue the bastards. Organizations like the Human Rights Defense Center and the American Civil Liberties Union have been dogged in doing just that. And they've been moderately successful.
The bottom line is that prison administrators will always try to cut costs, and those cuts almost always come in medical care and food. Similarly, private, for-profit prison executives do exactly the same thing so they can deliver savings to their shareholders and collect bonuses for themselves. The rest of us have to fight for the rights of those who can't defend themselves. The courts are the only places to do that.
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