I wanted to have a better diet in prison. But when you have been deprived of your liberty, it can be impossible to make the “right” decisions.
This article is a commentary part of The Appeal’s collection of opinions and analysis.
For my entire adult life, I have been haunted by a family history of heart disease. My father and my uncle died of a serious heart attack at 46 and 27 years old. I’ll be 29 this year, and while that means I’m lucky to have outlived my uncle, the untimely deaths in my family constantly remind me that my biological clock is ticking way too fast.
Last year, my state of health almost degenerated into a real crisis. I was then incarcerated at the Fishkill Correctional Center in New York, serving the last year of my prison sentence. Even though I exercised daily, did my best to watch my diet, and took two different medications, my blood pressure reached its highest level ever.
Although I learned to avoid certain risk factors, prison deprived me of the ability to make the changes I would need to do so. I wanted to do more, but felt like there was nothing I could do to defuse the ticking time bomb in my chest. There was simply no way to avoid the harmful and pervasive prison conditions that were contributing to my skyrocketing blood pressure. This is the reality of incarceration: when you have been stripped of your freedom, agency, and choice, it can be impossible to make the “right” decisions.
Months earlier, I had decided to drastically change my diet by cutting out processed carbs and animal protein and eating as much fresh produce as possible. Basically, I wanted to go vegan. But I soon realized how unrealistic that would be while I was incarcerated.
Prisons are food deserts. Mess Hall meals generally contain very little nutritional value, and most thrifty ones offer little or no fresh food options. Most incarcerated people do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables unless their family brings or sends them. This is hardly a sustainable option. While I was in prison, families were allowed to send their incarcerated relatives two parcels a month, totaling 35 pounds. Many of our families are cash strapped and can’t afford to send enough fresh produce to support a vegetarian or vegan diet, but even if money weren’t an issue, the care packages wouldn’t be enough. not to feed you all year round. . But they were something.
The lack of access to good quality food forced me to make difficult decisions during my incarceration. I received my first misconduct report for possession of what the prison called “contraband”. They were vegetables from the refectory that were about to be composted. I was in the upstate correctional facility then and the commissioner had no fresh food options. I had just arrived at the establishment and I didn’t have much to eat in my cell. I was faced with a difficult choice: go hungry or break the rules. This is still the only way for most people to get fresh food in prison. You have to steal it or pay someone to steal it for you. What would you do?
Each facility sets its own rules regarding the food it provides, which means availability varies widely from prison to prison. Eventually, I was transferred to Franklin Correctional Institution, where there were better options and where I was able to maintain a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. The commissioner sold fresh potatoes and carrots as well as a frozen stir fry containing a variety of vegetables and mushrooms. The bananas were 18 cents, which isn’t as cheap as it sounds, considering the starting wage for an incarcerated worker in New York is only 16 cents an hour. More importantly, the prison allowed prisoners access to refrigerators. So when I got fresh produce in a package from my house, it took more than three days. It was the best a vegetarian could ask for under the circumstances.
While Franklin may have been better for my diet, the prison environment tested my health in other ways. Violence is the norm in Franklin: both prisoner against prisoner and officer against prisoner. The relentless brutality forced me to live in a constant state of alertness. I could barely sleep because I had seen people being cut, stabbed or sprayed with hot water while they slept. Some agents have turned the threat of violence into a sadistic game, especially if you make eye contact with them.
Eventually, I managed to get transferred to Fishkill Correctional Institution. Conditions there were a marked improvement over those at Franklin. However, my blood pressure started to climb. Fishkill’s commissary was the worst I’ve come across. The majority of food available consisted of empty carbohydrates filled with sugar. There were strict purchase limits on everything, even beans. More importantly, the Commissary offered almost no fresh produce. The closest you could get were raw onions, packaged corn, and fruit cups. I ended up becoming a pescatarian, not by choice, but by circumstance.
I was released from prison in February and now have access to a multitude of healthy foods. However, if I was still incarcerated, my situation would be worse than ever. In May, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision launched a new policy prohibiting inmates from receiving care packages directly from friends and family. Now, if people want to give their incarcerated loved ones food or other basic necessities – like toothbrushes, soap or underwear – they have to buy them from specified external vendors, many of which mark up the costs. Families can no longer bring packages during visits. All of this means that those inside have even less access than before to fresh foods like lettuce, spinach, strawberries and healthy bread. It also means the cost of sending a care package has skyrocketed, as families cannot buy them at their local supermarkets.
Although my release came before the directive was issued, I can only imagine what my state of health would be if I were still inside. I often think of the brothers and sisters I left behind and how they too may have the knowledge and desire to make healthy changes, only to be denied the chance to do so by a cruel new policy that locks them even deeper into a poisoned prison system. I feared for my life while I was incarcerated, and now I fear for theirs. Too many people never return home to their families.