COVID-19 infections are surging across Massachusetts, especially in prisons operated by the state’s Department of Correction (DOC). Since the beginning of November, hundreds of people incarcerated by the Massachusetts DOC — including at least 13 percent of the people incarcerated at Massachusetts Correctional Institution–Norfolk — have been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Because COVID-19 is highly transmittable among people who share close quarters, outbreaks in prisons are difficult to contain once they begin. For people incarcerated by the Massachusetts DOC, the specter of a deadly disease has been exacerbated by another health care justice issue: a lack of consistent access to nutritious food.
The quality of food served to people inside prisons operated by the Massachusetts DOC has deteriorated since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. Over the course of several months, Eater has corresponded with numerous people incarcerated by the Massachusetts DOC — both currently and formerly — as well as lawmakers, prison abolitionists, and defense attorneys about the food within the state’s prisons. Each source described instances of inadequate or inedible food — small portions, cold, moldy, slimy, spoiled — being served to the state’s incarcerated population.
“The food they’ve been eating, forget about it,” said Cassandra Bensahih, a prison abolitionist who works as a coordinator with Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement and an organizer with Unitarian Universalist Mass Action Network. “The [Massachusetts DOC] gets too much money to not be able to feed nutritious meals to incarcerated people. These cats are so greedy, I could just scream.”
Bensahih, who was formerly incarcerated at MCI–Framingham women’s prison, also emphasized that the quality of food inside prisons operated by the Massachusetts DOC was subpar before the onset of the pandemic.
“I was diagnosed as diabetic while incarcerated [at MCI–Framingham],” said Bensahih in an email. “On a visit to a doctor, I discovered that my thyroid was too large and that I was diabetic at the same time. I cannot say that this was caused by their poor diet; however, I can say the food was terrible, and the answer to better nutrition for people with diabetes was one apple and one peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown bag for the day.”
Jasmin Borges, who was formerly incarcerated at MCI–Framingham and now works as an organizer advocating for prison abolition, said that she noticed a gradual decline in the quality of food over the course of her 12-year incarceration.
“At the beginning of my incarceration, in 2007, [the prison] would get food donations from local farmers — fresh fruits, veg, etc.,” said Borges. “But that disappeared without explanation.”
Borges said she worked on a maintenance crew while incarcerated at MCI–Framingham, helping to repair things that were broken throughout the prison. That job gave her access to the kitchen, where she said she witnessed frequent mismanagement. She said that food at MCI–Framingham was stored at incorrect temperatures; cross-contamination was evident; to her knowledge, no one working in the kitchen was ServSafe certified; and she witnessed “vermin and insects” present in the kitchen. “I also became severely ill after eating the food served at the inmate chow hall several times while incarcerated [at MCI–Framingham],” she said in an email.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson with the Massachusetts DOC told Eater via email that “The Department of Public Health and the Accreditation Standards Compliance Unit ensure that food service facilities and equipment within the DOC meet established public health and safety codes. These inspections occur at least once each year. DOC staff conduct weekly inspections of all food service areas, including dining and food preparation areas and equipment. Each day, food service personnel check and record refrigerator and water temperatures.”
Borges was released from MCI–Framingham in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but not before experiencing the deterioration of the quality of food served inside.
“It ended up going from three hot meals to two hot meals and one cold meal — which is a sandwich that consists of fake bologna, something that’s supposed to be cheese, and maybe some milk, a bag of chips, and a cookie,” she said.
Massachusetts state Sen. Rebecca Rausch, who represents the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex district, which includes constituents incarcerated inside MCI–Norfolk, said that her office has heard multiple reports of poor food quality inside the prison.
“Food quality in the prison system has been an issue for a very long time, but the pandemic has certainly exacerbated it, and [led to] a specific decline in food quality,” said Rausch. “We are informed that prisoners are not receiving frequent hot meals, and [meals] can be as basic as potato chips and sandwiches with processed meat for lunch. There’s been reports that vegetables are very difficult to access or just don’t exist as part of the diet, that certain constituents have not been receiving their medically necessary and court-ordered diets, which is obviously very concerning.”
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson with the Massachusetts DOC told Eater via email that “Nutrition plays an important role in personal health and the Department of Correction remains committed to serving food that meets the needs of every inmate. To support the health and safety of DOC populations, independent dieticians review menus regularly to ensure they meet well-established nutrition standards and public health officials certify that cooking areas comply with health and safety codes. All diets, including those tailored to therapeutic and religious needs, have continued providing for the needs of those entrusted to our care.”
Before the pandemic, a typical menu inside a Massachusetts DOC prison consisted of three hot meals (although several sources said that deviations were frequent before the pandemic as well). A Massachusetts DOC menu obtained by Eater shows that breakfast might consist of juice, hard-boiled eggs, toast with margarine, and coffee with milk and sugar; lunch might consist of American chop suey, green beans, bread with margarine, fruit, and juice; dinner might consist of chicken legs with gravy, mashed potatoes, carrots, bread with margarine, pudding for dessert, and juice.
Angelina Resto, a trans woman who was misgendered by the state and incarcerated at MCI–Norfolk — a men’s prison — said that the quality of the food in the prison was and continues to be horrible.
“The portions they feed you are not big enough, not even for my nephew who is two years old,” said Resto. The Massachusetts DOC told Eater via email that it “remains committed to providing all inmates with quality meals with appropriate portions to meet nutritional standards.”
In addition to being misgendered, forced to spend time in a men’s prison, and served low-quality food, Resto said that the quality of health care inside the state’s prisons is also inadequate. Resto, who is 55 years old, has been taking hormones since she was 13. When she was incarcerated at MCI–Norfolk, she alleges that she was denied her hormone treatment for nearly three months, which caused her to have withdrawals, nightmares, and a loss of appetite.
Low-quality food can exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions for incarcerated people. Dirk Greineder, who is a member of the MCI–Norfolk Lifers’ Group — a group of incarcerated men serving life sentences at MCI–Norfolk who advocate for issues like prison and parole reform, as well as restorative justice to help victims and survivors of crime heal and move forward — has been documenting life inside the prison during the pandemic. He wrote in May that “Dinners have devolved into routine cold cuts with chips, both excessively salty, [with] occasional carrot and celery sticks. Carrot sticks yesterday were slimy with mold. The meals are very high in processed food and salt, endangering anyone with high blood pressure.”
Thanks to a settlement agreement in a 1995 civil action that defined incarcerated diabetics as a class of people whose medical conditions require so-called therapeutic diets, the Massachusetts DOC is required to provide meals in accordance with standards developed by the American Dietetic Association (now known as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). The Massachusetts DOC’s food service policy states that “Each Superintendent shall develop written procedures regarding the preparation and provision of therapeutic diets.”
Dan Holland, who is incarcerated at MCI–Norfolk, and is diabetic, said that his hemoglobin A1c levels have risen since the onset of the pandemic. (Heightened levels of hemoglobin A1c are found in people with diabetes; as such, it is important for diabetics to control their hemoglobin A1c levels, as higher levels increase the risk for diabetes complications.)
Eater has been corresponding with Holland via mail and has seen a copy of a message from Holland’s nurse practitioner posted to a messaging service administered by Wellpath, which is a for-profit health care provider for prisons. Dated August 4, 2020, the message expresses concern that Holland’s hemoglobin A1c levels had risen since his last result and cautioned him to “eat a diet with low salt, and or no salt added” with “no concentrated sweets.”
Holland attributes the rise in his hemoglobin A1c levels to the Massachusetts DOC’s alleged failure during the pandemic to provide him and others with the appropriate therapeutic diets set forth by law and the Massachusetts DOC’s own food policy, writing that it’s due to “all the crap they were feeding the population over the previous months. I was doing everything else right except for diet.” If, as Greineder and Holland suggest, Massachusetts DOC prisons aren’t providing therapeutic diets to incarcerated individuals who require them, it would seem to be in direct conflict with the 1995 statute, as well as its own food policy.
The Massachusetts DOC spokesperson told Eater via email that “at the beginning of the pandemic, product availability and labor shortages necessitated substitutions to dietician-developed menus specific to unique dietary needs,” but said that neither therapeutic nor religious diets were “compromised or interrupted.”
Holland is the secretary of the food committee on the MCI–Norfolk Inmates Council, which is a group of people incarcerated inside MCI–Norfolk who act as a representative body for the prison’s incarcerated population. He has been keeping a detailed list of what he views as deviations from the standard and therapeutic menus, both before and throughout the pandemic. According to Holland’s notes, there were more than 30 deviations to the standard menu during a 15-day period from June 21 to July 5; during that same period, there were nearly as many deviations to the ADA menu. Holland sent Eater multiple lists of alleged menu deviations.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson with the Massachusetts DOC told Eater via email that “Inmates receive three nutritious meals each day. The menu is heart healthy, which is low in sodium, high in fiber, low in sugar and contains zero trans-fats. It includes fruit twice per day and two cups of vegetables per day.”
The Massachusetts DOC spokesperson also said that a “registered dietician reviews planned cycle menus on at least a bi-annual basis to ensure that food allowances meet basic nutrition standards as defined by several institutions.”
Another formerly incarcerated person, whom Eater granted anonymity due to the terms of his parole, said that he got sick after eating what he believes was expired chicken at MCI–Norfolk. According to him, another incarcerated person who worked inside the kitchen told him that a box of chicken that was meant to be served in the chow hall to the prison population began to smell as it defrosted, but that a correctional officer told him to cook it. He said he got diarrhea after eating the chicken, but that it didn’t surprise him.
Two lawyers Eater spoke with for this reporting who work with a Massachusetts-based organization called Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts that works on litigation, public policy and education, and administrative advocacy to promote the civil and human rights of incarcerated people in Massachusetts — with a focus on issues surrounding excessive use of force, medical and mental health care, conditions of confinement, and solitary confinement — detailed a long list of alleged grievances related to food and food service from incarcerated people they’ve spoken with during the pandemic.
Those alleged grievances include: reports of COVID-19-positive incarcerated people who requested immune-boosting foods, only to be denied and fed “mystery meat cold cuts,” “unidentifiable, inedible loaf,” and other highly processed foods instead; reports of rodent feces in food; reports of being fed rotten food for 10 straight days; and reports that the Massachusetts DOC ceased feeding special meals to prison populations with diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension during the pandemic.
Both lawyers said that some of these complaints are not new, but that they’ve gotten worse during the pandemic. They said that the denial of adequate food is a form of punishment for incarcerated people who are subjected to solitary confinement. According to the lawyers, incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people, and prison abolitionists Eater spoke with for this reporting, the Massachusetts DOC has used the pandemic to implement a kind of de facto solitary confinement for the majority of its incarcerated population, and the denial of quality, nutritious food is yet another form of punishment (one that is forbidden by the Massachusetts DOC’s own food service policy).
In addition to inadequate meals, many people incarcerated by the Massachusetts DOC have been locked down inside their cells or rooms for as long as 23.5 hours per day to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection, something prison abolitionists and incarcerated people liken to solitary confinement, and a tactic that has proven unsuccessful against the virus.
“The instinct for jailers, when something is happening and they don’t know what to do, the reflex is to lock people down,” said Lois Ahrens, founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which publishes writing and art made by incarcerated people, in June. “It’s not surprising. Oftentimes they’ll lock people down for a week if there’s a disturbance, but now it’s been for months.” (Eater spoke with Ahrens in June, several months after the lockdowns in prisons operated by the Massachusetts DOC began.)
According to Holland, the lockdown at MCI–Norfolk began on April 10 and lasted until at least June 13, when incarcerated workers were allowed to return to their jobs in the prison’s kitchen. Sources familiar with Massachusetts DOC operations told Eater the lockdown timeline has been roughly the same for the entire system.
Regarding the lockdowns, Bensahih said that she’s concerned that the entire Massachusetts DOC — which as of January 2020 incarcerated 8,292 people, of whom 1,297 were housed at MCI–Norfolk — has become one solitary cell.
“No judge sentences anyone to solitary,” said Bensahih. “It’s an administrative process used in prisons. We must fight back against this because it’s disproportionately used against Black, brown, and marginalized populations, like LGBTQ+ people. We want to do away with it because of the emotional stress and psychological strain it causes.”
Black and Hispanic people account for 54 percent of all people incarcerated by the Massachusetts DOC, despite accounting for just 21 percent of the state’s total population. The fight for food justice and health justice inside prisons operated by the Massachusetts DOC is a fight for racial justice.
Holland, along with several other sources that Eater corresponded with for this reporting, said that meals during the lockdown were mostly cold and consisted of cheap cold cuts, chips, cookies, canned fruit instead of fresh fruit, and other highly processed foods. “We barely had any warm meals at the start [of lockdown],” said Holland. “Prior to May, it was all cheap processed food. Potato chips with most every lunch and dinner, as well as plain lettuce.”
In a public records request dated May 24 and sent to Christopher Gendreau, the state food services director for the Massachusetts DOC, Holland requested the nutritional labels for a number of food items purchased by the prison. Holland sent Eater a copy of the request. He wrote “bought for staff” next to a line item for “whole turkey,” and “staff” next to a line item for “beef tenderloin tips,” two items Holland believes were purchased for prison staff with funds from MCI–Norfolk’s inmate food account. Holland included invoice numbers next to each line item.
Eater submitted a public records request with the Massachusetts DOC to review the invoices in question and can confirm that the two items were purchased by MCI–Norfolk from New England Foods on March 2, 2020, and March 9, 2020, respectively. It is unclear if the food was served to incarcerated people, or if it was purchased for staff use.
In a letter to MCI–Norfolk superintendent Nelson Alves, Holland referred to those purchases as “inappropriate expenditures from the inmate food account by kitchen staff.” On July 28, Holland submitted a formal request with the Massachusetts DOC’s internal affairs unit to investigate what he alleges was a misappropriation of funds, as well as MCI–Norfolk’s alleged failure to serve therapeutic diets to incarcerated people who require as much.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson with the Massachusetts DOC told Eater via email that “the allegation regarding misappropriation refers to a single event, under emergency circumstances, when it was necessary to make a one-time food order. That isolated order was addressed and corrected with no loss to the inmate food budget. The standard food ordering process remains in place, and the matter remains under investigation.” The spokesperson did not explain why it was necessary to make the one-time order, nor did they explain why the matter remains under investigation.
Sen. Rausch told Eater that her office had heard “sufficient concern” regarding “allegations of misuse of funds in the inmate food account” at MCI–Norfolk, and has opened an inquiry with the Massachusetts DOC. Such an inquiry does not require the filing of official documentation, and is therefore not subject to public records requests. The process is more informal — this kind of request for inquiry could be made over the phone, for example. As of publishing, the Massachusetts DOC has not provided Sen. Rausch’s office with an answer regarding the inquiry.
“Here at the height of the pandemic, where people are locked down, eating crap, and cannot even access the commissary — the guards are basically, what?” said Ahrens. “The same time as incarcerated folks were getting rotten bologna sandwiches, guards were ordering two months’ worth of food with money coming out of accounts meant for incarcerated food budgets. They were chowing down on whatever they wanted.”
Greineder’s letters from inside suggest that the lockdown within MCI–Norfolk eased somewhat in the middle of June; Holland’s written correspondence suggests the same. Incarcerated people were able to move about more freely, and those who worked jobs inside, including in the kitchen, were permitted to return to work. But Greineder wrote in late July that the food remains inadequate.
“Meals, which had marginally improved after prisoner workers returned, have substantially deteriorated during this month,” wrote Greineder on July 29. “Fresh fruit has disappeared, low-quality cold cuts and ‘chicken’ patties made from waste are replacing usual entrees, breakfast has been reduced to rice powder ‘rice krispies’ or grits, and every meal is missing substantial items from the required cycle menu. Food quality and nutritional adequacy has been severely curtailed during the entire lockdown, but inexplicably has reached a new nadir recently.”
The situation at MCI–Norfolk deteriorated further after an outbreak of COVID-19 in early November. In a letter dated November 1, Holland wrote that MCI–Norfolk had gone into a second lockdown. By November 14, the number of people incarcerated at MCI–Norfolk who tested positive for COVID-19 during the November outbreak was 178; as of publication, the total number since the onset of the pandemic is 309. Holland said that the food inside MCI–Norfolk had degraded yet again, likening it to the first lockdown.
“We are starting to see cookies, doughnuts, potato chips, puffed rice and corn flakes (in place of the approved wheat flakes), cakes, chicken patties, plain lettuce, cheese, fish (lesser quality), ‘gritty’ bologna and hot dogs, processed egg patties, dinner loaf, bag meals,” he wrote on November 1. “The only thing that is making it a little better is that there has been a halfway healthy side dish with almost each meal.”
In a letter dated November 10, Holland wrote that menus served during the current lockdown “started with an array of highly-processed foods” and are “very far from being diabetic friendly.”
The pandemic has resulted in intermittent and unpredictable lockdowns across prisons operated by the Massachusetts DOC and has exacerbated food quality concerns among its incarcerated population. The constant threat of becoming infected with a deadly virus, de facto solitary confinement, and being forced to eat low-quality food takes its toll. Jasmin Borges put it best.
“We are socialized around food. Our mother feeds us in the womb, then we’re socialized around food, meeting in restaurants, gathering to eat in bunches with friends and family. Then you get into prison, and you’re forced to eat in poor conditions and to eat the worst of the worst food. Meat that doesn’t look like meat, vegetables that don’t taste like vegetables. That on top of 23-hour lockdowns, and with a fear of possibly dying in prison.”
Terrence Doyle is a journalist based in Boston.
Edited by Jesse Sparks and Rachel Leah Blumenthal
Copy edited by Emma Alpern