Restorative justice workers contend with a public health crisis that persists long after inmates are released

Wearing a red jacket on an overcast March morning, Gary Thomas is the first to speak in the rough circle at the Partnership for Re-Entry Program (PREP) headquarters.

“Absolutely, my health went down because of the poor nutrition we got in prison. I developed coronary artery disease. I got a total of 15 stents before I had a heart bypass and 11 after the bypass. One of my arteries was 99 percent blocked due to cholesterol. Had to have surgery and be repaired with part of a bovine heart. I had an aortic aneurysm, and they had to repair that. They had to put two more stints in my lower abdomen. Now that I’m out, I work every day. I’m 70 years old, and if I don’t keep going, if I stop now, it’s all over.”

Thomas gives this medical report with a country twang and easy chuckle at the end. He served 30 years of a life sentence in eight different California prisons. 

PREP, a restorative justice ministry of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is housed on the first floor of a long-past-its-prime 2 1/2 story, blue-with-brown-trim Victorian in South LA. 

That is where Thomas and seven co-workers, all having served lengthy prison sentences, have left their computer stations to talk about a matter the Prison Policy Initiative called last year a hidden “public health problem.”

“When they started feeding us nothing but chicken or turkey products, it just got so old it was nasty,” Thomas went on. “So, a lot of guys ate from the commissary and vending machines. You could buy Top Ramen soups and mix that with different cheeses and meats to supplement that soup and make it last longer and a lot tastier to boot.”

One might argue prison meals have changed in the 34 California prisons that house 130,000 inmates since this “lifer” gained his freedom 3 1/2 years ago. But Tony Kim, the youngster in the group, readily disputes this. In his baseball cap and gray sweatshirt, he looks at least 10 years younger than his actual age of 50. 

“I supplemented my meals like Gary because one of the major issues at Stockton [prison] when I was there were grievances about the kitchen because of the way they prepared the food and the small portions,” says Kim, who just got out four months ago after serving 32 years in five prisons — and developed diabetic neuropathy along the way.

When his doctor recently asked him if he was a vegetarian because he was vitamin B-12 deficient, Kim says he replied, “No. Not by choice.”

Alfred Cruz, 60, is nodding. “Sure, it affected my health,” he points out, looking across the circle at me. 

“It’s hard to maintain a hard immune system when your body’s not receiving the right nutrition. I got hepatitis C in there, and TB (tuberculosis), and Valley fever. So, it’s hard for your body to fight when you’re not getting the right nutrition, the right vitamins. And with their medical system, if you do get sick, it’s hard to get any help.”

Cruz served nearly 30 years in five California prisons. He also passed on many institutional meals. Instead, he would get together with two or three inmates, with one buying tortillas, another some chili beans and another a jar of mayonnaise. 

But even pooling the little money they earned from their prison jobs, it was tough coming up with it on any steady basis. So, he wound up going back to what was served: two hot meals and a bag lunch that consisted of a slice of baloney between stale bread.

Some cooks liked to use prisoners as guinea pigs, he recalls.

“I remember one time at CMC they were gonna try switching over to emu meat. An emu is a smaller version of the ostrich. It was like a big drumstick. Tasted really bad, with a bad aftertaste, too,” he says. 

After some thought, he goes on: “But the one meal that stuck out to me was Sunday, the ‘Grand Slam’ breakfast, which was the closest thing to a normal meal: fried eggs, sausage, cold cereal and then toast.”

Daniel Adamik glances up through black-framed glasses. “While I was incarcerated, I also had a double bypass open-heart surgery. And the cardiologist said that one of the contributing factors to having two blockages was the poor nutrition that they had in the prisons,” he says. 

“So, the thing is — there might have been one or two tastier meals, and we might have supplemented our food with commissary food or stuff in packages — none of that food was nutritious, too. You’d buy summer sausages, they were just a package of fat. You couldn’t get fresh vegetables. You couldn’t get lean meat. It was very difficult and extraordinarily expensive.” 


High carb, sugary diet

But prison grub is supposed to be bad, right?

That’s the reaction of a lot of Americans — not only in years past, when punishment was the only reason for criminals serving hard time. The idea of “rehabilitation” was an afterthought. And nobody had even heard of the notion of “restorative justice” — where offenders try to reconcile the harm they have done to victims and the community.

But a recent study by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state reports like “Prison Voice Washington” by the Prison Policy Initiative have called the decline in food quality in prisons a growing “public health problem.”

Why?

Because the vast majority of incarcerated men and women in these state facilities eventually get out — many in a year or two. For example, the average prison time served in nearby Washington State is 29 months, while the median is just 16 months. 

And even a year on a poor high carb, sugary diet is more than enough time to inflict serious health consequences such as diabetes and coronary conditions on a person. 

In fact, research shows that eating an unhealthy, high caloric diet for just four weeks can lead to long-term steady rises in cholesterol and body fat.

“When people are released from prison, their health problems become community health problems — and a financial burden on the local public health system,” points out the Washington study. 

“Preventing and helping treat chronic illnesses by serving nutritious food is cheaper than medical treatment, both during incarceration and after release.”

There are two main reasons for prison food actually getting less nutritious, according to the report. Almost all state prisons — including California — have replaced cooking from scratch, with fresh vegetables, meat and poultry, with processed food from central factories that only need to be reheated. So, plastic-wrapped, sugar-filled “food products” have replaced locally grown and prepared healthy food.

Nationally, most of this processed food served to prisoners has been outsourced to two private corporations: Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group. Like all profit-making entities, their driving purpose is to make money for stockholders by cutting costs. 

These privatized food services have had an increasing number of lawsuits filed against them by inmates, government agencies and even states. Prison kitchens under contract to Aramark have reportedly “served food tainted by maggots … rotten meat … food pulled from the garbage … [and] food on which rats nibbled.”

The Prison Policy Initiative’s investigation concluded that while prison food has gotten worse, U.S. mass incarceration has meant more and more individuals are in prison and trying to survive on that non-nutritious food.

“Now, states and communities must face the long-term health consequences — and resulting health care costs — of feeding large numbers of incarcerated people unhealthy food,” states the report. “Far from the frivolous complaint, unhealthy prison food is actually a public health concern likely costing states and taxpayers far more than it saves.”


‘Abuse of mass incarceration’

After the impromptu bull session inside the seedy LA mansion, Sister Mary Sean goes outside to sit in a lawn chair on the front porch. Then the former teacher tries to explain to me why the quality of prison food is so important. And she should know. 

For 17 years, she has worked with former and current inmates serving lengthy sentences in California. She has seen firsthand how bad nutrition inside facilities carries over to chronic illnesses outside.

“Why did you really want Angelus News to do this story?” I ask.

The woman religious straightens up before speaking. “Because I see bad health among the men who work here at PREP and during my visits to prisons around California,” she says. 

“I see how bad it is dentally and physically. Many of them have serious health issues. And I know the food in these prisons is not nutritious. So, I think it’s a story that very few people know about. And I think it’s a major, major issue. 

“Almost all the people you talk to, inside or out, have health problems,” she adds. “So, I think it’s an abuse. I think it’s an abuse of mass incarceration.”

PREP offers correspondence courses to help prisoners successfully re-enter today’s hypersonic society. “Turning Point” teaches life skills and examines the reasons for criminal behavior. “Anger Management” does just that. “Gang Awareness and Recovery” helps younger inmates leave the gang lifestyle, and “Insight” prepares inmates for their parole board hearing. 

These and other courses give prisoners the tools to change their behavior and become productive members of the community when they are released, maintains the 77-year-old woman religious.

Inmates send back finished assignments, which are corrected by PREP workers like Gary, Tony, Alfred and Daniel. The assignments are then returned to prisoners with written feedback. And when all have been approved, certificates are given out. 

Allowing these programs into California’s prisons has been a crucial step by its Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to Sister Mary Sean. But the poor food problem in our state prisons remains unchanged. 

“I see good change in our facilities,” she says. “But I do not see change in nutrition. And then when inmates are released, they struggle to get adequate health care for all these conditions they developed in prison.”

Sister Mary Sean Hodges at PREP headquarters in South LA. ANGELUS FILE PHOTO.