United States: the role of plant-based food in the prison system

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, 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.

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).”

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.

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.

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.”