Abolitionist organization attacks Maryland prison food system

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Food served in Maryland prisons has been described as “unfit for animals, let alone humans.” It is not uncommon to find insects, maggots and rat droppings in meal trays. Food deprivation and perpetual hunger are the norm, forcing many people to spend high prices to subsidize their food through service providers.

These are just a few of the issues summarized in a new report, a one-of-a-kind investigation of a state’s prison food system with an abolitionist lens. “I Refuse to Let Them Kill Me”: Food, Violence, and the Maryland Correctional Food System, released this month, is a six-part series that reflects over two years of research, interviews, circles of dialogue and conversations with people currently and formerly imprisoned in Maryland.

The report was created by the Maryland Food and Prison Abolition Project, founded in 2018 as the Farm to Prison Project with the goal of connecting urban and small-scale farms in Baltimore with prisons in Maryland, thereby increasing access to fresh food for prisoners. But when those efforts were cut short due to COVID-19, the small team took a broader look at the food system in the state’s shattered prisons and all the ways food is militarized inside. “We realized that just getting food inside was only a small part of the problem,” says co-founder Kanav Kathuria.

Since its founding, the project has been invested in how access to healthier food and strengthening links between farmers, food justice advocates and incarcerated people could be used as a form of resistance against it. mass incarceration. The original plan was to start with a pilot project at a Jessup State Prison, involving inmates, Baltimore farmers, and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections to introduce fresh produce specifically to that facility. .

The pilot was due to launch in May, but COVID-19 has locked all of Maryland’s prisons on lockdown. The project focused on documenting and breaking down the state prison food system “for policy education, research and advocacy purposes,” says Kathuria. “We realized how little information there was about the experience of eating in Maryland prisons.”

Kathuria has forged partnerships with local organizations to interview people returning from prison about food. The team compensated around 30 people to share their experiences of food conditions before and during COVID-19, as well as the various impacts of food in prison on their lives. The result is a unique, nearly 200-page report on what it’s like to eat in prison.

“I wanted Kanav to really understand that food is used as a tool of violence,” says Antoin Quarles, who is previously incarcerated and has helped to raise awareness through his reintegration organization HOPE. The poor quality and scarcity of food cause tensions among those in prison. Prison administrators also use food as punishment, adulterating it or depriving people of it, despite the state’s ban on “the use of food as punishment or reward” in a correctional environment.

Kathuria and Quarles made connections between food in prison and food insecurity in low-income neighborhoods hardest hit by incarceration. By connecting these dots, the team realized the importance of presenting food in prison as a public health and human rights crisis within the broader food sovereignty movement. This summer, the Farm to Prison Project was renamed the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project to raise awareness of “the ways in which food is used as a tool of control and oppression,” says Kathuria.

Beyond discovering the entire state correctional food system through the report, the goal was to frame the work from an abolitionist perspective. “As our work deepened, we tried to position it more at the intersection of food sovereignty and abolition,” he says.

The 189-page report is divided into six sections. The first section details the culinary experience in prison; the second section breaks down the industrial food system of the prison; the third section deals with the health implications and how food in prison leads to premature death; the fourth part details the changes in food in prison over time and place; the fifth part focuses on food in prison as a tool of violence, punishment and dehumanization.

There are ideas from formerly and currently incarcerated people throughout. “Terrible, terrible, terrible,” JG, formerly incarcerated during COVID-19 at the Maryland Correctional Training Center, is cited in the report. “They cook your meals in filth, basically… it’s definitely inhumane.” But who can you complain to? And like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones because I don’t want them to kill me. LG, formerly incarcerated in Baltimore and Jessup, said, “For me all food is punishment.

Part six of the report, released today, describes what can be done to dismantle the “prison feeding industrial complex”. It is divided into two sections: the first proposes changes within Maryland prisons “to alleviate the violent experience of eating in detention”, while the second section describes “non-reform reforms” – essentially measures to dismantle the prison. prison industrial complex as a whole.

The first section is filled in by current and former incarcerated people. Recommendations include foods with greater nutritional value, fresh produce, larger amounts of food, longer meal times and more flexible meal times, more choices and lower prices at the prison station – which many people depend on to supplement their diets.

The second section is inspired by abolitionist thinkers like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. The recommendations include the divestiture of all food service companies that operate or provide catering or curatorial services to correctional facilities; divest itself of all businesses – both food and non-food – by making profits from prisons and incarcerated people; and funding and working to abolish the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

This report marks a first step for the Maryland Food and Prison Abolition Project to raise awareness of this issue, educate organizers, and better position food justice within criminal justice reform and abolition movements. “We hope the report links these two movements which have been historically separate – one being criminal justice and the other being food sovereignty or food justice,” said Kathuria.

To get people more involved, the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project held two four-week food sovereignty and abolition workshops this summer. This fall, they will host a public panel featuring people working in this space.

“The interest is certainly there,” says Kathuria, especially since so little information has been published on the matter before. “We want to be sure that the links between food apartheid and prisons, from an abolitionist point of view, are in the foreground. ”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urban planning, and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed, and other publications.

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