The Texas prison system has a new goal: Serving slightly more edible food.
As part of a long-term strategic plan, the corrections agency aims to do away with the worst of prison fare — the meager and sometimes moldy brown-bag meals served during lockdowns, which occur regularly and can last for weeks.
Though lockdown meals have generated complaints for years, the public didn’t get a look at how awful they really were until 2020, when The Marshall Project and Hearst Newspapers published images of them captured with contraband phones. Afterward, the food improved in some prisons — but only for a short time, prisoners reported.
Now, though, the agency is making plans for more permanent improvements by starting a new culinary training program, in hopes of doing away with cold meals altogether.
“One of Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s goals for 2030 is to replace sack meals with nutritious, shelf-stable meals,” said Amanda Hernandez, the prison system spokesperson. To do that, Hernandez said, the agency will partner with the prison system’s in-house school district to “develop new Career and Technical Education courses in culinary arts that teach students about creating and distributing these types of meals.”
That effort will start with a pilot program to provide warm lockdown meals this spring at the Wallace and Ware units in West Texas, and at Stringfellow near Houston. Hernandez said it’s not clear when the program will expand across the state.
Advocates were cautiously optimistic about the plan.
“I’m really happy that TDCJ is actually looking into this and making an effort to move forward on a different path,” said Maggie Luna, policy analyst at the Texas Center for Justice & Equity, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Before going into policy work, Luna served time in Texas prisons, sometimes living on the cold bagged meals for weeks at a time.
“The food is so disgusting, I don’t know how much improvement they can make,” she said. “But I’d like to just see.”A History of Bad Fare
Texas prison food has been poor since at least 2011, when officials dealt with a budget shortfall by chopping $2.8 million out of the money set aside for feeding prisoners. That meant replacing hot dog and hamburger buns with white bread, switching to powdered milk from liquid, and feeding people only twice a day on the weekends at some facilities.
As the regular mess hall fare got worse, so did the lockdown meals. Whenever a Texas prison goes on lockdown — whether it’s because of an escape, a contraband search or a pandemic — the mess halls close and prisoners are confined to their bunks and cells. Bagged lunches known as “johnny sacks” replace cafeteria meals.
In theory, the johnnies include a bland breakfast — something like boiled eggs, dry cereal and raisins — while lunch and dinner are usually two sandwiches each, sometimes with a side of prunes or corn bread. But what actually arrives in the cell door is not always identifiable and sometimes includes odd combinations, such as a single hot dog with no bun, a tortilla, a cup of mush and a raw potato. Prisoners report that there’s rarely a fresh vegetable in sight, the peanut butter is sometimes watered down with cooking oil, and the portions are paltry.
When COVID-19 hit, dozens of prisons locked down for months — and their residents began contacting the media with proof of the worsening conditions.Meager Improvements
Weeks after The Marshall Project and Hearst Newspapers published their joint investigation in May 2020, the prison system’s deputy director for food responded by ordering kitchen staff to do better.
“If it isn’t something you would want to eat for 90 days, then don’t serve it to your unit,” Douglas Sparkman admonished kitchen managers in emails obtained by The Marshall Project. “When you make peanut butter sandwiches, don’t just put a blob of peanut butter and jelly in the middle of the bread and slap another one on top. Spread the peanut butter and jelly over the whole slice of bread.”
A few days later, Sparkman emailed again to share pictures of a moldy sandwich one worker found being served at a unit, something he described as a “common complaint.” “If there is mold on the bread, don’t make a sandwich with it,” he wrote.
At first, prisoners reported minor improvements: One man sent photos of broccoli, and another snapped a picture of his first fresh banana in recent memory.
But eventually, the lockdown fare returned to the normal slop. Though advocates urged the legislature to boost food funding for the prison system last session, that did not happen. In fact, after adjusting for inflation, Texas prisons still spend less on food per prisoner than they did before the 2011 budget cuts.
The new plan could help ameliorate that. The agency’s proposed budget, now in front of the state legislature — which officially gaveled in on Tuesday — includes only a slight increase in food funding, from $95.3 million in the current fiscal year to $98.8 million for next year.
But creating a vocational program will shift some of the new costs to the prison’s school system. Prisoners will take courses through the prison system’s Windham School District, where they will learn to flash freeze and seal food. The meals can be warmed and served later — hopefully while still hot and identifiable. Though the agency will pay for the food, storage and distribution, the school district will cover the educational and equipment costs.
But such a program will not make up for the legislature’s failure to increase the food budget to cover inflation going back a decade, said Scott Henson, a prison policy expert and former director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Just Liberty.
“The idea that by 2030 we might feed prisoners better food than pig slop is a wonderful thought,” he said. “But the reality is that TDCJ's good intentions do not matter in the least.”