Every night after dinner, hungry men at Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite without money on their books to buy snacks like potato chips, ramen noodles and candy bars would make the rounds, asking to “borrow” food from the more well-off prisoners, recalls Zachary Starnes, who was released in July.
Oklahoma spends less than a dollar per meal on average feeding prisoners in the state correctional system. While Department of Corrections spokesman Justin Wolf says prison food provides adequate nutrition and menus are approved by a dietician, meals are frequently stacked with starches like bread, oats, beans and rice as filler, according to interviews with former and current prisoners and family members.
“Those meals, when you eat them a couple hours later, you’re starving,” said Starnes, who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2019 on drug-related charges. “A few hours later, those carbs are going to turn into sugar and you’re not going to be full anymore.”
Men without money to spend on food find something to trade in exchange for snacks, Starnes said — everything from washing other people’s clothes to tattooing.
Prisoners frequently rely on money from family members to supplement their diets with junk food from the prison commissary, three former and current prisoners and three family members said in interviews with The Frontier.
The Frontier obtained photographs taken with contraband cellphones of meals from three state prisons.
Some of the meals pictured include conscientious scoops of vegetables like peas or corn, but most were laden with multiple servings of bread and other starches.
Department of Corrections spends an average $2.55-$2.26 a day to feed a prisoner, or 75 to 85 cents per meal.
Oklahoma lawmakers slashed $24.4 million from DOC’s budget this year after tumbling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic saw a $1.4 billion reduction to state revenue estimates.
One way the agency has been able to save money is by purchasing surplus food from restaurant suppliers at a discount. DOC recently got a good deal on a bulk order of hamburger patties, rejected by a restaurant chain because they were too thin, Wolf said.
“We’re able to purchase it cheaper, and then provide our inmates a better variety of food,” Wolf said. “Our staff try and identify and source food at a good price, so that way we can continue to provide good food, and not screw up the budget.”
Sample menus DOC provided to The Frontier in response to an open records request include entrees such as chicken spaghetti, turkey ham, as well as servings of fruits and vegetables, but state regulations allow for modifications to prisoners’ diets as long they adhere to “basic nutritional requirements.”
A typical breakfast for male prisoners is an 8-ounce fortified fruit drink; 4 ounces of coffee cake; 1 cup hot cereal; 1 serving of fruit; 2 cups of milk; and 8 ounces of coffee, according to the sample menus.
Lunch or dinner might be 8 ounces of turkey rice casserole; a half cup of vegetables; a 4-inch-by 4-inch piece of cake without frosting; 1 cup of tea or fruit drink; and a 4-ounce dinner roll.
The menus don’t include information about the number of calories meals contain.
A prisoner at Dick Conner Correctional Correctional Facility in Hominy wrote that meals there often lack fresh fruits and vegetables and the portion sizes are too small to satiate grown men.
“Inmates truly live off of their ability to afford food and snacks from canteen,” the man wrote.
The man’s mother, who requested anonymity because she feared causing problems for her son or retaliation from the prison system, said she spends nearly $300 a month so her son can buy extra food and other personal items from the prison canteen. Apart from supplemental nutrition, the state also relies on families to contribute canteen money so prisoners can buy basic personal hygiene items, shoes, clothing, towels and bedding, she said.
The state prison canteen price list includes pages of snack foods prisoners can purchase, including a vast selection of potato chips, pretzels, cheese puffs, snack cakes and candy bars. There are 11 kinds of ice cream listed, but just two items for sale in the fruits and vegetables category.
Prisoners can buy a 13-ounce package of mixed vegetables for $1.15 or a 7-ounce package of corn for 97 cents.
“Paying almost $300 a month for junk food just because the prisons care less about mankind irks my soul,” the mother said.
Prisoners and family members interviewed by The Frontier said the quality of the food worsened at state facilities this summer when many prisoners were held in quarantine or isolation as the coronavirus spread rapidly through the state’s correctional system. With prisoners in quarantine and unable to work in the kitchen preparing food, portion sizes were smaller, meals came hours late and often were cold, they said.
While Wolf admits meals at prisons with outbreaks of COVID-19 have sometimes been delayed, DOC still has been able to comply with state standards requiring prisoners to be fed three times in a 24-hour period, he said. The state also abides by American Correctional Association standards that state meals should not be spaced more than 14 hours apart, he said.
At a press conference at the Oklahoma Capitol in September on DOC’s response to COVID-19, Director Scott Crow said the agency has begun deploying additional staff to prisons with outbreaks of the virus to help with food service and other logistical issues.
“I can tell you today that all of our units continue to receive the same level of nutrition,” Crow said.
In September, women at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft were confined to their bunks after most of the prisoners there tested positive for COVID-19. Chelsea Norton, a prisoner at Eddie Warrior, said she didn’t eat lunch until 6 p.m. one day. Dinner came at 9 p.m. on another. She ate bologna and a tortilla for lunch and biscuits, rice and gravy for breakfast.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with your food groups, but that’s starch, starch and starch,” she said.
In response to a public outcry about prison conditions during the pandemic, DOC released a video on its Facebook page in September that included footage taken at Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite that showed workers in the kitchen preparing pans of turkey and fresh broccoli and cauliflower salad for prisoners.
Starnes said the food prepared in the video was a meal he was only served at Christmas and Thanksgiving. More often, he was fed was a slimy bologna that had a greenish hue.
Wolf confirmed that the bologna served at Oklahoma prisons is green, but only because it does not contain artificial dyes to make it pink.
“If you handed me green meat, I would pass, but the sad truth is that the baloney that people think is natural doesn’t come out that way,” he said.
In 2019 two men, David George Clark and Rodney Douglas Stephens, filed separate, hand-written lawsuits from prison against Oklahoma Department of Corrections, claiming they were fed food that came from boxes marked “not for human consumption,” according to court documents.
The courts never weighed in on the merits of either man’s claims.
A U.S. District Court judge dismissed Clark’s lawsuit on procedural grounds in March. Stephens’ lawsuit was dismissed after he died in prison in February.
“We’re not giving inmates food that says ‘not fit for human consumption’ on it,” Wolf said.
The Frontier is a nonprofit focusing on investigative and watchdog journalism. For more information or to donate, go to www.readfrontier.org.