After four years in prison, one of the biggest changes in my life has been my relationship with food. At 5’4,” I walked in at about 135 pounds and walked out at about 200 pounds.
I have never gained more weight in my life, and on the day of my release in 2017, I was at my heaviest weight ever. To make matters worse, I’ve put on another 25 pounds in the past two years. It all goes back to my experiences with prison food, and how the limited access to food options and portions definitely hurt me mentally.
You might be thinking, “If prison food is so bad, how the hell do you gain weight?” That’s a great question, and an experience I wasn’t expecting. Let me be clear: Prison food is absolutely disgusting. While there are tolerable meals (especially breakfast, if you can force yourself to go to the cafeteria at 5am), most of the food served in the prison cafeteria is pretty unpalatable.
But when you’re hungry and have no choice, you eat what’s put in front of you. I gained weight for two reasons: the cafeteria and the vast majority of food served in the canteen contained carbohydrates, and my limited opportunities for exercise and exercise.
The psychological impact of limited food options on me is hard to explain. Now that I’m home with my biggest weight ever, I find myself eating the unhealthiest thing possible, “because I can.”
I wasn’t on any particular diet when I was in prison, but I was at a healthy weight because I ate very little, I limited my soda intake, and generally avoided fast food.
Honestly, most people behind bars are on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. We all know that the cheaper the food, the less healthy it is. Eating healthy costs money. Most people in prison are not financially able to pick and choose healthy foods or follow a particular diet.
That doesn’t mean no prisoners do it. For vegetarians, vegans, ketogenic dieters or people who eat only kosher foods, following these dietary rules in prison can be a huge challenge.
Which leads to today’s blog post: Can You Be Vegan in Prison?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
- Can you be vegan in prison?
- Can prisoners buy vegan food from the commissary?
- Can prisoners request vegetarian food?
Can you be vegan in prison?
The short answer to this question is yes, but it’s not easy, you need regular money from family and friends so you can buy food from the commissary.
At breakfast, the main food rotates between pancakes, eggs, French toast, and oatmeal or other hot cereal. There is also a piece of fruit and toast, and the drink choice is milk or coffee.
For lunch and dinner there will be a main course, a vegetable, two slices of bread and a dessert (usually jelly). Beverage choices are water or “juice” (really a watered down Kool-Aid).
My descriptions of our prison meals, on the surface, looked good, but usually tasted awful. Entrees are usually Poultry A La King, pasta, chicken patties, Salisbury steak, and cabbage sausage. Again, it doesn’t sound terrible, but these names sound better than what you’re actually getting.
If you want to be vegetarian in prison, you can eat fruit and vegetables (very limited portions), pasta and salads. However, a prison salad requires about five slices of iceberg lettuce and way too much French dressing. Occasionally, you might get a piece of cucumber or tomato.
Since vegan restaurants have very limited and few vegan options, you’ll have to order food from the kiosk to make sure you’re getting enough calories. But while these options may technically be vegan, they’re not necessarily healthy.
Can prisoners buy vegan food from the commissary?
Every prison commissary has different options, but there are some general similarities. We could buy bags of chicken or tuna (which are the main ingredients in my prison cooking creations), but if you’re vegan, those things won’t work.
Vegetarian options on the commissary list include oatmeal, ramen noodles, rice, pasta, refried beans, pasta sauce, granola bars, peanut butter and mixed dried fruit. You’ll also get treats like cookies, chips, cookies and candy.
Beverage options at the kiosk include soda, Kool-Aid, coffee and orange juice.
Like I said, when you’re in prison, if you stick to a vegan diet, you can eat it, but it’s not a healthy diet.
Can prisoners request vegetarian food?
The idea of prisoners asking prison staff for anything may seem absurd, but prisoners do have basic human rights. When it comes to following their religion, prisoners can request certain diets, which is why all prisons have kosher options.
Prisoners should also be entitled to basic healthcare and food to survive, but the concept of “healthy eating” doesn’t apply in prison. In the eyes of prison officials, all they care about is how cheap the food is and how minimally they technically follow nutritional guidelines for prisoners.
However, prisoners can legally seek to provide them with some type of meal. Animal rights activist Peter Young, who was sent to prison for releasing thousands of mink from fur farms, has cited his vegan “morality” as the reason he’s in prison in the first place.
“Three times a day, the slit in my cell door was opened and a tray filled with all kinds of animal meat and by-products arrived. Tiny bits of iceberg lettuce barely pushed my calorie intake into double digits. I launched a A nightly letter-writing campaign aimed at anyone with influence. Everyone from the warden to the kitchen manager to Congressman Barbara Boxer has received my letters. My request is simple: no Eat meat, dairy or eggs. Leverage is in short supply in this unilateral negotiation process,” Yang said.
He also went on a hunger strike to ensure that the prison would accommodate his vegetarian requirements. Young said he had to make numerous phone calls to friends and family, encouraging them to seek help from prison on the issue so he could negotiate.
Young said he had to let people know that going vegan is a lifestyle choice and a protected belief, like a right to practice religion. Eventually, he found Buddhism, as Yang realized the only way to get vegan was if his dietary choices were considered religiously motivated.
“Two years of trial and error, I went from hungry and hopeless to full and gluttonous. They said it was impossible, but I managed to stay strictly vegan in prison,” Yang said.
Should Prisoners Be Allowed to Eat Vegan in Prison? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Do Vegans Get Served Vegan Food In Prison? The Experience Of Surviving As A Vegan In Prison New Guide Offers Inmates Advice On Being Vegan In Prison BOP Commissary List The Strict Vegan Prisoner Playbook