Friday, May 7, 2010

Junk Food in Jail: Pacifying or Paternalistic?

The printed edition of the Wall Street Journal published last week a piece about the increasing availability of junk food for purchase at county jail commissaries. Aramark Corp., a giant food provider, offers families the possibility to purchase hot wings, pizza, nachos, vanilla cappuccino and other food items, tailoring them to the different regulations of country jails through their icare website. The list of jails includes several CA facilities.

Advocates say the deliveries give guards a potent disciplinary tool: Be good or you won't get your jalapeno poppers.

Revenue from the meals has saved prison programs, such as parenting classes, wardens say. And in some institutions, inmates get job-trainign credit for preparing the hot meals in the jail kitchen and packaging the junk-food boxes.

Plus, said Deputy Chief Debra Jordan, who runs detention programs in Bexar County, given the "very humble" quality of prison food, letting an offender's mom buy him a club sandwich now and then "is an act of kindness."

Critics, however, fear the deliveries will inspire envy, violence and extortion. "It's like with kids--you don't bring cookies to school unless you've got enough for everyone," said Gordon Crews, a criminal justice professor at Marshall University.

Wardens who have tried the program say that hasn't been a problem. Many prisons have long let well-behaved inmates order good such as CD players, sneakers and mini-TVs. "Hails are always run better when your inmates are happy," said Capt. Richard Fisher, the jail administrator in Rock Island County, Ill.

This piece has made me think quite a bit about paternalism and the role of jail in behavior modification. I can see how interfering with grownups' food choices is a very problematic thing to do; the public debates about approaching obesity invoke the same sort of questions. And yet, when we lock people up, the hope is that we might do something better. I can't help but think that the industrialized aspect of the junk food delivery enterprise, complete with providing prison authorities with docile, buffalo-wings-fed inmates, is less exciting an opportunity than programs like Philadelphia's City Harvest, which creates a garden within walls and gives people the opportunity many of them did not have, to connect directly with nature and with their food. I'm not even talking about the potential health-expense implications of fast food consumption in jail, but rather about giving people the opportunity to consider their food choices, as well as other life choices, when they have time to consider those. Maybe I am being too paternalistic, or imposing my own food choices, which, granted, are class- and lifestyle-driven, on others. In any case, I don't feel entirely comfortable with this system, and I'd love to hear your comments.

props to Ocean Mottley who alerted me to this.

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