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While many TV shows and movies depict American prisoners as eating poor quality food, inmates within the Federal Bureau of Prisons are provided three nutritionally sound meals each day.

What Do You Eat in Prison?

One question we often get asked is, “What do you eat in prison?”

While many TV shows and movies depict American prisoners as eating poor quality food, inmates within the Federal Bureau of Prisons are provided three nutritionally sound meals each day.

For prisoners in the general population, meals are served in a dining room (which prisoners call the “Chow Hall”), where all other general population inmates eat. This is essentially a large cafeteria area with a serving bar and tables. The exceptions to this are if the prison is locked down or the prisoner is in intensive confinement (e.g., a special management unit, special housing unit, etc.). In that case, their meals might be brought to them on a tray. While the meals aren’t great, they are nutritionally adequate and will ensure that no one goes hungry or starves.

While the BOP has been scaling back on food expenditures in recent years, the food quality is still good. Many of the meals are hot. Breakfasts usually consist of a danish, cereal (hot or cold), and milk. Regular meals consist of chicken, hamburgers, hotdogs, lasagna, burritos, tacos, fish patties, etc. While federal prisoners only have access to milk in the mornings, they do have access to water and a flavored drink for all three meals. In addition to the regular meal, most federal prisons also have a self-service salad bar area where beans, peas, and other foods are often available during meal times.

Prison food is made by prisoners assigned to Food Service. These prisoners both cook and serve the food, though they do so under the supervision of prison guards who have a background in food service.

As a prisoner, you don’t have a choice in the food you’re served. As you wait your turn inmates assigned to Food Service will place the same portions on every tray, which, when your turn comes, will be issued to you. Serving sizes are standardized for every meal with the exception of what’s placed on the salad bar, which is self-serve.

We often get asked if prisoners can eat twice if they’re still hungry. The answer to this is no. Most federal prisons now have ID card scanners in place to ensure that each prisoner only eats once. If you are caught going through the line twice, you run the risk of being issued an incident report for stealing (Code 219).

In addition to meals provided in the dining room, federal prisoners who have funds in their trust fund accounts also have the option of purchasing items from the prison commissary. Likewise, prisoners with money can also shop with their store man or even buy foods made and sold by fellow prisoners (e.g., homemade pizzas, burritos, etc.). While the Federal Bureau of Prisons is leaves much will be desired, the meals are safe and relatively healthy.

While federal prisoners can’t order Dominoes pizza or have anything they might want, they have what they need and they all get by with what’s provided, even if the food quality and quantity can sometimes leave something to be desired.

Another common question we are asked is if there are specific tables where prisoners should or shouldn’t sit at. Federal prisoners, especially at the medium- and high-security levels, are very territorial. Chow hall tables are no exception. At these prisons there will most likely be a white section, a black section, and tables claimed by different groups or gangs. It is essential to only sit at a table where you have the right to sit.

If you’re unsure of where to sit, you should ask your cellmate about the politics of seating. If your cellmate isn’t being helpful, then speak with either the shot caller for your race (e.g., white or black) or geographic region (e.g., North Carolina) or a friend who has been around for a while to determine what table you should sit at.

If you sit at the wrong table and you’re new, a simple “my bad” will work. Then get up and find a better table to sit at. While federal prisoners are very territorial and proprietary of their chow hall tables, they understand that new people don’t always understand the politics of seating.

As with many other areas, a simple apology and a show of respect should diffuse any potentially troublesome situation.

Contact us for more information on eating in prison or other aspects of prison survival.

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