Poor-Quality Food as Violence: Ngeri Nnachi

I often think about the little liberties that I take for granted, and which my brother, as an incarcerated person, is not experiencing. For example, I have the chance to open up the refrigerator and just stand there, seeking out an opportunity to eat something that satisfies not just hunger, but boredom. On the contrary, my brother’s food options are very limited.

In the past, I have helped our mother order food for him using the mandated website from which we can order commissary. The offerings are saddening. There are hardly any healthy items, with everything being filled with sodium or preservatives. I feel for any person who is incarcerated and has health concerns, because the options are so limited. Everything the system has to offer is either in a bag or a can, which means there aren’t any fresh food options. From what my brother tells me, the food they offer in the cafeteria is barely any better.

So I think about this from time to time—as I enjoy the opportunity to take advantage of my options, I recognize that my brother is living a very different reality, limited to what is offered by the prison facility that he is within. It’s a challenge that I navigate daily: being kinder to my brother while being frustrated that he has gotten himself here.

While I grapple with these challenges, I am also grateful to know that a spotlight is being shone upon the reality of poor-quality food options in Maryland prisons through the work being done by the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project, a Baltimore-based organization. Their report “I Refuse to Let them Kill Me”: Food, Violence, and the Maryland Correctional Food System does a great job in shedding light on many food-related issues within the Maryland prison system. The report echoes what I’ve heard from my brother, who has told me about the rodents he has seen throughout the prison—including in the places where meals are prepared. Crystal Enterprises, who won the contract from Trinity Services in 2015, said, “The facilities that were handed to us by Trinity were overrun with rats, roaches, mice and birds. During our walkthrough, we witnessed meals being prepared under grid ceilings which were covered with rat droppings.” Reading this, I can only imagine how much work must be done by Crystal simply to get to the depths of the residue left from Trinity Services. I know from my brother—who was incarcerated in 2015, when Crystal took over, that this is still a very problematic issue. And again, it’s twofold: the meals that are prepared in the prison, along with the food options in commissary, are both of incredibly poor quality.

When I have helped my mother order items from the commissary selection on numerous occasions, every single time I am disappointed with the offerings. The only vegetable option available for ordering is instant mashed potatoes. During the pandemic, it was even more challenging to help order commissary for my brother because the delivery process became more difficult. One order in particular did not reach him, and we had the toughest time finding out where it went—as well as whether we could get a refund to reorder for him.

Each of these obstacles is frustrating on its own. But beyond the day-to-day effects, one must consider the ramifications of prolonged exposure to such circumstances. It’s painful to think about the lasting impact upon my brother’s health of being exposed to such hazardous food options. Having only food items filled with preservatives is harmful, after all. When I have asked my brother about whether he has had leafy greens or whole-grain options, he’s responded with laughter.

“I Refuse to Let Them Kill Me” put it well in summing up the food experience for those incarcerated “as a form of violence and premature death due to long-term impacts on individuals’ physical and mental health.” For those of us with incarcerated loved ones, this form of violence presents yet another challenge and yet another source of worry.

Ngeri Nnachi is an Education and Outreach Associate with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. Ms. Nnachi is also an Activist, Author, Educator and Small Business Owner. She is a Ph.D. student with her research focus on Black girls within the school-to-confinement pathway and their relationships with self-perception as a result of their educational experiences and generally very passionate about educational inequality as it relates to Black children. As a Board Member for two education centric organizations, Ngeri does a great deal of work in literacy and leadership with youth and communities at large. At this point in time, Ngeri has a number of children’s books in production, with the first slated to be released in January 2023. In her spare time, she can be found writing for leisure or sewing (she taught herself to sew a few years ago) for her business, Designs By Ngeri. Her favorite things to do are spend time with loved ones and find new ways to be creative with her hands.