Prison Food, Abolitionist Geographies, and Food Sovereignty: Food as a Tool of Resistance

Home Food Is Political Prison Food, Abolitionist Geographies, and Food Sovereignty: Food as a Tool of Resistance

Eating in prison is deeply political. Carceral institutions weaponize and transform the role of food provision into a tool of control, dehumanization, and state-sanctioned violence.

By Kanav Kathuria and Jamesha Caldwell

Food conditions in prisons across the United States have drawn increased media attention in recent months. Incidents such as white supremacist Jacob Chansley—also known as the “QAnon Shaman”—demanding organic food in jail; the “pitiful” meals in Texas prisons and detention centers as a result of the state’s ongoing power crisis; and the disastrous toll that COVID-19 has taken on correctional food systems throughout the country have all been in the spotlight. However, such instances are neither unique nor extrinsic to the inherent logics of violence and disposability governing prisons themselves. Report after report consistently detail the abhorrent and lethal conditions to which incarcerated individuals are subjected—from actual rat poison in carrot cakes at the Brooklyn House of Detention, to cockroaches and mouse droppings in prison kitchens in Baltimore, to the infamous use of nutraloaf as a form of punishment for individuals thrown in solitary confinement. 

Eating in prison is deeply political. As opposed to providing a means of nourishment, carceral institutions weaponize and transform the role of food provision into a tool of control, dehumanization, and state-sanctioned violence. Beyond the horrendous quality and lack of nutritional value of meals, the practice of serving spoiled and contaminated foods, and the production of an almost constant sense of hunger—resulting, in part, from portions that individuals describe as “not even enough to fill a 5-year-old child”—correctional food service also has impacts on people’s physical and mental health that can last for years after individuals are released from captivity. For example, prison food not only exacerbates pre-existing chronic illnesses individuals may suffer from prior to imprisonment such as diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease, but in many cases constitutes their root cause. Ultimately—as an often-invisibilized “collateral consequence” of incarceration—the food served to the over two million individuals held in bondage becomes a means of slow and premature death.

In “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore uses the framework of carceral geographies as a means to uncover the “apparently boundless” nature of systems of confinement, control, surveillance, and subjugation beyond their more visible forms—prisons, police, and other mechanisms of law enforcement. The true extent of the violence of correctional food systems thus becomes clear when analyzed in relationship to material food conditions beyond the formal walls of confinement. 

In Baltimore—as in many redlined cities throughout the country—residents in neighborhoods that are overpoliced and hyperincarcerated are simultaneously the very residents most often impacted by food apartheid and systematically denied access to affordable, nutritious, and fresh foods. In various prisons in rural Maryland, imprisoned individuals are deployed to nearby farms for gleaning—defined as “the collection of crops either from farmers’ fields that have already been mechanically harvested, or from fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest”—where gleaned produce is then “donated” to local or regional government agencies, nonprofits, or food banks for “hunger relief.” And the historical connections between slavery, prison labour, convict leasing, and agriculture continue today, as detailed in a 2018 article by the organization Food First, in part through the use of incarcerated labour to harvest produce—partially to compensate for labor shortages produced through the increasing detention and deportation of undocumented farmworkers. 

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What are the implications of the intersecting and overlapping connections between the U.S prison regime and our food system? As these examples demonstrate—and there are many more—the death-inducing nature of food provision in prison and material conditions in communities under food apartheid cannot be seen as disparate forms of oppression, but interrelated instances of state violence rooted in the logics of anti-Blackness and racial capitalism. From modern-day prison plantations, to the ongoing oppression of Black and brown farmers and farmworkers, to the growing centralization and consolidation of the global food chain in the hands of just 20 agribusiness corporations, an inequitable distribution of fresh and nutritious foods is not just an unfortunate byproduct of our food system. Our food systems depend on exploitation, extraction, and dispossession to survive. 

As an antagonism to “carceral geographies,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore proposes the framework of “abolition geographies”—or ”how and to what end people make freedom”—as a praxis to carry on the tradition of unfinished liberation. Abolition, in the positive sense of the term, requires us to build self-determined communities, restorative social relations, and communal forms of care outside of systems of carcerality. As revolutionary abolitionists committed to the liberation of Black and all oppressed people in the world, we maintain that the development of such social relations cannot be achieved without the destruction of capitalism—and by extension, processes of imperialism and neocolonialism producing hunger and “relationships of un-freedom” across the globe.

In thinking of abolition as a democratic project, and the process of creating a communist society where our material, emotional, and spiritual needs through food are met as an abolitionist endeavor, we look around us to draw from historical and contemporary forms of resistance. In Guinea-Bissau, we find Amílcar Cabral and his integration of agronomy and revolutionary consciousness-building as a strategy to overthrow Portuguese imperialism. In India today, we find strength and resilience in the millions of farmers fighting for their very existence—many of whom have given their lives protesting a neocolonial State bent on further consolidating the power of large agribusinesses. And in the United States, we find countless examples of resistance in the Black Radical Tradition, from more well-known initiatives such as Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative and the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program, to hunger strikes in prisons, to contemporary organizations fighting for Black food sovereignty such as Black Yield Institute in Baltimore and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.  

/The making of abolition geographies is a process. It remains our collective responsibility to tear down all forms of violence and oppression—white supremacy, racial capitalism, ableism and sanism, queer/transphobia, heteropatriarchy, and the State itself—as the struggle for self-determination continues. To build a world truly able to meet our needs, we center the liberatory potential of food and land as a means to heal and restore relationships torn apart by centuries of oppression. For, as Robin D.G Kelley writes in Freedom Dreams, “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down… we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.“ 

Kanav Kathuria’s work lies in the intersection of revolutionary abolitionism, public health, and food sovereignty. He is a 2019 Open Society Institute Baltimore Community Fellow and the founder of the Maryland Food & Prison Project , a Baltimore-based organization that interrogates food conditions in carceral facilities to explore the use of food as a tool for resistance. Follow us on Instagram at @mdfarmtoprisonproject to learn more about our work and to get involved. 

Baltimore-bred poet and storyteller Jamesha Caldwell strives to highlight the plight of her environment, Black womanhood, science, and all things hip-hop. Caldwell is a Research Fellow at the Maryland Food & Prison Project and studies criminology and psychology at Notre Dame of Maryland University. She plans to use her degrees and activist passion to challenge and change the landscape of the criminal legal system and advocate for a brighter and more liberated future for the incarcerated.

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