The MA DOC has put prisons across the state in lockdown for the past 31 days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These restrictive conditions and the danger that COVID-19 poses to incarcerated people have led folks inside to take action. Today at NCCI Gardner, 41 prisoners refused their food trays for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, sustaining themselves from food and water stocked up from the canteen.
The incarcerated organizers have three demands:
1) Free them all. All those who currently have the power to release people (Governor Charlie Baker, DOC Commissioner Carol Mici, district attorneys, parole and probation boards, MA Department of Public Health) need to exercise their power to decarcerate immediately.
2) Until they are freed, provide healthier, more substantial, and more varied food options. Right now, the DOC is only offering meal options that are woefully inadequate in portion size and alarmingly high in carbohydrates and sodium content. These meals put those who are incarcerated at risk of developing or worsening chronic diseases.
3) Until they are freed, allow those who are incarcerated time to go outside into the yard. Since April 3, prisoners at NCCI-Gardner have been locked in their units 24/7 with no fresh air. Allowing them to go into the yard once a day for 30 minutes would not present further risk of disease spread, since they would remain with the same people in their units regardless. Being able to breathe fresh air would only improve the health and well-being of those incarcerated.
On April 24th, we posted a log of one week of food being served at NCCI Gardner. This document was provided to a nutritional epidemiologist, who had the following to say:
The food provided at MCI Gardner is not meeting basic needs, based on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, and putting people with existing health conditions at risk. Total calories provided average around 2350 calories per day, which will only meet the needs of some in the population (it will be too little for many in the population, depending on body size and activity level). The meals also lack adequate servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. On average 1 serving of fruit and 1 serving of vegetables are offered a day, well below the recommended 2 ½ servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruits. The majority of meats served are processed and packaged foods high in simple sugars are served with every meal. Processed and simple sugars make up 100% of the daily breakfast options. As can be expected, because of the lack of plant-based foods in the meals provided, they are woefully low in important nutrients including fiber, iron, calcium and vitamin D; nutrients whose intake are linked with prevention of numerous diseases, including colorectal cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and anemia.
The sodium levels in the meals provided is the most appalling aspect. Per 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, sodium intake should not exceed 2,300mg per day and those at increased risk of high blood pressure should not consume more than 1,500 mg per day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47% of men in the US have high blood pressure. These numbers likely underestimate the prevalence of high blood pressure in the MCI Gardner population, as 1 in 5 adults has high blood pressure and is unaware of it and Black adults are more likely to have high blood pressure (54%), a demographic systematically overrepresented in carceral systems. With this in mind, the current meals served at MCI Gardner average 3000mg per day (with many meals much higher), which is twice the recommended sodium intake for any in the population at increased risk of high blood pressure (likely at least half of the population). The meals are also likely to exacerbate health conditions for any individuals on specialized diets, especially those who are managing diabetes mellitus as the meals are very high in carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates which make blood glucose control very difficult. Because of the processed nature of the foods, they are also harmful for anyone who may have renal issues, as all meals exceed the recommended levels of sodium, potassium and phosphorus for those at increased risk.
In my professional opinion, the meals currently being provided are nutritionally inadequate and put the health and well being of those at NCCI Gardner at risk of developing chronic diseases, as well as make managing many chronic diseases nearly impossible for those with preexisting conditions.
Hannah Cory MPH, RD