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An instant ramen shelf display inside a Safeway grocery store.
Photo by ColleenMichaels on Depositphotos

In April, something new was added to the menu at Arizona prisons.

Trinity Services Group, a subsidiary of Keefe Group, began providing inmates with what they advertise as “restaurant quality” food. It was meant to be an alternative to the regularly served Wednesday meal in the chow hall.

Among the selections, which vary each week, were chicken tenders, Philly cheesesteak and chicken alfredo. Inmates can purchase up to two of each selection per week at $10.95 plus tax if they are a Phase III designation, a privilege achieved if you remain discipline and ticket free for over a year.

Opinions on the quality of the take out selections were all over the board. Some believed it was about time Arizona Department of Corrections (AZDOC) made an effort to provide better quality food to inmates, while others were skeptical of the move.

“Trinity takeout is a poor excuse for Keefe/Trinity to earn an extra buck,” said inmate Sportsman regarding his experience with “deconstructed burrito” meal. “The food portions are lackluster at best, and the term ‘restaurant quality' leaves a lot to be desired. Trinity cuts back on food quality and forces inmates to purchase a more expensive meal option.”

Food quality at the Arizona State Prison Complex at Eyman-Cook Unit in Florence has been steadily declining. Inmates are fed two “hot meals” for breakfast seven days a week and an additional sack lunch with four slices of bread, peanut butter, 2 oz of chips or a cookie, and an additional cookie Monday through Friday. At the Eyman SMU Facility, also known as “the hole,” inmates inconsistently receive what’s called a “mega sack,” the equivalent of two sack lunches and one hot meal.

“I did the math,” said SMU inmate Chad Weinstein. “In a year of eating in this place, I will have eaten over 250 loaves of wheat bread from the sack lunches alone, and that does not even account for the bread we get with our dinner.”

The only other choice for a semi-decent meal would be purchasing commissary. But nutritious food is scarce there, too.

Keefe Group, the main supplier and distributor of AZDOC's commissary, has formed what is essentially a modern day monopoly. They offer the same low quality food that can be purchased at the ninety-nine cent store for significantly higher prices.

For example, in many stores outside, the ramen soup packages cost a mere 20 cents. Keefe Group, meanwhile, sells it for 67 cents each. Ramen soups are among the number one sellers across the state next to rice, beans and cheeses on commissary.

The nutritional value of these foods is off the charts bad. According to the nutrition facts on the back of a package of chili-lime ramen, the amount of sodium per serving is 650 milligrams; there are two servings per package. Cheese, the second most purchased item, contains 380 milligrams of sodium per servings, with a total of 16 servings. The sodium intake over the course of a person’s incarceration is surely a leading factor in high blood pressure and other health related issues, including obesity, that incarcerated people face.

People incarcerated in the jails of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale, have also complained about the food.

Nothing is as appetizing as a plastic sack with a rotten apple, overbaked loaf of bread with one jelly pack and a 2 oz package of peanut butter. This breakfast meal, called a Ladmo bag, is customary while being processed in jail, awaiting for your court appearance or enjoying the night in the hole. For dinner, one can expect to be introduced to the infamous “slop,” which is a vegan gelatin mess flavored to impersonate the meal of the day, along with the occasional rice or beans, depending on the kitchen's discretion.

To increase the quality of the food, inmates have adopted survival tactics. Some pull vegetables and beans or other parts from the meal by washing the slop in the bathroom sink in empty Lambo sacks. Then, using the processed vegan parts, they reconstruct a meal with food items obtained from their commissary.

For those of us who desire a wholesome meal, very few options exist. Changes need to be implemented to ensure incarcerated people are provided with higher quality food that meets daily nutritional needs and provides the vitamins necessary to sustain a healthy life.

Correction: An earlier version of the original June 29 story incorrectly referred to a “Lambo sack” to describe a breakfast meal served by Arizona Department of Corrections. The correct term is “Ladmo bag.” It is derived from the children's TV program, “The Wallace and Ladmo Show,” which was produced in Phoenix and aired from 1954 to 1989. During its live production, children received “Ladmo bags” full of prizes. Incarcerated people in Arizona adopted the term from the show.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chastyn “Nova” Hicks is a writer and artist incarcerated in Arizona.