Cruel and Usual: A National Prisoner Survey of Prison Food and Health Care Quality
Date:  05-04-2018

Survey of people incarcerated in 83 prisons reveals complaints of inadequate food, health care, and of disrespect from staff members
From Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and Research/Action Cooperative:

April 2018:

Cruel and Usual: A National Prisoner Survey of Prison Food and Health Care Quality

Executive Summary

In 2017, we surveyed 123 imprisoned IWW members from 83 prison facilities in 21 states across the United States to determine their views on prison food and health care quality. The vast majority of surveyed prisoners were men from state prisons. Overall, the prisoners describe a prison system that routinely provides inadequate food and health care that endangers their health. Unsanitary conditions, small servings of poor quality food, and lack of attention to special diets are common. Disrespect by health care staff, delayed care, and denial of treatment and medications are also common.

Food Quality Issues

  • 69% of respondents rated the food quality as poor.

  • 56% didn’t know who their food service provider was.

  • Nearly 40% indicated that they were only served fresh fruit or vegetables “once in a while” or “never.”

  • 65% reported that the food made them sick during the last year and 66% reported that they were served food not intended for humans, food with bugs, or moldy/spoiled food during the last year. Many prisoners provided comments about food that was served in unsanitary conditions and was expired, spoiled or moldy, or contained bugs or rocks. Some food containers were labeled not fit for human consumption. Several described getting food poisoning or diarrhea.

  • 80% stated that they have been denied meals or given too little food in the last year. Many prisoners commented that their food servings were too small or that they were not given enough time to get food. One prisoner reported being served the prison “food loaf” as a form of punishment. Another reported being charged for food they should receive for free.

  • About half reported having special dietary needs, and 70% of them did not have their needs met. Several prisoners reported that they are not given proper religious or vegetarian/vegan diets.

    Health Care Quality Issues

  • 69% of respondents rated their health care quality as poor.

  • 36% didn’t know who their health care provider

  • 63% reported being denied needed health care during the last year. A number of prisoners commented that they have been denied Hepatitis C treatment. Many prisoners described routine neglect and refusal of treatment for various health care issues. Several prisoners reported being charged excessive fees for care and several described getting inadequate treatment remotely via video conference.

  • 54% reported that the health care staff treated them badly in the last year. Many prisoners described routinely rude and disrespectful behavior, lies, denial of care, and poorly trained health care staff.

  • Nearly 40% reported having to wait weeks or months to get the care they asked for. 55% reported that they see a nurse first for health care.

  • 60% or more reported not having a physical exam, teeth cleaning, or vision exam in the past year.• 82% reported needing medications, and about 40% of them reported that they either didn’t get them or sometimes got them.

  • 58% reported that they had received health care outside of prison. This was for a wide variety of issues including various surgeries, to see specialists, have scans done, or for dental work.

  • 79% reported having a chronic health condition and about half of them reported not getting adequate treatment. About half of the prisoners reported having health emergencies in the past year, with 60% of them reporting not being treated

  • Only 7% reported not getting mental health services in the past year but 38% reported not getting substance abuse treatment.


    Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) is a prisoner-led committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a prison abolitionist labor union. We strive to support imprisoned IWW members and other prisoners’ efforts to better their working and living conditions while also working toward prison abolition as a longer term solution. People who are being punished through imprisonment should not also be punished again with inadequate food and health care that could endanger their lives. This callous treatment is often the result of cost-cutting, racism, and an inhumane, punitive approach to imprisonment. A true investment in positive rehabilitation would provide quality food and health care that values prisoners’ lives. IWOC demands better treatment for prisoners. Decent quality food is the minimum a prison system should provide.

    Read the full report here.