Wearing a red jacket on an overcast March morning, Gary Thomas is the first to speak in the rough circle at the Partnership for Re-Entry Program (PREP) headquarters.

“Absolutely, my health went down because of the poor nutrition we got in prison. I developed coronary artery disease. I got a total of 15 stents before I had a heart bypass and 11 after the bypass. One of my arteries was 99 percent blocked due to cholesterol. Had to have surgery and be repaired with part of a bovine heart. I had an aortic aneurysm, and they had to repair that. They had to put two more stints in my lower abdomen. Now that I’m out, I work every day. I’m 70 years old, and if I don’t keep going, if I stop now, it’s all over.”

Thomas gives this medical report with a country twang and easy chuckle at the end. He served 30 years of a life sentence in eight different California prisons. 

PREP, a restorative justice ministry of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is housed on the first floor of a long-past-its-prime 2 1/2 story, blue-with-brown-trim Victorian in South LA. 

That is where Thomas and seven co-workers, all having served lengthy prison sentences, have left their computer stations to talk about a matter the Prison Policy Initiative called last year a hidden “public health problem.”

“When they started feeding us nothing but chicken or turkey products, it just got so old it was nasty,” Thomas went on. “So, a lot of guys ate from the commissary and vending machines. You could buy Top Ramen soups and mix that with different cheeses and meats to supplement that soup and make it last longer and a lot tastier to boot.”

One might argue prison meals have changed in the 34 California prisons that house 130,000 inmates since this “lifer” gained his freedom 3 1/2 years ago. But Tony Kim, the youngster in the group, readily disputes this. In his baseball cap and gray sweatshirt, he looks at least 10 years younger than his actual age of 50. 

“I supplemented my meals like Gary because one of the major issues at Stockton [prison] when I was there were grievances about the kitchen because of the way they prepared the food and the small portions,” says Kim, who just got out four months ago after serving 32 years in five prisons — and developed diabetic neuropathy along the way.

When his doctor recently asked him if he was a vegetarian because he was vitamin B-12 deficient, Kim says he replied, “No. Not by choice.”

Alfred Cruz, 60, is nodding. “Sure, it affected my health,” he points out, looking across the circle at me. 

“It’s hard to maintain a hard immune system when your body’s not receiving the right nutrition. I got hepatitis C in there, and TB (tuberculosis), and Valley fever. So, it’s hard for your body to fight when you’re not getting the right nutrition, the right vitamins. And with their medical system, if you do get sick, it’s hard to get any help.”

Daniel Adamik glances up through black-framed glasses. “While I was incarcerated, I also had a double bypass open-heart surgery. And the cardiologist said that one of the contributing factors to having two blockages was the poor nutrition that they had in the prisons,” he says. 

A recent study by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state reports like “Prison Voice Washington” by the Prison Policy Initiative have called the decline in food quality in prisons a growing “public health problem.”


Because the vast majority of incarcerated men and women in these state facilities eventually get out — many in a year or two. For example, the average prison time served in nearby Washington State is 29 months, while the median is just 16 months. 

And even a year on a poor high carb, sugary diet is more than enough time to inflict serious health consequences such as diabetes and coronary conditions on a person. 

There are two main reasons for prison food actually getting less nutritious, according to the report. Almost all state prisons — including California — have replaced cooking from scratch, with fresh vegetables, meat and poultry, with processed food from central factories that only need to be reheated. So, plastic-wrapped, sugar-filled “food products” have replaced locally grown and prepared healthy food.

Nationally, most of this processed food served to prisoners has been outsourced to two private corporations: Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group. Like all profit-making entities, their driving purpose is to make money for stockholders by cutting costs. 

After the impromptu bull session inside the seedy LA mansion, Sister Mary Sean goes outside to sit in a lawn chair on the front porch. Then the former teacher tries to explain to me why the quality of prison food is so important. And she should know. 

For 17 years, she has worked with former and current inmates serving lengthy sentences in California. She has seen firsthand how bad nutrition inside facilities carries over to chronic illnesses outside.

“Why did you really want Angelus News to do this story?” I ask.

The woman religious straightens up before speaking. “Because I see bad health among the men who work here at PREP and during my visits to prisons around California,” she says. 

“I see how bad it is mentally and physically. Many of them have serious health issues. And I know the food in these prisons is not nutritious. So, I think it’s a story that very few people know about. And I think it’s a major, major issue. 

“Almost all the people you talk to, inside or out, have health problems,” she adds. “So, I think it’s an abuse. I think it’s an abuse of mass incarceration.”

Full story at Angelus.