On Feb. 2, Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) introduced the Food Regulation Ensures Safety and Hospitality Specialty Training Aids Re-entry Transition and Success (FRESH STARTS) Act to improve quality food access in the D.C. Jail. This legislation would mandate that all D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities meet basic nutritional standards and adopt the Good Food Purchasing Policy, a program that provides a framework for large institutions to buy sustainable and nutritious food from local providers in an ethical manner.
“Access to healthy and nutritious food is the first step to ensuring an emotionally and physically balanced life,” Pinto wrote in a statement. “For too long, residents in the DC Jail have lacked sufficient healthy food options, which can lead to behavioral and other health challenges. With this legislation, we are putting an end to this practice.”
Many of those held at the D.C Jail have expressed concerns about the food provided, saying they only had access to processed food, which was sometimes expired, and that it was occasionally withheld as punishment. Others have described how their drinking water was discolored, and how they sometimes had to drink out of the sink.
“They feed you enough just so you don’t die,” Colie Long, a program associate of Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI) who had previously been incarcerated for over 26 years, said in an interview with the Voice. “For guys who didn’t have a lot of family support like this was their only meal. A lot of people really lived off of the commissary, you know. If you have people to look out for you, you can buy snacks and things of that nature and that kind of supplements you.”
Studies have also indicated that inadequate food can lead to aggressive tendencies, causing some to link violent behavior within the D.C. Jail to the lack of nutrition. Pinto hopes to reduce recidivism and violence in DOC facilities with the FRESH STARTS Act.
“When you’re hungry and the food is bad, you’ll be demoralized. You feel like an animal. You feel savage, so that’s why you’re so irritable. It only stands to reason that we have all these men in these high-stress situations, hungry, and then when they do get something to eat, the food is garbage, so you’re prone to do violent acts,” Long said.The push for the FRESH STARTS Act comes among other attempts to improve conditions within the D.C. Jail as incarcerated persons involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection have since filed official accusations regarding unsanitary practices and mistreatment. An inspection conducted by the U.S. Marshals Service determined that the conditions of the jail do not meet standards for federal prison detention, resulting in roughly 400 individuals being transferred out of the D.C. Jail in 2021.
In a Nov. 1 memo to the DOC in 2021, Acting U.S. Marshal Lamont J. Ruffin confirmed that residents appeared to be denied water and food for punitive reasons, with some not having access to drinking water or flushable toilets due to the water being shut off. The DOC responded by agreeing to five unannounced inspections of the D.C. Jail in 2022.
The FRESH STARTS Act calls for the creation of a Healthy Food in D.C. Correctional Facilities Task Force, dedicated to establishing nutritional guidelines based on the federal Dietary Guideline for Americans. By January 2024, all incarcerated persons in DOC facilities must be provided with daily meals consisting of nutrient-dense foods including fresh fruits and proteins and a very limited amount of sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.
The bill also mentions a “fresh foods” fund that can be used to purchase healthier foods and get out of the food-related contracts the D.C. Jail currently has with groups like Culinary Arts and Aramark. This fund will also go towards providing hospitality and culinary arts training for incarcerated residents. Upon release, the training program can help formerly incarcerated persons find employment.
“Our worst mistakes are not the total sum of our existence, and I see it in these people’s eyes when they graduate. It brings tears to my eyes. It’s like that phoenix mentality, how you rebuild yourself from the ashes,” Long said in relation to the Pivot Entrepreneurial Program and MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program he works on with PJI. Both programs are also dedicated to providing training and educational resources to help inmates with launching their careers at the end of their sentences.
With the D.C. Jail’s failure to maintain standards, there are talks of replacing the jail altogether with a smaller facility, a project considered in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 2022 budget proposal. A task force formed in 2019 created a list of recommendations to improve D.C.’s jails and criminal system, including building an annex next to the Correctional Treatment Facility that would allow the Central Detention Facility to close by 2027. The task force also proposed building an additional correctional facility by 2031 so that the Correctional Treatment Facility can also be torn down.
Regardless, efforts are still being made to improve conditions as much as possible for those currently incarcerated. According to Long, inmates struggle with the dehumanizing aspect of jail which is furthered by the lack of nutritional and consistent meals provided to them.
“A lot of people just want to be seen, they want to feel relevant. What greater to make someone feel relevant than being in a position where they receive something as simple as food that’s cooked with love, season, and care, that’s nutritious? That plays a lot in a person’s psyche,” Long said.