Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security women’s prison in New York’s Westchester County, might be known to many as one of the few U.S. prisons that allows new mothers to spend time with their children while incarcerated. While the unique program sets it apart from other women’s facilities, Bedford Hills is not immune to the kinds of critiques that are leveled against institutions all across the U.S. prison system—including critiques of the food being served inside. In recent weeks, women incarcerated at Bedford Hills have found themselves hungry for both adequate meals and information about what appears to be a dwindling food supply.
According to the New York affiliate of the national advocacy group Survived and Punished, women incarcerated in Bedford Hills have shared that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are being denied sufficient food. This joins a slew of other concerns that Survived and Punished has been tracking from women inside Bedford Hills about the lack of protection they are being afforded during this public health crisis.
Survived and Punished advocates on behalf of incarcerated survivors of domestic violence, rape, and other forms of gender violence. In addition to organizing fundraising initiatives and running campaigns calling for commutations and grants of clemency, a large part of the group’s work is maintaining close relationships with women who are currently incarcerated. That allyship with women in Bedford Hills is how they learned about the inadequate food provisions.
“We heard in the middle of last week from people about there being shortages [of] food,” said Maria Iskaros, a Survived and Punished New York member. “One example was getting half a cup of liquid for breakfast. Another example is that one day folks in the infirmary had to literally beg and scream and kick the doors to get their breakfast. And then another example was folks remarking about just getting the leftovers and the remains from the main meal, and not an actual meal that was made and set for them. So because of those things, folks inside are assuming that they’re running out of food.”
Survived and Punished New York cannot definitively say why these shortages might be happening, Iskaros said, but inadequate food has long been an issue in prisons around the country.
“We know that the starvation conditions and other torture incarcerated people at Bedford Hills are experiencing right now are endemic to prisons,” said Survived and Punished New York member Diana Colavita in a press release. “People at Bedford Hills have never been given edible food or had their nutritional needs met.”
Sheriffs and Departments of Correction across the country often boast about the low cost of their facility meals. In 2015, former Maricopa, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio removed meat from his facilities’ dining options and, on Thanksgiving of that year, proudly tweeted about the 56-cent holiday meal his facility would be serving. In 2017, former correctional food and nutritional services director for the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) raved about the daily meals served throughout the state’s facilities, all three of which cost only $2.84 per incarcerated person.
However, these low costs often reflect the compromised quality and nutrition of the meals served. Requirements for prison food are shaped by the facilities themselves, which tend to focus merely on whether meals meet certain calorie minimums. The result is nutritionally deficient meals that feature large amounts of high fat foods like milk and margarine, and fewer fruits and vegetables.
In New York state, DOCCS has praised itself for the fact that food served in their facilities is farmed in-state, with a majority being processed, cooked, and packaged within their own correctional facilities. The fact that incarcerated people eat mostly food that is produced by the facility itself is what makes prison into what Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), refers to as a “high dependency food environment.”
CANY is the only independent organization in New York with the authority under state law to provide oversight and monitoring of New York state correctional facilities. The organization confidentially communicates with currently incarcerated people. While prior to the pandemic CANY routinely made on-site visits, they have since continued to maintain contact through emails, letters, and surveys.
Scaife told Prism that an upcoming CANY report focuses on a survey about prison food that was conducted before the onset of the pandemic. The results, she said, illuminate longstanding complaints that people inside have had about their diets. “Eighty-seven percent of people said that they would like bigger portion sizes. I mean, 87%—that’s an extraordinary number,” said Scaife. “Eighty-six percent said that finances limit their access to food, so in other words not being able to buy supplemental foods in order to round out their diet.”
Other important findings that emerged from CANY’s survey were high levels of worry about the safety of food and a desire for more fresh fruits and vegetables.
That lack of care aligns with other complaints that Survived and Punished New York has received from their community members inside Bedford Hills. Over the past few weeks, the group has been monitoring other issues which include the denial of personal protective equipment, cleaning and hygiene products, 23-hour lockdowns, denial of medical care and testing, and a lack of complete information about their exposure levels to the virus.
In an email to Prism, DOCCS denied the claims made by Survived and Punished New York and the women inside Bedford Hills, arguing that the department has an ample supply of food for the more than 50 facilities that they oversee. DOCCS also shared an outline of actions that say they have taken to mitigate the virus’ spread, which include mandating that staff wear face masks, requiring those who are incarcerated to fashion masks from “state issued handkerchiefs,” suspending visitation, regularly showing videos about how to properly wash hands, and enhancing sanitizing measures throughout their facilities.
Survived and Punished New York organizers are calling upon their members to pressure DOCCS Supervisor Anthony Annucci and Bedford Hills Correctional Facility Superintendent Amy Lamanna to improve facility conditions, but they are also steadfast in their belief that people should not be incarcerated during this pandemic at all. They have joined a host of other New York-based organizers in calling upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo to use his clemency power, noting that unlike governors in Kentucky, Illinois, Oklahoma, and California, Cuomo has yet to make a single grant of clemency since the onset of the pandemic.
In addition, Iskaros said that a safety net must also be provided to these women after they are freed. “The only way we’re gonna get out of this situation is by decarcerating … and upon decarceration, making sure that everybody who is released is getting the medical attention that they need as well as their housing needs addressed. There’s a whole lot that needs to happen,” Iskaros said.
For now, Survived and Punished New York is balancing that larger call for decarceration with efforts to meet the immediate needs of women currently inside. Earlier this month, the group set up an emergency food fund to send money to the commissary accounts of women inside Bedford Hills. By using a mutual aid model, they hope to ensure that even in the midst of so much uncertainty, these incarcerated women won’t have to wonder when their next meal might be.