By Paul Gardner, Contributing Writer

By Paul Gardner, Contributing Writer

So why is our prison food constantly being watered down? Aside from the obvious fact that water is needed throughout the day to hydrate the body, it has absolutely no dietary value. The answer is … Money.

Now, you may think that it’s as simple as the equation “more water = less used prison food = less prison food to order = more money.” But you would be wrong. It’s more sinister and complicated than that.

The head person in charge of each prison kitchen is not a state employee, but a manager from a private company. He is given incentives to cut back on costs. They’re even awarded certificates and — if they set their aspirations high enough and achieve their goals — they are awarded a bonus for giving us the shaft and saving their company a little bit of money!

To me at least, it seems like this company is involved in an ethical nightmare. Are the private workers in the prison kitchen here to serve us a predefined amount of calories each day, or are they here to rip us off and “bring home the bacon” for themselves?

Let me attempt to put myself in the shoes of one of these outsourced “Prison Food Nazis.” So say I’m working in a prison kitchen for a private company that really isn’t paying me that much. It’s my job to organize the inmates working in the kitchen so they can get the meals ready for all of the other inmates.

Once it is ready, I sit on the other side of a 2’ x 6” opening that’s 3 feet off the ground — accepting meal tickets from faceless hands and handing them back their corresponding tray. And the only inmates I actually see all day are the ones that are under my supervision in the kitchen.

And then … what’s this? My boss is telling me I can get a $1000 bonus for any kind of kitchen creativeness that leads to a smaller food order for the next quarter? Alright! I got bills to pay. Anytime it says to add a fluid ounce of water, I’ll add a liter instead! What do I care about all of those faceless hands I take tickets from each day? They’re all criminals and probably deserve worse than this anyway. I only have to see my handful of prison workers each day and I can pay THEM off by letting them eat any of the food that’s left over after the meal. After my prison work crew is done eating, I’ll just throw away the leftovers anyway. (I can wash most of it down the sink because it’s already mostly water!) So everyone’s happy: my employer, the private company, me for getting a big bonus, and the only inmates I actually see each day, who get extra food. Problem solved.

Wrong! The problem is not solved – it’s been created! If you work for a company that is responsible for feeding thousands of people the needed calories that they require each day to survive, the first order of business should be to do the job you came to do. If you can accomplish that efficiently and you still have the ability to make a little extra money, then great – the more power to you.

But when a company is giving bonuses for behavior that is most likely running contrary to their public mission statement, you have what we would call a scam. It’s reminiscent of high-pressure encyclopedia salesman selling their wares to elderly folks in hospice at a nursing home and promising them a lifetime’s wealth of knowledge.

We get fed in prison like we were on some kind of extreme diet. No, seriously, we have a 6-week period of rotating meals on a menu, and every serving is listed according to the (meager) amount that we get. It looks something like this: Three 4-inch pancakes, ¾ cup grilled potatoes, 1 cup of hot cereal, etc. These portions are based on the actual caloric needs of an average adult. But sometimes black-and-white menus can be quite deceiving.

Yes, my pancakes are probably 4 inches in diameter. But is it supposed to be so thin that I can practically see through them, like film, to the orange tray it’s served on? You’d be honoring this layer of batter by calling it a crepe – and referring to it as a pancake is a whimsical chimera. One cup of hot cereal? Yeah right! Give me a break. Hot cereals are supposed to have some sort of viscous consistency. Why is it that during my walk from getting my tray to the table I will eat at, a third of my serving of hot cereal has swished and sloshed off of my tray and onto the ground? I’ll tell you why, and it happens to be the same reason for the pancakes … Water!! If I want water for breakfast, or any meal for that matter, I have no need to go and stand in line outside for 30 to 45 minutes and have it served to me on a tray. I could stay in my dorm and drink out of a water fountain – with no line.

But what can I do? I’m currently property of the state. I’m not Paul Gardner in their eyes–– I’m ADC #250168. That gives me about as much of a voice as the chair that I sit in as I write this. But at least I’m in contact with at least because of them I have the ability to reach out on the Internet and let the world know of some of the corruption that tends to run rampant from time to time in the prison system. I may not be getting all of the prison food that is promised me at each meal. But at least with on my side, I have food for thought – which may not nourish me throughout the day, but could help me to inspire change.

Paul Gardner has served his time and is now a free man, working and thriving in Arizona.