The Great Food Fight of 2009

Food trayA prison is a building in which people are legally confined as punishment for a crime. A Penitentiary is a place for socially sanctified punishment, reformation, and discipline.  There’s just enough difference between the two definitions to create some controversial space.

If the function is purely disciplinary then the absence of educational, mental health, and reformatory services isn’t all that important.  However, this perspective ignores an obvious reality:  Most of the individuals incarcerated by the State of Nevada are going to eventually be released.

Of the 13,110 inmates reported as of November 28, 2013:  0.63% have an “active death sentence.” 21.42% are serving an “indeterminate,” or life sentence.  [DOC pdf]  Therefore, 77.95% of those currently residing in Nevada’s prisons are going to return to general society.  We know they were car thieves, or drug sellers, or spousal batterers, or whatever sort of felon when they were sentenced.  The question which needs to be asked after sentencing is — What are they going to be when they get out?

The Exemplary 2009 Food Fight

In October 2013 Corrections Director Greg Cox,” noted that per inmate costs are $19,907 a year, which he said was “on the low side.” California inmates costs are $24,000 per inmate, he added. Nevada inmates are allotted just $2.54 per day for food, with the same menu used at all prisons.” [LVRJ]

For those of the “prison perspective the $2.54 is too much.  In 2008 Republican legislator James Settelmeyer took his cue from Arizona, proposing further food service cuts:

“Settelmeyer, like many fans of harsher prison settings, points to the work of Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who likes to brag he feeds inmates for 30 cents a day, even though the truth is something more like $2 and some change. Arpaio has managed to cut back food costs, Settelmeyer said, and “make prison just a little bit less enjoyable.” [LVSun]

Thus Assembly Bill 228 was introduced in the 2009 session of the Nevada Legislature.  The confluence of diet and punishment emerged in the committee hearings.  [NevLeg pdf]  Assemblyman Horne asked about the differentiation between high risk inmates (who spend about 23 hours locked in) and those in lower risk categorizations (who are allowed more time out of their cells.)  Indeed, prison would be a ‘less enjoyable’ experience for those who could assemble with others for meals, as opposed to being in their cells for a distribution of a cold breakfast.  Horne noted that ‘privileges’ such as being allowed yard and meal time was a tool used by prison management to promote cooperation, and that the removal of such ‘tools’ would create both morale and management problems.

Secondly, Horne ask about the procurement process, observing that local businesses were the ones supplying the breakfast items, and suggested that the loss of these contracts would result in a decline in the revenues for local businesses.  Nevada, unlike some neighboring states, purchases food products locally.

A third major cautionary segment concerning the Arpiao Promoters came to the fore when those who were actually involved in prison food service spoke of food handling and transportation issues, and nutritional issues such as finding a protein substitute for eggs — at possibly greater expense.  The hearing closed after Assemblyman Settelmeyer agreed to receive several friendly amendments and others offered to secure more information.  The bill died in committee.

If nothing else, the 2009 Food Fight illustrated the difference between the theoretical and ideological arguments of the Tough Guy approach — punishment first — elements, and the perspectives of those who actually have to deliver food services to the prison population.  First, Settelmeyer and his supporters were careful to couch their proposal in “cost savings” language.  Food, Settelmeyer observed, should not be used as a form of punishment.  However, the actual cost savings became less clear as the practical details involved in the actual delivery of food to such institutions as the High Desert prison were explained.  Nor was the cost savings any more apparent when food service professionals tried to explain the nutritional basics for any institutional meal plan.  The question was not revived in the 2013 session.

The low tier-high tier differentiation between prisoners in a single institution as described in the Food Fight of 2009  may also mirror the larger systemic situation.  The last audit report published for 2010-2011 (pdf) indicates that 17.32% of Nevada’s prisoners were “minimum security,” and another 61.62% were “medium security” inmates.  17.85% of inmates were categorized as “close security,” and only 3.22% were said to require “maximum security.”  Thus, some 78.94% of Nevada inmates required less than close or maximum security — the form of imprisonment most often imagined by proponents of the Tough School.

Alternatives

Taking a step further — there are alternatives under which the state of Nevada would have even fewer inmates to house and to feed.  For example, the maintenance of Mental Health Courts could be utilized to screen those whose psychological/psychiatric issues are better addressed by hospitalization or out-patient treatment than in a prison context.  Likewise the expansion of Veterans Treatment Courts could better serve former members of the armed forces who are suffering from service related trauma, substance abuse issues, and other mental illness concerns.

Speaking of Specialty Courts, “Nevada has 46 Specialty Court programs: 29 urban and 17 rural programs. These 46 programs include 17 adult drug courts including, diversion and child support, 3 family drug courts, 3 mental health courts, 6 juvenile drug courts, 2 prison re-entry courts, 6 DUI courts, 5 hybrid DUI/drug courts, 1 prostitution prevention court, 1 veterans treatment court, and 2 habitual offender courts.” [NVJS] What might we achieve if we allocated more resources to these Specialty Courts?

We might also take a look at the way we prosecute individuals in Category B felonies, for which there is a one year minimum to twenty year maximum sentence in Nevada.  One element is that a person has been convicted of “multiple felony convictions.”  Granted that gang recruitment is nothing we want to encourage, but a person could be incarcerated under Category B for a combination of gang recruitment by an adult plus setting fires to some unoccupied structures or landscaping (third degree arson).  Under the expansive definition of Category B’s “multiple” concept a string of drug possession convictions could result in “multiple felony convictions.”  If we’d step back from the Throw the Book at them mentality, and seek alternatives such as Drug Courts, and more emphasis on rehabilitation services, there might be fewer Category B felons in need of housing by the state of Nevada.

In short, Nevada’s prison population trends are generally downward, thereby keeping the budget pressures from building as they did in 2010.  Some thought expended on how to resolve issues leading to criminal behavior AND reducing the costs of incarceration would be a good exercise in the 2015 legislative season.

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