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This Prison Teaches Inmates How To Grow Their Own Food

Residents Julio Orsini and Jesse Mackin share a meal together with staff during lunch break in the garden at the Mountain View Correctional Faciltiy in Charleston Maine in August of 2021.
Kevin Bennett
Residents Julio Orsini and Jesse Mackin share a meal together with staff during lunch break in the garden at the Mountain View Correctional Faciltiy in Charleston Maine in August of 2021.

Food served in prisons and jails is notoriously dreadful.  Picture mystery meat drenched with dull gravy and a heavy reliance on overly processed starch.

Studies show that prison diets are often lacking in nutrition, low in fruits and vegetables and high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat.  According to the advocacy group Impact Justice many meals are downright unpalatable: overcooked, undercooked or just plain rotten.  Russell Rollins says the worst meals he's had during his incarceration were in county jail.

"Usually, the lettuce that they give you, it's all brown and its slimy and it definitely does a number on the guts," he says.

Julio Orsini says he's often gone to bed hungry because he couldn't stomach what was being offered in the chow hall line.  While serving time in one county jail, for example, Orsini worked in the kitchen where he says he handled boxes of food labeled "Not for Human Consumption."

"So, like the oatmeal, the ham...It leaves us questioning to ourselves, like what are they feeding us?" Orsini says.

Leslie Soble of the Prison Food Project at Impact Justice says stories like these are not unusual.

"It's really hard to provide a good quality and nourishing meal for about $3 per person per day which is about the average in this country.  It's much less in some facilities."

And, says Soble, there's a general lack of accountability and oversight around food preparation in correctional settings.   

"You know, there's this sentiment that individuals who have caused harm are not deserving of quality food.  They're not deserving of wellness and care.  You know, they're not disposable but that's the message that we're sending them through food," Soble says.

One approach is locally sourced, locally grown food.

In a recent report, Impact Justice highlighted Maine's Mountain View Correctional Facility as one prison that is on the right track.  Its garden can produce more than 100-thousand pounds of vegetables each year. 

Head cook Tim Rooney is serving time at Mountain View but says he likes working in the kitchen where the emphasis is on making meals from scratch using vegetables grown and harvested by other residents across the road.

Copyright 2021 Maine Public

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Deputy News Director Susan Sharon is a reporter and editor whose on-air career in public radio began as a student at the University of Montana. Early on, she also worked in commercial television doing a variety of jobs. Susan first came to Maine Public Radio as a State House reporter whose reporting focused on politics, labor and the environment. More recently she's been covering corrections, social justice and human interest stories. Her work, which has been recognized by SPJ, SEJ, PRNDI and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has taken her all around the state — deep into the woods, to remote lakes and ponds, to farms and factories and to the Maine State Prison. Over the past two decades, she's contributed more than 100 stories to NPR.