The Texas prison system wants to serve slightly more edible food. As part of a long-term plan, the corrections agency aims to do away with the worst of prison fare — the meager and sometimes moldy brown-bag meals served during lockdowns, which occur regularly and can last for weeks, according to The Marshall Project. Though lockdown meals have generated complaints for years, the public didn’t get a look at how awful they y were until 2020, when The Marshall Project and Hearst Newspapers published images of them captured with contraband phones. Afterward, the food improved in some prisons — but only for a short time, prisoners reported. Now, the agency is making plans for more permanent improvements by starting a new culinary training program, in hopes of doing away with cold meals. “One of Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s goals for 2030 is to replace sack meals with nutritious, shelf-stable meals,” said prison spokespeson Amanda Hernandez. The agency will partner with the prison system’s in-house school district to “develop new Career and Technical Education courses in culinary arts that teach students about creating and distributing these types of meals.” That effort will start with a pilot program to provide warm lockdown meals this spring at the Wallace and Ware units in West Texas and Stringfellow near Houston.
Texas prison food has been poor since at least 2011, when officials dealt with a budget shortfall by chopping $2.8 million out of the money for feeding prisoners. That meant replacing hot dogs and hamburger buns with white bread, switching to powdered milk from liquid, and feeding people only twice a day on weekends at some facilities. As the regular mess hall fare got worse, lockdown meals did too. Whenever a Texas prison goes on lockdown because of an escape, a contraband search, or a pandemic, the mess halls close, and prisoners are confined to their bunks and cells. Bagged lunches known as “johnny sacks” replace cafeteria meals. The johnnies include a bland breakfast — something like boiled eggs, dry cereal, and raisins — while lunch and dinner are usually two sandwiches each, sometimes with a side of prunes or cornbread. Though advocates urged the legislature to boost food funding for prisons last session, that did not happen. After adjusting for inflation, Texas prisons still spend less on food per prisoner than they did before the 2011 budget cuts. The agency’s proposed budget includes only a slight increase in food funding, from $95.3 million in the current fiscal year to $98.8 million for next year. Creating a vocational program will shift some of the new costs to the prison’s school system.