Virginia Prisoner Sues Over Food Behind Bars

Mar 22, 2018

Virginia has about thirty thousand people in its prisons, and for each one it spends $2.10 a day on food.  Now, one inmate is suing, alleging the daily diet puts him at high risk for obesity, cancer and many chronic conditions.

The plaintiff in a lawsuit claims prison food puts him at increased risk for cancer and many chronic diseases.
Credit Lisa Laboni / The Marshall Project

Joshua Wood has been in prison for 11 years.  He was convicted of murder when he was 20, but hopes to someday be paroled.  That’s why he’s trying to stay healthy, but he says it isn’t easy given the food prisoners are fed. .  He sent away for literature from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, then concluded the prison diet was too high in processed meat.

“Almost every meat currently served to us is a processed meat, which has been either smoked, slated or cured or has some kind of preservative added to it," he explains.  "Those type of meats the World Health Organization has considered carcinogens.”

He also points to an abundance of processed grains.

“When you just calculate the amount of bread items alone you're getting twice the recommended daily amount as outlined by the USDA in their dietary guidelines  at breakfast every morning,” Wood says.

So he  is suing the state in federal court, asking prison kitchens to stop serving processed meats, to stop counting juice as an acceptable alternative to fruit, to share recipes and ingredient labels with inmates and to conform to the USDA’s dietary guidelines.

The state asked to have the case dismissed, saying there is no evidence Wood has suffered physical harm, and he is not forced to eat the food served to him. It cites an Appeals Court ruling that the constitution does not guarantee a pleasant culinary experience for prisoners.  

Editor's note:  We asked the Virginia Department of Corrections for a response.  One day after our story aired we received this statement:

 The Virginia Department of Corrections follows high dietary standards, producing menus that meet or exceed the recommended dietary allowances as defined by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences.  The Department employs a statewide dietician who develops and analyzes the various menus served to offenders. Standard menus offer a daily caloric content of an estimated 2500-2600 calories and are based on the needs of the average VADOC male offender. 


Additionally, offender meals include a wealth of fruits and vegetables, much of which is grown by the VADOC.  As you may know, considerable acreage is dedicated to farming efforts that produce a rich bounty of dairy, grain and vegetable products. VADOC farms about 600 acres of vegetables which, thanks to its flash freeze operation, are incorporated in institutional meals throughout the year.


The Department also provides a variety special meals to meet health and religious concerns. These include, for instance, diabetic/carbohydrate controlled meals, vegetarian options and meals to accommodate those who have special dental/medical issues requiring special, liquid or soft foods. VADOC offers the common fare program which provides an appropriate religious diet that meets or exceeds minimum daily nutritional requirements.


VADOC also promotes nutrition education via a poster campaign that utilizes disease-specific 14” x 22” placards distributed to each institution. These nutrition education posters are placed in areas visible to offenders: dining, medical and offender living areas. Offenders who are unable to read or comprehend the educational materials have them read or explained to them.