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Aramark corporate name and logo on the side of a concrete building
Photo by Tony Webster (CC BY 2.0)

Chow Hall is a semi-regular column by Justin Slavinski, a writer incarcerated in Florida who provides anecdotes and insights about food and meals served in prison.

There are three types of lunches at Everglades Correctional Institution in Florida.

Southern barbecue and sloppy Joes are the standard. Residents have also cobbled together what we call a “Happy Meal” two or three times a week when we are allowed to buy up to three items at the canteen: a hot sandwich, a bag of chips and a soda. The sandwiches are low quality, microwaved fare, the type you might find at a local convenience store — burgers, burritos, chicken sandwiches and so on. If I buy a pepperoni calzone ($3.96), a bag of garlic, bagel chips ($1.44), a Coke ($1.05), and add some Velveeta jalapeño cream cheese (93 cents), I’ll have spent $7.38.

That’s a steep price, especially considering most residents in Florida’s prison system aren’t paid — at most institutions, the only paid residents are the canteen operators and the staff barber. That means the onus on getting us personal care items or supplemental food falls to our families.

But that cost pales in comparison to the latest offerings from Aramark, called iCare Packages. The contractor in April started selling double cheeseburgers, barbecue boneless wings, personal pepperoni pizzas and French toast breakfast sandwiches.

They cost triple what I pay at the canteen. The cheeseburger and wings cost $22.99, pizza and wings are $21.99, just wings are $12.99 and the breakfast sandwich is $8.99.

The first three include potato tots, four Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and a Pepsi. The last one skips the cookies — I mean, who wants cookies for breakfast (unless they have Nutella on them)?

The first day these were offered, 70 people got a meal, paid for by family or friends. The second day, 170 people enjoyed the meal — a hair more than 9% of the compound. Reviews from residents were mostly positive.

“I couldn’t finish, there was so much,” Michel Thomas said.

“The Pepsi was ice cold. Right out of the cooler,” Scott Lowe said.

“If you’re wondering if it’s worth it, it totally is,” Eddie Ravelo said. “The beef [in the burger] was quality beef. It tasted great.”

“It was life-changing. The burger was like — I could barely fit it in my mouth,” Gustavo Guerra said, as he held out his hands as if he was grabbing a small cantaloupe.

“The pizza was mostly dough. I’d rate it a 3 out of 10,” a man I didn’t know called out to me while coming back from the meal. 

I called my mom soon after to complain about the prices, and to sneakily hint that I might be possibly interested in trying a meal. Mid-complaint, she asked about the food itself. As soon as I said “two Angus patties,” she interrupted me.

“If you go to Chili’s, Applebee’s, TGI Fridays or Beef ‘O’ Brady’s right now and get an Angus burger, you’d pay no less than $15,” she said.

I’m not prone to moments of silence, but I had no answer to that. She said boneless wings are typically $1 per wing, sometimes more. A soda in a restaurant is at least $3, and those cookies might as well be about $3 for all four. They are name brand after all.

Where does that leave us? On the low end: $27. Which is about what one of the Aramark meals costs, after a service fee.

I’m so used to thinking the whole world is out of whack — and it obviously is — that I failed to take into account that perhaps it might be me this time. I’ve been away from the real world for a decade. In here, things don’t change all that much all that quickly. We’re flies trapped in the Florida Department of Corrections’ slow-moving sap, soon to become amber.

Inflation waits for no man. My mom went on to describe how a dozen eggs is now at least $6. A pound of butter is $4. She dared me to guess how much lamb chops cost. I was at a loss. Foods I used to take for granted as being reasonably priced are stratospheric now, like burgers and Tater Tots.

Ironically, we’re somewhat insulated from inflation here. Canteen rate hikes are capped, though we’re due for another adjustment in December.

My knee-jerk reaction had been that this was yet another instance of my for-profit friends at Aramark trying to profit off the families of incarcerated individuals who lack access to quality food. But they may not be profiting as much as I’d thought. It may be that — gasp! — their prices are actually fair.

I’ve since tried one of the iCare Packages. And my mom’s comparisons were right; the food is on par with what you could get at a sports bar. For those in prison without a chance to have “real world” food, it is pretty special — like a coconut to a man adrift in the ocean.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Justin Slavinski is a writer for Endeavor, a publication at Everglades Correctional Institution in Florida.