Credit: Stop the Musick Coalition

Stop the Musick Coalition report on food conditions in the Orange County jails: “Cold, Rotting, & Moldy Meals: Food Oppression in the Orange County Jails.”

Credit: Stop the Musick Coalition

Food conditions in Orange County jails have always been bad, but for almost two years, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) has served cold, rotting bologna sandwiches for every meal while pocketing the savings. The Stop the Musick Coalition (STM) collaborated with incarcerated members and partners of the coalition to investigate the menu, nutrition content, and budget for the food in OC jails. We relied on OCSD’s response to our Public Records Act request, publicly available records, and testimony from the people who are living in the jails to paint a picture of food conditions inside–and it’s horrible.

Food deprivation is just another example of violence against incarcerated people. STM is standing in solidarity with incarcerated organizers who are demanding adequate food and pushing the Orange County Board of Supervisors (BOS) to stop writing blank checks to OCSD while turning a blind eye to the suffering of our incarcerated neighbors. Join us to demand that the BOS: (1) stop approving more funding to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department until they have fully reinstated hot meals and (2) provide an opportunity for meaningful dialogue with the community by agendizing the food conditions in the jails at the next BOS meeting.

In March 2020, OCSD closed its jail kitchen as a “COVID precaution,” despite the fact that a judge found that OCSD had not heeded CDC guidelines regarding other important precautions like social distancing and providing adequate cleaning supplies. After kitchen closure, the jail menu consisted of three cold sandwiches a day. “Sometimes the bread comes moldy or soggy; we are pretty much starving,” shared K. “The milk sometimes comes sour, it expired, and yet they pass it out like that. Honestly, it seems that they don’t care because at the end of the day they go home and eat fresh cooked meals […] we stay here.”

Graph of sodium levels in food served in OC jails. Credit: Stop the Musick Coalition

These bologna sandwiches are not only revolting, they are extremely unhealthy. In 2019, a grand jury report found that hypertension, which can be caused or exacerbated by high levels of sodium, was a leading cause of unnecessary deaths in OC jails. Yet the pandemic menu is even higher in sodium than the previous hot meals were, packed with over twice as much as the recommended daily sodium.

“You can watch people becoming sicker,” S. shared. “I’ve heard of people who are becoming hypoglycemic or were told that they are in danger of thyroid disease because of weight gain. The food is so salty that my hands and feet feel swollen after eating.”

In 2020, the kitchen closure and a reduced jail population allowed OCSD to pocket almost $1 million that was allocated to the food budget, rolling the savings over to staffing expenditures and the sheriff’s general budget. Despite the surplus, OCSD continued to feed the cheap, often inedible sandwiches.

Graph of OCSD’s food budget and expenditures. Credit: Stop the Musick Coalition

Graph of the average amount spent on commissary per person per day. Credit: Stop the Musick Coalition

After a surge of COVID cases, ACLU litigation and community advocacy forced OCSD to lower the jail population by 50%, from 6,000 people to 3,000 people, yet food conditions remained dismal and many people had to resort to purchasing food from the commissary store to survive. Despite the fact that the commissary store had only half as many customers in 2021, it took in $10.1 million in revenue in 2021–almost the same amount as in 2019 ($10.6 million). By 2021, at a time when many were already struggling financially because of the pandemic, people were spending on average twice as much per day on commissary as they did in 2019.

Although the jail population is at a historic low and people in existing jails continue to suffer, the Orange County Board of Supervisors (BOS) has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding so that OCSD can expand and reopen the currently-empty James A. Musick Jail between Irvine and Lake Forest. Our county continues to pour funding into expanding carceral facilities without investing in community based care or housing and without ensuring that those who are already incarcerated are receiving basic necessities.

Orange County jails disproportionately incarcerate people of color, unhoused people, and people facing economic instability. Incarceration traumatizes people and extracts wealth from families through fines, fees, commissary costs, and phone call costs. Incarceration also excludes people from access to economic opportunity by causing incarcerated people to lose work and their families to lose a source of income, then imposing barriers to employment after release. Incarceration causes further housing instability because a criminal record creates additional barriers to accessing housing.

Jails are traumatic, abusive, and violent places. STM does not believe that better meals can make a cage humane. We believe that all human beings deserve basic necessities, including adequate food. We believe that money allocated to OCSD’s food budget shouldn’t be used for other expenses when incarcerated people are going hungry. We believe that the BOS should not be funding a new jail, especially when the existing ones do not provide adequate food.

Want to get involved in advocating for better food conditions? Submit a comment at the upcoming BOS meeting.

Flier to submit a public comment for the 1/11 BOS meeting. Credit: Stop the Musick Coalition

Sarah Kahn is a member of Transforming Justice Orange County and the founder of Free Verse Project.

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