Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

How Not To Lose Weight

In my last post, I discussed lofty goals for the New Year:  Listening, Love & Service. As Deb would say, "True that."  But let's keep it real, here and now, feet on the ground - for many, this time of year calls out for us to try, yet again, to lose those last pesky 5/10/20 pounds.

Well, if your eyes are on that prize, let me make a suggestion:  don't break the law. Or at least, don't break the law and get caught.  More specifically, don't break the law, get caught, and get incarcerated in the State of Connecticut.  The list of food choices in CT's women's prison, reads like a list of "What Not To Eat."

  • Oodles of Noodles (aka "Hot Salt")
  • Little Debbie Snack Cakes  (Are they still legal?)
  • Stew (aka "Slop") with mysterious protein pellets
  • Cheeseburgers (If you're lucky, the woman across from you doesn't want hers and you can have two.)
  • Oatmeal, sweetened
  • Peanut Butter & Jelly, on white bread
  • Baloney (often green & slippery)
  • Fluff (Really?)
You get the picture. Healthy snacks from the commissary include granola and fruit juices which, actually, are not that healthy, so scratch that. There will be cooked vegetables at lunch and dinner, and occasionally whole pieces of fruit, so you can get some nutrition and fiber there. You have about 6 minutes to eat, so peel and chew quickly. Removing food from the cafeteria is prohibited, but if no one is looking, try slipping the fruit into your bra to consume at a more normal pace later on. Remember what you learned about chewing slowly and letting your brain realize that you are full? No time for that. Shovel, shovel. Keep it moving.

It is striking that while community-based organizations are making tremendous effort to bring fresh, healthy food to people through Farmer's Markets, school-based programs and corner bodegas, once somebody is incarcerated, once the State has complete control over what the individual eats, all bets are off.  In this environment, corn syrup and white flour no longer seem like such a bad idea.

The woman in the interview I was working on today is a 33 year old African-American woman who is 5'4" and weighs 230 pounds.  Do the math and that's a BMI of 39.5.  Obese is defined as a BMI over 30.  This is way over. She talked a lot about trying to make healthy choices and lose weight while incarcerated.  Eating salad whenever possible.  Going to aerobics class.  Taking a nutrition class. Still, she ended up gaining 20 pounds during the 8 months she was in prison.  

As a feminist and a social worker and a person who is trying this year to be nice, I am extremely reluctant to engage in any kind of dialogue about how much people should weigh and what people should eat. I am enthusiastic supporter of sugar and fat - everything in moderation! - and celebrate all the sizes and shapes of the human body.  I would never suggest that prisons should not make junk food available to inmates. Nevertheless, it does seem unethical, unwise and unhealthy for the State to hold women in an environment where weight gain is almost inevitable, even for those who want to lose weight.

Is it that healthy food is too expensive?  Too difficult to serve en masse?  Too hard to preserve on the shelves?  Is it that we need to use up all the corn and cheese that we have subsidized?  Is it that they are prisoners and bad food is part of the punishment?  Is it that they have broken the law and shouldn't eat better than law-abiding citizens?  (Oh yeah, that reminds me, why do law-abiding citizens in our country go hungry?) Is it that they thought no one would notice?  Is it because no one cares?

All that and more, but still doesn't make it the smart choice. Obesity is a major public health problem in the United States and it's costing us a pretty penny. Nearly all the women in my study gained weight while incarcerated: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 pounds. Even when you factor in that they may have been underweight when they arrived, that's too much. We can do better. Efforts to promote healthy communities should not stop at the prison door.