Advocacy group says inmates eat toothpaste, toilet paper, salt to dull hunger

Prison food standards, kitchen sanitary violations questioned at commission meeting

By: - September 1, 2023 6:00 am

“It does concern me you keep noting these violations but they continue to happen consecutively,” said Attorney General Aaron Ford. (Nevada Department of Corrections photo)

Families of the incarcerated warned corrections officials that the lack of food in prisons has gotten to the point that those incarcerated “eat toilet paper” to dull hunger.

Food conditions and nutritional standards as well as recent violations of kitchen sanitary practices within the Nevada Department of Corrections were discussed during Wednesday’s meeting of the Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners, which includes Gov. Joe Lombardo, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar. Aguilar was absent from the meeting.

Several members of the prison advocacy group Return Strong, which has repeatedly brought up concerns about the lack of food given to those incarcerated, once again questioned the department’s food standards.

“One of our incarcerated members at Ely State Prison said, ‘I have eaten toothpaste and tums antacids or even salt for hunger pains. It helps for a little bit,’” said Pamela Browning, one of the members of the group. “Another said, ‘I eat toilet paper and hot water.’ Please tell me how this is humane?”

Along with lacking food, the group brought up story after story of people having to choose between not eating enough or eating contaminated food that makes them sick. 

“I have heard many times that the food was rotten and moldy,” Browning said. “An incarcerated member said they have gotten sick from eating meat that was either undercooked or bad.” 

The board also heard results of recent health inspections conducted at High Desert State Prison, Southern Desert Correctional Center and Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center, which all had several violations for kitchen equipment not being sanitized. 

Southern Desert Correctional Center had the most violations, which included handwashing sinks not stocked with soap or paper towels, high temperature dish machines in disrepair and “live roaches were observed throughout the culinary operations.”

It’s not the first time facilities had similar sanitation violations. 

Ford questioned why there have been “consecutive and repeated violations cited over several years.”

“It does concern me you keep noting these violations but they continue to happen consecutively,” he said. 

The department is working on updating and replacing equipment, including dishwashers, and plans to bring an $8.3 million funding request to the Interim Finance Committee in October. 

Officials said they have tried to make updates to equipment but have hit walls with funding and getting timely replacements.

“In my experience, the funding for critically needed culinary systems has been inadequately funded over the past 10 legislative sessions,” Kristina Shea, the deputy director for support services, told the board.

Vincent Valiente, a health inspector with the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, said with some of the issues, like sanitation practices of those working in the kitchen, he tried to correct on the spot. 

“The NDOC compliance enforcement officer that we tour with during inspection ensures corrective action will be properly taken by the facility for critical violations that could not be corrected by the end of each inspection,” he said.  

This is the first round of health inspections at Nevada Department of Corrections since Director James Dzurenda returned to the role this year. He previously served as director under former Gov. Brian Sandoval but was replaced under former Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Additional facilities are scheduled to be inspected through the remainder of the year.

Addressing some of the concerns about the lack of food brought up during public comment, Dzurenda said some of the issues stem from changes to food services in 2019.

“The state went in the direction to limit the amount of sodium in the food to 2200 milligrams and limit the amount of protein that could be in food,” he said. 

The department, Dzurenda said, is in the process of “moving back to a menu that is basically how it was pre 2019” and looking at menu options at prisons in other states that “had the least complaints and best nutrition and best adequate number of quantities of food.”

“The menus were requested to be put out to all offenders so they can actually select and determine what they would prefer,” Dzurenda said. 

Valiente said during recent inspections he didn’t find any deficiencies with nutrition standards. 

However, inspections don’t include conversations with people who are incarcerated about their meals. 

Ford asked if Valiente would consider having conversations with those incarcerated during his inspections to get their firsthand accounts on food being served. 

Valiente said he would consider it but added his “time is limited in the facilities and the offender staff I interact with is mainly in the culinary.”

Over the years, Return Strong has collected stories from those incarcerated to hear their concerns around access to health care, Covid protocols, their inmate bank accounts and food.

Yolanda Silva, another member with Return Strong, said the lack of food wears on those incarcerated and can result in mental health issues or lead to violent outburst.  

“The idea that when people are treated like animals they will act like animals is very real,” Silva said. “Incarcerated individuals are not being fed proper nutrition and are slowly being starved. This has lifelong effects on individuals. It’s up to us to make a change because they are human beings and should be treated as such.” 

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.