Skip to Main Content

New Diet Gives Women Inmates ‘Lighter’ Sentence


When Margaret Chippendale took over as warden at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women five years ago, she saw something jarring.

“I was running into inmates that I knew when they were at other facilities and they just looked bigger,” Chippendale said.

The corrections veteran did some investigating and sure enough found that women inmates were receiving the same amount of calories as men, about 3,200 a day.

The menu at the institution included three slices of white bread, white rice, potatoes and macaroni and cheese, heavy on the starches and carbohydrates that the body turns into sugar and thus fat.

“Who eats three slices of white bread every meal?” Chippendale said. “I don’t.”

So Chippendale and other dietary leaders from the department put together a task force to address the issue. They found that women need a menu that provides about 2,200 to 2,400 calories a day so they slowly began reducing the inmate intake.

They quietly added yogurt and cottage cheese to the menu, offered wheat bread instead of white, added fresh vegetables and fruits and made salads more available. They took the sugar out of ice tea and Kool-Aid and added sugar substitutes.

“They walk out of here healthier and leaner,” said Rudeine Demissie, the institution’s dietary manager.

The changes also addressed the health of a female inmate population that is growing older across the nation and facing diseases such as osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer. Adding fiber and vegetables such as broccoli helps, Demissie said.

“It’s always a benefit to curb problems by offering a healthier menu,” she said.

Task force members acknowledged that they faced a hurdle in “the yuk factor,” inmates rejecting the new foods that are good for them much like children.

“They learn a preference at an early age so they have 30 years of eating habits,” said Maria Maximo-Sabundayo, director of Maryland’s correctional food services. “Even when a doctor prescribes a diet, you don’t always follow it.”

The department surveyed the inmate women to determine if the new foods were being accepted. About 80 percent approved of the healthier items on the menu.

“When we have cauliflower and broccoli, the dining room is packed,” said Jermel Chambers, an inmate who has been in the institution for 18 years. “And the fruit they give us has the sweetness we love. It’s better than what we had a few years back.”

Deborah Rowe is known as “The Mayor” of  the institution for her activism on behalf of inmates.

“I have women come up to me and say ‘Miss Debbie, thanks for getting us some fresh fruit,’” she said. “I came from a county jail and we were lucky to get applesauce. You come in with a bad menu and eating habits to start with.”

Rowe believes the menu is helping women who have ravaged their bodies through drug addiction, she said.

“We can’t fix the damage already done but if we can maintain the illnesses, it cuts down on the health care costs for the state,” she said. “It’s not a privilege for women who are incarcerated, it’s a necessity. It will be a new habit they form.”

The good eating habits, combined with regular exercise available at the institution, also calms the facility, Rowe said.

“It mentally and emotionally makes you feel better,” she said. “And when you feel better about yourself, that keeps the peace because you’re not going to be cranky.”

The changes are even going over well with the young millennials such as Dacora Ross, 24.

“At this age, we’re not thinking of a diet,” Ross said. “But what the prison is giving us is going to help us in the future.”