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Marylhurst grad takes on prison food reform

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Rebekah Mende received a Master of Science in Food Systems & Society from Marylhurst University in June. Mende wants to change prison food from serving as punishment to becoming restorative.Three Marylhurst University alumni who graduated this June are impacting inmates: past, present and (hopefully not) future. Starting last week, The Review is providing one profile per week of these alums from the school just south of Lake Oswego. Each member of this trio is striving to make a difference, whether it’s Adam Ross supporting at-risk kids who could wind up incarcerated, Rebekah Mende addressing racial inequalities in correctional institutions or Brandon Hoggans sharing his experiences as an inmate and how he wants to help others transition to the world once the prison gate clangs shut behind them. The piece on Ross ran July 16, Mende’s story appears today and Hoggans’ will publish on July 30.

PAMPLIN GRAPHIC: KATE SCHNELL - The Review is sharing the stories of three Marylhurst University alumni who graduated this June and are impacting inmates: past, present and (hopefully not) future. A decade ago, Rebekah Mende was 28 and didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life.

She grew up in Maine and one day, having heard that Oregon was a good place to be, she up and headed for the City of Roses.

“I was in a transition phase; I really didn’t have any direction,” Mende said. But she found it.

She earned an associate degree in horticulture at Clackamas Community College and then a bachelor’s in community development at Portland State University, where she did her capstone project on women’s prison gardens. Capstones allow students to delve into real-world problems and connect and collaborate with faculty and community leaders while seeking solutions.

As part of her capstone, Mende visited Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington, which has one of the nation’s first garden programs for inmates, she said.

“I had a great experience up there that spurred my interest in looking at prison food reform,” she said.

Mende then moved on to Marylhurst University, where in June she received a Master of Science in Food Systems & Society, the only degree in that field in the world, according to a press release from the school.

Now, she has a blooming career fighting for social justice in the prison system. She’s working with prison populations and wants to better the lives of inmates, who sometimes are given poor food as punishment. Mende said that’s not how you reform people.

“Prison food systems reform has the potential to increase public health rates, decrease recidivism and empower a powerless community,” she said in her thesis.

She wants to be a part of that reform and take on the daunting issue of inequality.

“In issues of food justice, there are a lot of holes in the dam. I chose to put my finger in this one,” she said.

Mende’s thesis, “Food Justice and Prison Food Systems: Exploring the Potential for Reframing Prison Food from Punitive to Restorative,” is itself a step toward a better understanding of how food can be used against inmates. She said it explores how “prisons have deliberate mechanisms of power and how food is used as one of those mechanisms.”

Mende said she decided to take what she learned and head south because of what she sees as a greater need outside of Oregon.

“Portland is great, but it’s kind of a bubble, and the things I was reading about, I wasn’t really able to experience first-hand,” Mende said. “There’s need in Portland, but there’s greater need elsewhere.”

She said she moved to New Orleans because it has some of the harshest prisons in the nation. Louisiana correctional institutions house a disproportionate number of African-Americans as compared to the state population. The numbers indicate that Oregon correctional institutions also have an inequality issue when it comes to race, but Louisiana’s is far more pronounced.

“So knowing the huge inequalities in the south and also the prison systems down here, I felt like I wanted to come down here,” she said. “They’re notorious.”

The U.S. Census Bureau in 2014 estimated the population of Louisiana at 4.65 million people; 1.5 million are African-American, nearly 32 percent. That same year, the Census Bureau estimated Oregon’s population at 3.97 million; of that total, 2.9 percent are African American, 91 percent are Caucasian.

There are 37,651 inmates in Louisiana; 68 percent are African-American and 31 percent are Caucasian, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections. According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, of the 14,632 adults in custody on July 1, 2014, 74 percent were white and 9 percent were African American. Both states have a higher percentage of Black people incarcerated than in the actual population.

Not only are there racial disparities in correctional institutions, but there also have been issues with the kind of food inmates are given and the conditions they endure.

TakePart, a digital magazine, named Louisiana State Penitentiary one of the 10 worst prisons in the world. Previously called Angola Prison, it is a farm prison where inmates work year-round. A federal judge ruled last year that death row inmates there were subject to cruel and unusual punishment, sitting in unventilated cells without access to cool water while the temperature indoors soared in the summer.

Inmates who misbehave are punished by being forced to eat nutraloaf. Nutraloaf is used as punishment in correctional institutions throughout the nation and is generally a dense mass of reheated leftovers, according to a January 2014 NPR article.

Just this past May in Oregon, an inmate who had been a gang member and sex offender alleged that jail staff abused him sexually and repeatedly fed him nutraloaf, affecting him emotionally and physically, according to the New York Daily News.

Mende said a lot of her work now will focus on activism, supporting entrepreneurs doing social justice work, and she’s now in a place where she feels she is needed.

“This is a whole different bag of tricks down here,” she said.

By Jillian Daley
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