Some of the women incarcerated at Arizona's Perryville prison saw the bright red letters spelling out "not for human consumption" on the sides of cardboard boxes containing chicken. Others remembered seeing the label slapped on packages of lunch meat.
But all of the women recalled seeing the explicit message at some point on parcels of food during their tenures at the prison, about 25 miles west of Phoenix.
In response to tips from former inmates, Phoenix New Times spoke with six women, who served time for crimes ranging from burglary to manslaughter, about the food served in Perryville.
Some women were incarcerated in the early 2000s; others got out this year. They lived on varying yards and worked different jobs in the prison, but their experiences converged in seeing food they said was clearly marked as not being for humans.
The Arizona Department of Corrections denies that food labeled "not fit for human consumption" was or is served in state prisons, which contract with Trinity Services Group to feed nearly 42,000 inmates. Trinity's history of service to inmates in other states includes food so bad that it sparked protests. It has served inmates maggot-infested chow and potatoes laced with "crunchy dirt."
Lola Levesque entered Perryville at the end of 2003 and was released in 2015. She spent the middle years of her sentence on the Santa Cruz unit. It was there, she said, that she occasionally helped unload food delivery trucks, and discovered that the rumors floating around the yard were true.
"I personally only saw it on the chicken legs and thighs that were coming in," Levesque said. She said she knew that the food ended up in the kitchen, because the boxes went into a walk-in cooler.
Levesque now works as a community-based organizer for Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, a local grassroots group.
Julie Butler did five years, from 2003 to 2008. When she first arrived, she worked in the kitchen. Cardboard boxes of chicken came clearly stamped with "not for human consumption" on their sides, she said. "Everybody saw it."
"We'd ask about it all the time," Butler said. "I never got a straight answer."
The odd thing was that those chicken parts, usually legs and thighs, looked normal, Butler said, and so she could only speculate as to why they'd been labeled "not for human consumption." Eventually, she said, the prison stopped serving it.
She did not know where the chicken had come from, and she estimated that during her incarceration it was served every one or two weeks, "usually undercooked."
More than a decade later, recent ex-inmates report that the chicken "not for for human consumption" is still served, but infrequently. Instead, they say that items that should not be fed to people but are nevertheless being fed to inmates, are the lunch meats.
Sierra Bruce, who got out in August, said that deli meats like ham, bologna, salami, whose packages said they were supposedly turkey-based, were labeled as not being fit for human consumption. Each slice was individually bagged, and by the time it arrived in the prison kitchen "it was already turning green" and reeked of "an awful smell," she said.
The so-called "meat" that went into sausages and hamburger patties, she added, "didn't look like real meat at all."
"It was definitely something artificial," Bruce said. She and other inmates had to mix the "meat" with seasonings to mask the smell.
In February, Amber Corral finished a six-and-a-half-year sentence. Her first stint in prison was in the early 2000s, when, she remembered, the boxes of chicken came every few weeks.
This last time around, it came once or twice a year, because prison food vendor Trinity had switched to feeding inmates chicken nuggets, she said. One of the occasions it served real chicken was Juneteenth, the June holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves in Texas in 1865.
After hearing rumors about how the boxes of chicken were labeled, Corral grew curious. The chicken was delivered in white box trucks near the canteen, in an area that is visible to the women incarcerated there, she said.
She decided to investigate.
"I physically saw the boxes," Corral said, and kitchen workers showed her the label: "not for human consumption."
The last time she saw those boxes was mid-June 2018 — her final Juneteenth in prison.
"To be honest with you, I didn't really care, because it was chicken on a bone," Corral said. "Isn't that sad?"
Bill Lamoreaux, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said that the department takes these claims seriously, but that, after looking into it, found "no evidence to support this allegation."
The department's review included "conducting visual inspections, meeting with food service supervisors, and discussing with Trinity Services Group," he wrote.
"ADC kitchens, including food storage and meal preparation facilities, are subject to routine state health inspections. Meals provided by Trinity meet or exceed nutritional standards," Lamoreaux wrote.
The embattled Department of Corrections currently faces the possibility of its health care system being put into federal receivership for its failure to provide inmates with adequate medical care. Its former director, Chuck Ryan, recently resigned amid long-running stories of failures and mismanagement in the state prison system.
The department's current contract with Trinity, a prison food service based in Oldsmar, Florida, began in 2013, for about $40 million per year. The current contract is set to expire in January 2023.
Trinity is one of the biggest jail and prison food companies in the country. Its substandard food inspired hunger strikes in Michigan prisons in 2016 and complaints and attempted riots in Colorado. The following year, Michigan prison officials found maggots in inmates' chow on three separate occasions.
In February 2018, after fining the company $2 million for meal substitutions, delays, and other violations of its contract, Michigan announced plans to end its contract with Trinity, although according to a statement from the company, Michigan "continues to source product from Trinity under a new contract."
In 2017, three former inmates in Oregon filed a lawsuit alleging that the state's Department of Corrections fed them chicken and fish labeled "not for human consumption." A judge dismissed in it July, saying there was no evidence of long-term "adverse health impacts." Trinity was not associated with that case.
After this story was published, Trinity Services Group provided a statement to New Times that included: "We have never intentionally bought expired food. Just as in any food service operation or high end restaurant, on occasion, a vendor may deliver a product that does not meet our quality standard and in such an instance, that product is either discarded or returned."
The statement noted that the prison and jail industry is one of Trinity's biggest clients, and that every year, it serves 285 million meals "that meet and often exceed state and federal requirements."