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What Happens if You Starve Yourself in Prison?

15 Sep 2022, Prison Rules, by

This week’s blog post was inspired by a question we got here at PrisonInsight, but something I didn’t have any experience with when I was incarcerated. So, instead of me attempting to recall random anecdotes from my time in prison nearly a decade ago, I decided to reach out to a current prison inmate. For… Continue reading What Happens if You Starve Yourself in Prison?

What Happens if You Starve Yourself in Prison?

This week’s blog post was inspired by a question we got here at PrisonInsight, but something I didn’t have any experience with when I was incarcerated. So, instead of me attempting to recall random anecdotes from my time in prison nearly a decade ago, I decided to reach out to a current prison inmate.

For this post, our guest blogger is Mistie Vance. She’s been in prison for more than a decade, and is not scheduled for parole until 2025. I became good friends with Mistie when we served time together at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri. 

She was my personal trainer and my aerobics instructor, and we often spent time together on smoke breaks or in the prison yard. She is an amazing lady, and I’m sure that our readers would love to hear from her. Especially since she has much more up-to-date insider info.

To that end, here is Mistie’s answer to today’s question: what happens if you starve yourself in prison? In this blog post, Mistie will cover the following topics:

  • Inmate starvation is likely to go unnoticed
  • Self harm is common in an institutional setting
  • Negative energy is everywhere in prison
  • Mistie’s personal experience with self harm
  • Suicide attempts in prison

Inmate starvation is likely to go unnoticed

Starving yourself in prison will probably go unnoticed unless you make a big deal out of it. Believe it or not, the CO’s (correctional officers) in prison aren’t really paying attention to whether or not you’re healthy or emotionally stable. 

As long as you are following directives and staying out of trouble, their work is done. The only way anyone will even notice is if you run around telling everyone for attention, or of you are on suicide watch in the hole because in that situation they monitor you food intake.

Self harm is common in an institutional setting

There is actually a fairly large amount of self harm that is practiced in the institutional setting. Considering the fact that most of us weren’t great at coping with our pain and distress on the outside of prison, we really have a hard time in here, where our options on how to deal are severely limited. 

Since we can’t just go for a walk, go for a swim, cuddle a lover, or take a relaxing bubble bath, we are left trying to figure out how to get through the difficult times without ending up in the hole or worse.

Besides the usual stresses of daily life, things are made even worse by the fact that we are forced to live around so many different people with varying personalities—many of which don’t jive well with ours. 

Negative energy is everywhere in prison

Negative energy is everywhere, and it’s quite hard to keep it from infecting us, even on days when we are in the best of moods. There are also people here who enjoy spreading malicious lies or otherwise causing harm to others as a form of entertainment. For whatever reason they derive a sick satisfaction from watching others suffer. 

As if life isn’t difficult enough, being separated from those we love and unable to live the lives we had hoped for, we are faced with extra stresses from guards who feel the need to harass us without reason, schedules that would make anyone crazy, and rules that are so petty they would be laughable in the real world. 

There is no such thing as freedom of speech here. Half of what you want to say would leave you buried in the hole, and the other half would get you naked in a turtle suit.

Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia are issues for some here, as are other forms of self harm, such as cutting. 

Some inmates choose to cope with life by not being present, getting prescribed psych meds that help them sleep their lives away. Others who are financially able, obtain street drugs to medicate their pain or boredom. 

I have used exercises as a coping mechanism for years now, sometimes in a healthy way, and sometimes excessively. Anything can become an addiction when used to the point of excess. 

Sometimes, just staying so busy that you don’t have time to stop and deal with your pain is a way of coping (or should I say, not coping ). People both inside and outside of prison use all these forms of coping mechanisms, hoping that somehow, some way, they might be able to outrun the hurt that is always just a step behind.

Mistie’s personal experience with self harm

I myself have personal experience with starving myself, both inside and outside of prison. In my teens I developed anorexia. Living in an abusive home and facing being ostracized and bullied in school, my life was overwhelmingly painful, and I felt an acute sense of helplessness. 

It started with giving my lunch money away in an attempt to get people to like me, but when the weight started falling off I found myself in control of something for the first time in my life. For years I spent every waking moment obsessing over my weight, and it was a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Being incarcerated for over twelve years now, I have found myself at times falling back on the coping mechanisms of my youth. When something devastating happens in my life, I find myself unable to eat until the worst is over, leaving me with a sense of control in situations where life seems completely out of control. 

When my heart hurts so bad I feel like it’s literally being torn out of my chest and the tears run like a river with no end. When taking my next breath is as hard as breathing underwater, those are the times that food repulses me. 

Some things never change. It is only the duration of the thing that changes. We cope in whatever way we can, fighting to choose the lesser of the evils.

Suicide attempts in prison

Another popular, and self destructive, behavior that is very prevalent in here is cutting. It has become almost ordinary in that so many of the women here have either done it, or still do it in order to alleviate the overwhelming pressure of their daily lives. 

Most cut their bodies in places that are less noticeable, as being caught will result in time spent on suicide watch in the hole. However, you also have a fair amount that do it for attention, making sure everyone knows. 

There are also many women each year who slit their wrists in suicide attempts. Some are pretty serious, but I have yet to see a suicide attempt involving the slitting of wrists that has succeeded in the two prisons I have spent time in.

Unfortunately, I have seen a couple of suicide attempts that were successful during my incarceration. One involved a woman who tried several different ways and finally managed by sticking a big wad of smashed bread down her throat so that it wouldn’t go down or come back up, resulting in her suffocation. 

The other was a friend of mine who hung herself. Thankfully, they were able to revive her, but she was legally dead for several minutes before they were able to resuscitate. It is a tragedy that many incarcerated individuals commit suicide every year in the United States.

In defense of the facilities I have spent time in, they do try to monitor the mental health of individuals who present as high risk for suicide and other self destructive behaviors. If at any time a person is fearful of what they might do to themselves or others, they are placed in a suicide cell and watched closely for their own protection and the safety of others. 

In this situation, the person’s food intake is monitored as well, and they aren’t released from watch until they begin eating. So, where prisons might not be able to keep watch on everyone who starves themselves, you can trust that your loved one probably won’t go unnoticed if they become too emaciated or sick. In that instance, their medical and mental health will be addressed and dealt with, even if the person doesn’t want help.

It is important to remember that the best help for anyone who suffers with unhealthy coping mechanisms is the love and support of those closest to them. 

Reach out and show the incarcerated individuals in your life how much you love them today. Of all the paths to healing, none are as life changing and effective as love and acceptance. Three words say it all. Love changes everything. 

Would you like to write to Mistie Vance or contribute to her commissary fund? If you would like to deposit funds into her commissary account, you can do so at Select Missouri—Chillicothe Correctional Center—Inmate #1231904 Mistie Vance. 

You can write to her at:

Mistie Vance #1231904
3151 Litton Road
Chillicothe, MO 64601


Personal Experience Essay by inmate Mistie Vance at CCC in Chillicothe, MO