The Salt
12:53 am
Thu January 2, 2014

Food As Punishment: Giving U.S. Inmates 'The Loaf' Persists

Originally published on Thu January 2, 2014 12:49 pm

In many prisons and jails across the U.S., punishment can come in the form of a bland, brownish lump. Known as nutraloaf, or simply "the loaf," it's fed day after day to inmates who throw food or, in some cases, get violent. Even though it meets nutritional guidelines, civil rights activists urge against the use of the brick-shaped meal.

Tasteless food as punishment is nothing new: Back in the 19th century, prisoners were given bread and water until they'd earned with good behavior the right to eat meat and cheese.

But the loaf is something above and beyond. Prisons and jails are allowed to come up with their own version, so some resort to grinding up leftovers into a dense mass that's reheated. Other institutions make loaves from scratch out of shredded and mashed vegetables, beans and starches. They're rendered even more unappetizing by being served in a small paper sack, with no seasoning.

Prisoners who've had the loaf hate it. Johnnie Walton had to eat it in the Tamms Supermax in Illinois. He describes it as "bland, like cardboard." Aaron Fraser got the loaf while he was serving time from 2004 to 2007 in several different institutions for a counterfeit-check scheme. He loathed it.

"They take a bunch of guck, like whatever they have available, and they put it in some machine," Fraser says. "I would have to be on the point of dizziness when I know I have no choice [to eat it]."

No one knows exactly how many institutions use it, but Benson Li, the former president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates, estimates that the number is over 100. At least 12 states — including California, Texas and New York — serve it in state-run institutions, as do dozens of municipal and county jails across the country.

In Pennsylvania state prisons, "food loaf" is made with milk, rice, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, oatmeal, beans and margarine. The Clark County Jail in Washington state serves a version with most of those ingredients, plus ground beef or chicken, apples and tomatoes.

Law enforcement says the loaf isn't so bad. "It's a food source; it contains all the vitamins and nutrients and minerals that a human being needs," says Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who has used the loaf in his jail for five years. "It's been approved by the courts. I've had it myself — it's like eating meatloaf. "

But prisoners who misbehave don't just get it once. They have to eat it at every meal, for days or weeks at a time. That's why it works as a deterrent, says Sheriff Clarke.

"If you're up on a first-degree murder charge, or some serious sexual assault of a child, you don't have much to lose in jail," says Clarke.

"But when we started to use this in the disciplinary pods, all of a sudden the incidence of fights, disorder, of attacks against our staff started to drop tremendously. The word got around — we knew it would. And we'll often hear from inmates, 'Please, please, I won't do that anymore. Don't put me in the disciplinary pod. I don't want to eat nutraloaf.' "

Scientists say it's the monotony of eating the loaf that's the real punishment. Marcia Pelchat, a physiological psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says humans have evolved to crave a variety of food.

"Having to eat the loaf over and over again probably makes people miserable. They might be a little nauseated by it, they're craving other foods," says Pelchat.

And it can sometimes stop prisoners from eating altogether. "It's very difficult to consume enough calories to keep your weight up if you're on a boring diet," says Pelchat.

That's why human rights advocates say it's unethical to use food as punishment in this way.

"Given that food is clearly recognized as a basic human need to which prisoners are constitutionally entitled, restrictions on food, taking away food has always been sort of legally right on the line," says David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

There's no guidance from the government on using the loaf, but the American Correctional Association, which accredits prisons and sets best practices for the industry, discourages using food as a disciplinary measure.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons says it has never used the loaf in its facilities. Still, the loaf persists in other parts of the corrections system, and no agencies or organizations are keeping track of where and how often it's used.

So Benson Li, the former president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates and the food service director at the Los Angeles County Jail, offered to help us find that out.

At a recent meeting of the association, Li conducted an informal survey at the request of NPR. About 40 percent of the prisons and jails that responded said their use of the loaf is diminishing, 30 percent said they do not use nutraloaf, and about 20 percent said their use was about the same or slightly growing.

Li says that, overall, the results suggest that the loaf is gradually being phased out.

"[Prisons and jails] are using less or some of them are using sparingly — maybe just two to three times in the last year," he says.

Li says he thinks one of the reasons for this is that prisoners have been challenging the loaf in the courts.

"You have seen a lot of different inmate claims and lawsuits against the Eighth Amendment in different states," he says.

One of the provisions of the Eighth Amendment is that "cruel and unusual punishment" not be inflicted on prisoners. So the prisoners who are filing these suits are hoping the courts will rule that chewing on loaf day after day is unconstitutional. And, believe it or not, there is precedent: In the 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled that a potato-y prison paste called grue should be outlawed under the Eighth Amendment.

The loaf has held up better than grue. Of the 22 cases brought since the beginning of 2012 alone, none have succeeded. But Li's informal survey suggests that the court cases are making the corrections industry increasingly squeamish about serving it.

And Fathi of the ACLU says this is part of a bigger transformation happening in the industry.

"The fading of the use of nutraloaf is part of a larger long-term trend toward professionalization and, in most respects, more humane conditions of confinement," he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Food, mealtime, is one of the few daily pleasures inmates have in prison, and food should not be used to enforce discipline or punish prisoners. That's according to the American Correctional Association, which sets standards for the nation's prisons. Still, many institutions do just that when inmates break the rules.

NPR's Eliza Barclay has that story.

ELIZA BARCLAY, BYLINE: Back in the 19th century, prisoners were given bread and water until they'd earned with good behavior the right to eat meat and cheese. Today, some prisons and jails feed prisoners a bland lump when they misbehave. They call it the loaf.

SHERIFF DAVID CLARKE: It's a food source. It contains all the vitamins and nutrients and minerals that a human being needs. It's been approved by the courts. I've had it myself. It's like eating meatloaf.

BARCLAY: Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has used the loaf in his jail for five years. No one knows exactly how many institutions use it. But prisoners hate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) Hey, did you get this loaf thing? Looks like three different dinners mushed together into a mound.

BARCLAY: The Netflix show "Orange Is the New Black" is based on the experiences of many former inmates who got the loaf in what's known as the SHU, or the isolation unit. The SHU is where Aaron Fraser had the loaf while he was serving time from 2004 to 2007 for counterfeit. He loathed it.

AARON FRASER: I would have to be on the point of dizziness when I know I have no choice.

BARCLAY: On the face of it, the loaf doesn't sound so bad. In Pennsylvania state prisons, it's made with potatoes, cabbage, oatmeal and margarine. A county jail in Washington State makes theirs with meat, apples and tomatoes. But prisoners who misbehave don't just get it once. They have to eat it for every meal, days or weeks at a time. That's why it works as a deterrent, says Sheriff Clarke.

CLARKE: When we started to use this in the disciplinary pods, all of the sudden the incidence of fights, of attacks against our staff, started to drop tremendously. You know, we'll often hear from inmates, please, I won't do that anymore. Please, don't put me in the disciplinary pod, I don't want to eat nutraloaf.

BARCLAY: Marcia Pelchat is a psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She says humans have evolved to crave a variety of food.

MARCIA PELCHAT: Having to eat the loaf over and over again probably makes people miserable. They might be a little bit nauseated by it, they're craving other foods.

BARCLAY: And it can sometimes stop prisoners from eating altogether.

Which is why human rights advocates say it's unethical to use food as punishment in this way. David Fathi is director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

DAVID FATHI: Given that food is clearly recognized as a basic human need to which prisoners are constitutionally entitled, taking away food has always been sort of legally right on the line.

BARCLAY: The Federal Bureau of Prisons says it has never used the loaf. Still, it persists in other parts of the corrections system, and no agencies or organizations are keeping track of where and how often it's used.

Benson Li, the former president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates, offered to help us find that out.

At a recent meeting of the association, Li, who is also the food service director at the Los Angeles County Jail, conducted an informal survey. The answers he got suggest that the loaf is gradually being phased out.

BENSON LI: They are using less or some of them maybe using very sparingly - maybe two or three times in the past couple years.

BARCLAY: Li thinks that one of the reasons for this is that prisoners have been challenging the loaf in the courts.

They're hoping the courts will rule that the loaf is cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution. These suits date back to the 1970s, after the Supreme Court ruled that a potatey paste called grue served to inmates should be outlawed under the Eighth Amendment.

Prisoners have rarely convinced the courts that the loaf is that bad. Of the 22 cases brought since the beginning of 2012 alone, none have succeeded. But the corrections industry is taking notice.

Eliza Barclay, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.