Criminal InJustice: Bread and Water

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Bread and Water by Nancy A. Heitzeg
"All sorrows are less with bread." ~ Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
There is no freedom and little comfort for the incarcerated. In a world of such constrained choice, even the most basic pleasures are magnified. Food, even the often horrific fare served in prisons and jails, takes on special significance.
"Better food is not one of the reasons I want to be on work duty, it's the only reason," said Michael, who works in the laundry room. He did not want to give his full last name because he was about to be released and would be looking for work.... The inmates at the County Jail get to fill out an order form for the "commissary" once a week. If they have money in an account, which can be deposited by friends and family, they can order anything from chips to instant soup and chocolate. Michael, who misses chocolate and fast food more than anything, rarely has money for the commissary but sometimes he fills out the order form anyway, just so he can daydream about the sweet and salty flavors that could be exciting his taste buds.
Food becomes a rare source of imprisoned pleasure, both on a daily basis and in those Last Suppers, offered to those about to die. Occasionally, it takes on great political import, as recently revealed by the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers, whose refusal to eat at all marks just how dire their situation has become. Of course for prison officials, food becomes a tool for punishment, and in an era of increased concern over correctional costs for 2.4 million inmates, food is considered more luxury and less necessity. The criminal legal system politics surrounding food, nutrition, and prisoners are profound, and can be viewed from multiple angles, including privatization and profiteering, nutrition as a central component of physical and mental health, and the administration (and denial) of food as punishment. Food as Punishment The most overt use of food as punishment involves the infamous and oft-litigated Nutraloaf.
Otherwise known as the disciplinary diet loaf, prison loaf and management loaf, when all else fails in disciplining an inmate, be it loss of visits, free time or other privileges, the deputies turn to this bland log of meat and vegetables to get the disruptive inmate to follow the rules..... The exact origin of the idea to serve the loaf as a punishment is unknown, however the practice goes back to at least the early '80s, when the state of Arizona was sued over a bland loaf served to misbehaving inmates for five days at a time. Arizona eventually lost that case because it was applied too indiscriminately, but a version of the loaf is still served there for disciplinary purposes. Court challenges to the use of the loaf as punishment have come up in Vermont, Illinois, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Washington and West Virginia, among other states. Typically its use has been upheld, although some states have placed narrow stipulations on its implementation, such as using it only in cases where the prisoner acts out with food or utensils.
The Eighth Amendment requires only that inmates be provided with food that is adequate to maintain health; it need not be tasty or aesthetically pleasing. The "loaf" thus meets this low constitutional bar by providing the essential nutrients and calories- 2600 minimum - in one onerous concoction. At LSP Angola, the contents of the daily meal tray is put into a blender and then baked. Most other states have their own standardized recipe. Hence, one variation:
CALIFORNIA RECIPE FOR DISCIPLINARY DIET LOAF 2-1/2 oz. nonfat dry milk 4-1/2 oz. raw grated potato 4-1/2 oz. raw carrots, chopped or grated fine 1-1/2 oz. tomato juice or puree 4-1/2 oz. raw cabbage, chopped fine 7 oz. lean ground beef, turkey or re-hydrated, canned or frozen Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) 2-1/2 fl. oz. oil 1-1/2 oz. whole wheat flour 1/4 tsp. salt 4 tsp. raw onion, chopped 1 egg 6 oz. dry red beans, pre-cooked before baking (or 16 oz. canned or cooked red kidney beans) 4 tsp. chili powder Shape into a loaf and bake at 350-375 degrees for 50-70 minutes. SOURCE: California Code of Regulations Title 15
Food Restrictions Recent news on prison food restrictions comes, unsurprisingly, from Texas. Last month, Texas announced that it was ending the long-standing practice of honoring requests for last meals from inmates about to be executed. This change came after objections to the elaborate and uneaten last request of Lawrence Russell Brewer were raised by State Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. In the aftermath, it was also revealed that since April, Texas has been among a growing number of states that seek to curb costs by feeding inmates fewer meals and/or reducing caloric intake.
Thousands of other inmates in the Texas prison system have been eating fewer meals since April after officials stopped serving lunch on the weekends in some prisons as a way to cut food-service costs. About 23,000 inmates in 36 prisons are eating two meals a day on Saturdays and Sundays instead of three. A meal the system calls brunch is usually served between 5 and 7 a.m., followed by dinner between 4 and 6:30 p.m. The meal reductions are part of an effort to trim $2.8 million in food-related expenses from the 2011 fiscal year budget of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state prison agency. Other cuts the agency has made to its food service include replacing carton milk with powdered milk and using sliced bread instead of hamburger and hot dog buns.
Privatized Food Service Although the dietary restrictions raise legal questions and run counter to the standards adopted by the American Correctional Association, Texas is not alone in turning to food to reduce correctional costs. States have long relied on private prison food service providers to cut costs, a practice that has led to both low quality and corruption.
Over the past decade, prison and jail officials have been turning to private for-profit companies to cut the cost of feeding prisoners. Leading the way in contracted food services is Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services. Other prison food service firms include A’Viands Food & Services Management, ABL Management, and U.K.-based Compass Group’s Canteen Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group..... The privatization of prison and jail food services began in Alabama. Over 70 years ago, Alabama passed a law that provided county sheriffs with $1.75 a day per jail prisoner to cover the cost of their meals. While the law went into effect in 1939, it is still in use today. Under that system, Alabama sheriffs are personally responsible for paying for prisoners’ food, but are allowed to keep any excess funds if they can feed prisoners for less than the payments they receive from the state. Not surprisingly, this creates an incentive for sheriffs to skimp on the quality and quantity of meals served to prisoners. “Most of it is like powdered food and the portions are minimal in county jails,” said Rev. Kenneth Glasglow, who visits Alabama jails to register prisoners to vote.
As state budget crises created a moment of optimism for legal reformers in 2009, states have responded - not by reducing inmate populations, but instead by cutting key inmate services. So prison and jail inmates, already pressed by over-crowding, lack of meaningful programming, privatization/the profit-motive, and reduced mental/physical health care services, now also face reduced meals, fewer calories or inflated commissary costs. The dehumanization continues apace, with the public and policy makers of all parties condoning increasingly draconian conditions of mass incarceration. One of these days, we’re going to have to frame access to healthy, safe food as a human right for all people – including those who are incarcerated. But unfortunately, that day has not yet come. Again, Texas State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat whose outrage over last meals on death row led to the end of the practice last month, speaks for too many:
“If they don’t like the menu,” he said, “don’t come there in the first place.”
† © Copyright 2010-2011, Nancy A. Heitzeg, Kay Whitlock, and Seeta Persaud of CMP. All rights reserved. All articles and posts published by Criminal Injustice may not be distributed, re-published or cross-posted in any format, including print or electronic format, without express and explicit written permission from the copyright holders, including CI editors (Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock) and criticalmassprogress.com.