Magazine article Corrections Forum

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

Magazine article Corrections Forum

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

Article excerpt

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 Chicago. 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 gook, 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 1 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 Yorkserve 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 myselfit'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 is a physiological psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She 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. …

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