history of prison food part II

Marshalsea Prison

Marshalsea Prison

Concern that prison food needed to be nutritious began in England in the 1840s as prisons began to nationalize. While England would not have a national system of prisons in place until the 1870s, prison reformers and government officials began to pay attention to conditions in prisons much earlier in the century.

Early English prison diets were adequate and not intended to be punitive. They included two pounds of  bread per day in British prisons (and, for prisoners incarcerated for longer than 6 months, a small ration of low-alcohol beer). Complimenting the bread were cheese, suet and small quantities of onions. Over the course of the 19th Century these conditions declined, the second half of the  Victorian Era (roughly 1870-1900) was a low point for prisoners as prison reformers made prison life more punitive. A policy called “hard bed, hard board, hard labour” sought to make prisoners less comfortable by taking away beds, insisting that all able bodied prisoners do some form of work, and by serving nutritious but specifically untasty food.  This same policy limited prisoners from receiving small stipends from friends and family on the outside to purchase non-essentials from jailers, like soap and better food. This move was intended to make jailers less corrupt, but it also curtailed one of the only outlets through which prisoners had been able some small level of control over the quality of their life, including their diet.

While the main purpose of these reforms was to create a more austere prison culture, the architects of these reforms often appealed to governments and the public by explaining that these moves were economically frugal and scientifically warranted.  In the words of the contemporary prison administrator Edmund DuCane, who helped pass the prison reform bill of 1877:  ” there is now one diet for the prisons of the whole of England and Wales, that it is believed to be a better diet than the generality of those formerly in use, and that from this and other causes the health of the prisons is certainly high, but that from careful study of the ingredients, the cost of food for prisoners is now less than it used to be.” in these words, DuCane was echoing and re-popularizing 18th Century prison reformers like Jonas Hanway, who wrote in 1776 that “solitude in imprisonment, with proper profitable labor and a spare diet” were the essential elements that would allow prisoners to reflect on their crimes and ultimately repent of their criminal actions.

Edmund DuCane, 19th Century Prison Reformer

Edmund DuCane, 19th Century Prison Reformer

DuCane was a relative humanitarian in the history of prison reform, but  his writings are foundational for a scientific system of prison management that carefully balanced humane treatment with complete, austere control over the prisonser’s environment. The ideal prison, according to DuCane’s views should mete out just enough misery to be considered punitive, but not enough to be considered truly abusive. This balancing act continues today in American prisons.

The next installment will discuss food and life in American prisons, which began to diverge from their British role models in the late 19th Century


history of prison food

The history of prison food logically begins with a history of prisons.

Although prisons have been in existence for thousands of years, their original purpose was not to deprive convicted criminals of their liberty, but to hold suspected criminals until their trial date-more or less corresponding to the American sense of “jail”.  In Europe, courts met to try criminals only a few times a year, or in very remote regions, only once a year, and so the accused could be held for a not insignificant amount of time, but a lengthy prison sentence was rare: convicted criminals were usually condemned, conscripted into the military or served as corvee labor for the state. Early prisons were not pleasant places, but they were most often way stations for accused people waiting for a different kind of sentence. The notion that “serving time” could be a punishment in itself did not occur until much later.

Jonathan Wild, awaiting execution in prison in 1725

Jonathan Wild, awaiting execution in prison in 1725

True prison terms were most closely associated with notions of reforming criminals through education, Christian proselytizing or labor, and these ideas did not become popular until the middle of the 19th Century. Note that in their origins then, prisons were not meant to penalize, but to reform. Their occupants were being held against their will, but for their own good and for the good of society. Given time and the opportunity to reflect, prisons in France and Britain in the 19th Century were places where convicted criminals were expected to learn to regret their criminal past and plan out a future that included productive work and social participation.

Redemption did not come cheaply. Rooming and boarding an unfree population for years was an expensive  commitment for a state or city government. While prisons made up some of these losses by compelling prisoners to work on farms or in factories, prison managers were also concerned with keeping initial overhead costs as low as possible. Thus it is with some justification that the term “prison food” clearly communicates some rather wretched substances. Prison food had to sustain life as cheaply possible.

Significantly, there is a third concern: prison food must be perceived of as edible by the prison population. Repetitive, unappetizing food was a source of grumbling, but rancid food or food that had clearly been made with ersatz ingredients such as wood pulp or starch could spark the kind of fury and righteous indignation among prisoners that could lead to rioting.

Next installment will address scientific diets in prisons

LeMaire v. Maass 1993

LeMaire v. Maass, a court case decided in 1993 (but submitted in 1992) is not the first time nutriloaf or something like nutriloaf was challenged in court. Again, this calls for more research, but I’ve found a complaint about peanut butter sandwiches from 1980 and a “food loaf” case that was decided in Michigan in 1988. These will be topics for future posts.

However, LeMaire v. Maass is interesting for a couple of reasons: first of all, the initial case was decided in favor of the plaintiff; nutriloaf was ruled as cruel and unusual punishment at the district court level (nutriloaf is not the only complaint in the case, LeMaire also experienced the “ use of in-cell restraints, restraints in showers, controlled feeding status, confiscation of clothing, and lack of out-of-cell exercise opportunity“.

The facts of the case: Samuel LeMaire was a prisoner in Oregon, serving a life sentence for murder handed down in 1985. He was repeatedly assigned to the disciplinary segregation unit, or DSU,  a special lockdown unit of the jail, for violent behavior. During his first 2 years in prison, LeMaire spent almost all of his time in jail in the DSU for various discipline-related problems, and while in DSU (referred to as “the hole” by prisoners and guards alike) was repeatedly written up for verbally threatening guards and throwing feces and urine on guards and other prisoners. “Shitbombing” is a recurring problem in this wing prison, as are suicides. Four inmates have committed suicide or have attempted to commit suicide in the past ten years.

At the district level, the Oregon State Prison’s policy of feeding nutriloaf to problem prisoners in the DSU unit for up to 7 days was found to cruel and unusual; the ruling mentioned a two meal maximum that such a disciplinary food product could be used before the practice veered into violating the eight amendment.

This ruling was overturned on appeal, and nutriloaf was found to an acceptable food for up to 7 days within the DSU. The attorneys for Maass in the appeal requested that the court examine the intentions and state of mind that the defendant (Maass was the superintendent of the Oregon State Prison) was in when he made the rules and policies that LeMaire experienced. They argued, successfully, that if no harm was intended, if Maass did not possess what the appeal calls “a culpable state of mind,” then the court cannot find him liable of 8th amendment  violations. The 9th Circuit was persuaded by this argument, although Judge John T. Noonan of the circuit court issued a dissenting opinion in the case.

Judge Noonan

Judge Noonan

Here is an excerpt from his dissent:

The majority opinion makes a dramatic showing that LeMaire has on occasion acted like a beast. As the district court judge aptly remarked: “Prisoners who complain about the condition of their confinement do not generally get much sympathy from society, but sympathy is not the issue here. From society’s long-term perspective, there are sound reasons for prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.” The Eighth Amendment, prohibiting such punishment, draws its life from the religious and humane traditions of our country. The message of the majority opinion appears to be that a beast deserves beastly treatment.

An interesting side note:  Samuel LeMaire was transferred to a prison in Nevada in 1993 (almost surely making his case against the Oregon Prison system moot)  and in 2000 he was profiled by KUER in Salt Lake City as a model prisoner, working as a clerk in the prison’s law library full time, and volunteering for the prison’s hospice. Was it the absence of nutriloaf that inspired the turnaround? We’ll probably never know.

Nutriloaf: What does it taste like?

Illinois nutriloaf

Illinois nutriloaf

It’s actually been a popular gimmick for the past three or four years for features journalists to bake up their own nutriloaf and then give it a taste test. Here are links to these articles, but  for those of you to lazy to click, I’ve also pulled out the most relevant line of commentary from each of these write-ups.

From Genevieve Koski at the A.V. Club: “Nutriloaf tastes and feels like wet packing material”

From Poststarvideos on Youtube: “I can see this being a really great way to lose weight”

From Arin Greenwood of Slate (who tried three recipes): “Like Falafel gone wrong” (of the Illinois recipe),” It tasted a bit like vegetarian chili” (of California) “Vermont was like Illinois, but with raisins and nondairy cheese” (of Vermont). (in point of fact, it’s unclear that any of these states has an “official” recipe, but rather that these just happened to be the states of origin for 3 different recipes).

From Jeff Ruby at Chicago Mag.com: “Nutraloaf tastes blank, as though someone physically removed all hints of flavor.”

I don’t have a complete collection of recipes for nutriloaf, and Judge Posner’s point last month that nutriloaf is not just one recipe but a genre of food seems accurate. However, I would also offer the theory that there are two kinds of prison loaves: those intended to be punitive and those intended to be expedient. Any recipe that includes flavor-enhancers like garlic salt or ketchup or onion flakes, for example, should be classified as a food on the extreme end of convenience and uniformity, rather than a food that is being used as a punishment. Nutriloaves such as the one Jeff Ruby taste-testes, from the Cook County jail, is formulated as a punishment:Ruby notes that,  “Nutraloaf tastes blank, as though someone physically removed all hints of flavor,” and he has the prison’s food supplier on record confirming this. “That’s the goal,” says Mike Anderson, Aramark’s district manager. “Not to make it taste bad but to make it taste neutral.”The fact that Aramark, one of the nation’s largest food services corporations has developed a nutriloaf recipe is interesting in and of itself, and probably deserves its own post someday, especially given Aramark’s recent uptick in “socially responsible” food service endeavors.

Ultimately, nutriloaf seems to exist in order to circumvent the legal decision (I think this ruling was made in LaMaire v. Maass in 1992, but I’m looking into this) that prison food  cannot be intentionally cruel, meaning it has to offer complete nourishment and not cause illness. in other words, thanks to the 8th Amendment, bread and water will no longer cut it. Nutriloaf is a sort of real-life Soylent product intended to fill the same bland, mind-numbingly repetitive role that bread and water have historically played in a prison setting, while conforming to the letter of U.S. law.

At present, prisoners seem to have lost various claims against nutriloaf that have been based on the fact that it is disgusting, bland or monotonous. The next legal challenge is whether or not it is unhealthy because it is difficult to digest. Prude’s claim, that 2 days on the loaf caused vomiting and anal fissures, reached a sympathetic audience with Judge Posner, but it is unclear whether the Milwaukee County jail simply has a rogue nutriloaf recipe, or whether nutritionally complete room-temperature blocks of food are inherently difficult enough to digest for a large enough percentage of the population so that this particular claim will gain traction more widely.


Nutriloaf: A Crash Course

Thankfully, nutriloaf has its own wikipedia page, so I don’t have to spend too much time on the basics.

The vast majority of information online about nutriloaf is recycled from a Slate article written by Arin Greenwood and published in 2008. You can find the original article here.

I’ll address various recipes and links to the many “I made my own nutriloaf and it was OK/ disgusting/ bland/revolting” websites in another post.

What follows (with lots of links) is a start to assessing the legal status of The Loaf:

Here is a link summaries of legal cases that have involved nutriloaf in prisons.

The highest profile legal challenge to nutriloaf, Prude vs. Clarke,  is unfolding right now, in the spring of 2012. We live in exciting times.

Here is a recent ruling issued by a very grumpy judge in this case. Judge Posner of the 7th Circuit was extremely displeased with the response from the defendants in this case (the nutriloaf providers).  Judge Posner managed to work the word contumacy into his ruling no fewer than 3 times, which impressed the heck out of me. Judge Posner points out that nutriloaf is not just one thing, but a blanket term for many brick-like institutional food products served in prisons. In his own words,

“No evidence was presented concerning the recipe for or ingredients of the nutriloaf that was served at the county jail during the plaintiff’s sojourns there. “Nutriloaf” isn’t a proprietary food like Hostess Twinkies but, like “meatloaf” or “beef stew,” a term for a composite food the recipe of which can vary from institution to institution, or even from day to day within an institution; nutriloaf could meet requirements for calories and protein one day yet be poisonous the next if, for example, made from leftovers that had spoiled. The recipe was among the items of information that the plaintiff sought in discovery and that the defendants refused to produce.” (Posner, 3/26/2012)