Lawyers & Inmates Argue Food Loaf Is Cruel & Unusual Punishment


If you’ve ever been bored out of your gourd on the weekend and watched a Martha Stewart cooking show, one thing I can assure you is that you’ve never seen Martha (whose Federal BOP Register Number is 55170-054) instructing you on how to make the “food loaf.” This is for good reason, as this has become a new instrument of torture in state jails and prisons for inmates who throw sand in the sandbox and don’t otherwise get along with others. But prisoners who misbehave don’t just get it once; instead, they have to eat it at every meal, for days or weeks at a time.

Using food as a means to modify behavior has its origin to the 19th century when prisoners were given bread and water until they’d earned the right to eat meat and cheese. But the loaf has taken this practice to a new low—one recipe calls for grinding up leftovers into a dense mass that’s reheated. Other recipes make loaves from scratch out of shredded and mashed vegetables, beans and starches. In Pennsylvania state prisons, “food loaf” is made with milk, rice, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, oatmeal, beans and margarine. In a county jail in Washington, the loaf is comprised with the standard ingredients but ground beef or chicken, apples and tomatoes are mixed in for good measure. This dreck is often fittingly served in a small paper sack, with no seasoning.

No one knows exactly how many institutions use it, but the former president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates estimates 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. The Federal Bureau of Prisons does not serve the loaf, which might explain why Martha doesn’t have the recipe. 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.”

You’ll be happy to know that the sun might be setting on the loaf’s use because prisoners have been challenging the loaf in the courts. The basis for these challenges is the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. Prisoners are analogizing the loaf to a dish served in the 1970s called “grue,” (a form of potato paste) which the United States Supreme Court outlawed. Sadly, the loaf has held up better to court scrutiny than grue–of the 22 cases brought since the beginning of 2012 alone, none have succeeded.

NPR Article: Food As Punishment: Giving U.S. Inmates ‘The Loaf’ Persists