VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
Prison food doesn't exactly call to mind the most appetizing of cuisine. Anyone who's watched an episode of Oz or Orange Is the New Black can imagine the unappealing dishes served to our country's convicts: a single slice of bologna on two pieces of dry bread, nondescript mystery meats swimming in a gravy-like goop, limp iceberg lettuce with a drizzle of sour salad dressing. But imagine mixing all those meals together, mushing them into a loaf, adding in some raisins, baking it, and then eating it. Sound like torture? Well, that's kind of the point.
Nutraloaf is punishment food served to misbehaving inmates in certain prisons and jails around the US. It's a blend of several different kinds of food mashed together and baked into a flavorless, brick-like loaf that meets all of a person's daily nutritional needs. Nutraloaf has spurred legal action) in many jurisdictions from prisoners claiming it violates the Eighth Amendment as a cruel and unusual punishment. Though it's gradually falling out of fashion, it's still fed to prisoners in many parts of the country, from New York state prisons to Arizona county jails, and continues to be a point of contention for prisoners, prisoner rights groups, and correctional departments.
For a nondescript lump of food stuff, nutraloaf has in many ways become a symbol for some of the core issues surrounding the criminal justice system. Convicted criminals are expected to give up certain rights when they're doing time, but should such a basic human need like food be used as a punishment tool? Even if it's not illegal, is it ethical?
"It goes to the heart of the question of what is the purpose of prison: is it meant to be retributive or is it meant to be rehabilitative?" Heather Ann Thompson, a mass incarceration historian at the University of Michigan, said in a phone interview. "We want people to come back healthier, not less healthy. So nutraloaf is a very short-sighted way of dealing with punishment, at the very least."
Thompson explained that there have long been issues around prison food in the US. Historically, prison food was nutritionally insufficient, as well as being bland and low quality, she said. Early battles between prisoners and institutions weren't so much about food being punitive, but about not getting enough food at all. It wasn't until the 1960s that the tide started to turn, Thompson said.
"It had a lot to do with food stamps, when we started to have to actually quantify how much a family of four needs to survive," Thompson said. "We had to start to nail down what a sufficient caloric intake is, for example. There was a lot of pressure then on prison systems to adhere to those standards."
Bread and water, long the quintessential prison punishment food, no longer met these standards. Soon after, other nutritionally-insufficient punishment foods were sussed out as well, such as a nutraloaf-like concoction called "grue" that was at one time given to inmates in Arkansas. Grue was made by smushing together "meat, potatoes, [margarine], syrup, vegetables, eggs, and seasoning into a paste and baking the mixture in a pan" according to the supreme court hearing that deemed the 1,000-calorie-per-day substance illegal in 1978.
"A lot of times riots have started after a bad meal."
But correctional facilities weren't about to give up on the food-as-punishment route, and nutraloaf was quickly concocted to take the place of bread and water, with one key difference: nutraloaf provides all of a prisoner's daily requirements for calories, vitamins, and minerals, packed into one mean little loaf of gunk. Recipes vary by institution, but often include some combination of potatoes, bread, beans, vegetables, tomato paste, and fruit. Prisoners who had been forced to eat it (as well as journalists who have volunteered to do so) have described it as "bland, like cardboard," and "as though someone physically removed all hints of flavor."
Usually, a prisoner is only put on nutraloaf if they've violated specific rules. Attacking a correctional officer or another inmate with utensils is one common catalyst—nutraloaf is served without utensils and eaten by hand. Throwing urine or feces is another offense that's often punished with "the loaf," as it's sometimes called. But because regulations vary widely from state-to-state and county-to-county, prisoners can sometimes be put on nutraloaf for things like tearing down an American flag from a jail cell.
That last one was the work of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the sheriff for Maricopa County, Arizona. Arpaio is known for being a huge proponent of nutraloaf, among his many claims to fame. (He's also made headlines for questioning President Obama's birth certificate, switching the prison's menu to entirely vegetarian fare [to be healthier and save money], and for his officers being found guilty of racial profiling.)
His use of the loaf was brought to court by inmates, but the sheriff won the challenge. He told me as long as the food prisoners are eating is nutritious and safe, it shouldn't matter how it tastes.
"When they assault our officers or do something wrong, we place them in lockdown and take away their regular meals. We're not going to give them utensils if they've already assaulted an officer," Arpaio told me over the phone. "They won't do it again if they like the regular food."
Maricopa is one of the largest county jail systems in the country with about 8,300 inmates. Arpaio proudly boasts that it also has the lowest per-inmate cost for meals: inmates are fed twice daily, at a cost of between 15 and 40 cents a meal, according to his website.
"They get brunch—which was a bologna sandwich but now it's peanut butter and jelly—and then they get a hot vegetarian meal at night," Arpaio said. "They're getting a free meal. Why would they be concerned about what the food is when they're not even paying for it?"
Our views of the role prisons should play in our society has shifted over the years. Consistently, polls show that Americans believe the corrections system should be rehabilitative, not just punitive. Nobody wants prisons to turn into five-star luxury hotels, but the idea of how bad it ought to be has shifted away from the stark, cruel penitentiaries of the 19th century. There's plenty of evidence the system isn't there yet, and there's a growing public desire to make our correctional facilities a place where convicts can go to better themselves, learn, grow, and then return to society.
Those working to improve the system are striving for this goal, while also facing pressures not to overspend public money, or make prison "too nice." Laurie Maurino is a registered dietician and the food administrator for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. While California's state prisons don't use nutraloaf, some county jails in the state still do, including those in Los Angeles, though it's becoming less frequent, Maurino told me over the phone.
Maurino plans all the menus for the state prison system (every prison runs on the same menu) and said it's a job that requires balancing the health of inmates with budget restraints—the CDCR spends about $3.25 per day per inmate on meals. Right now, her focus is on creating more heart-healthy, lower sodium options, but still finding meals that the inmates will want to eat.
"We're not serving them steak and lobster or anything," Maurino said. "But food is the one thing that inmates look forward to in a day. Inmates with full stomachs are happy inmates, they're not going to be getting in fights. A lot of times riots have started after a bad meal."
But if you think inmates in California are getting gourmet cuisine, all you have to do is look at the foods those on the inside choose to make for themselves to realize the truth. Maurino told me the number one item sold in the commissary is instant ramen noodles. A concoction called "chi chi," made of hot water, ramen noodles, and Cheetos (with some variation on ingredients) is a well-documented favorite among prisoners. If the meals in prison were really that good, why would inmates be mushing up soggy Cheetos in garbage bags and calling it comfort food?
Maurino told me her colleague at LA county jails said nutraloaf is being used less frequently these days. I wrote to several state corrections departments about their use of punishment food, but only New York State Department of Corrections responded. New York's use of the loaf is dropping off a cliff: in 2010, the state doled out nutraloaf to inmates 991 times, according to spokesperson Taylor Vogt. Last year, they only gave nutraloaf 385 times, with just 198 instances so far in 2015.
Vermont, which briefly used nutraloaf at the state level, all but ended the practice after the state prisoners' rights group successfully argued that it was being used a punishment and therefore required due process before being implemented.
"I was just really offended by the idea that in a civilized society we would do that to people, no matter what they did," Seth Lipschutz, the lawyer who argued the case, told me over the phone. "Since we won, this stuff is hardly ever used in Vermont. It's still technically on the books but they have to give inmates procedural due process now. But they don't use it because they figured out how to get along without needing it."
Whether or not it technically violates the Eighth Amendment, many correctional departments are trying to find less controversial ways of dealing with behavioral problems from inmates and backing away from a practice that feels more medieval than modern. Nutraloaf was a trendy way of dealing with misbehaving prisoners for awhile, but the growing feeling is that there are more civilized, human ways of treating inmates. It was a common refrain from everyone I talked to.
Everyone, that is, but Sheriff Arpaio. He doesn't plan on phasing out the loaf any time soon.
"New York prisons? I'm not surprised they're phasing it out," he said. "I'm surprised they even had it in the first place. Don't they usually feed them steak in New York prisons?"
Top image: This was the nutraloaf served to inmates in Vermont back in 2008. Photo by Andy Duback/AP Photo