In June of 1978, a landmark Supreme Court case, Hutto v. Finny, had decided to eliminate grue from prisons across the country. Grue was a bricklike, four-inch square of mashed meat, potatoes, oleo, syrup, vegetables, eggs, and seasoning, ground into a paste and baked in a pan. Inmates had lost weight when being fed grue, some becoming more gaunt because they refused to eat it out of principle.
Today, a substance analogous to grue is frequently fed to indolent prisoners across the country under the justification that it's more nutritionally sound than its unlawful antecedent; it’s known as Nutraloaf. In some circles, Nutraloaf is also known as confinement loaf or disciplinary loaf, all names that have the same unifying philosophy: this food constitutes a form of torture.
Late last month, PennLive reported that, in a growing effort to humanize the treatment of inmates kept in restrictive housing, state prisons outlawed the use of Nutraloaf as punishment food throughout Pennsylvania. It was a positive step. Nowadays, inmates across the country have begun to resist being force-fed Nutraloaf as castigation for bad behavior, often seeking legal recourse in the Eighth Amendment, which outlaws the deployment of “cruel and unusual punishment” upon prisoners.
Its makeup varies from state to state; the recently banned Pennsylvania Nutraloaf, for example, consists of reduced 2% milk, white rice, potatoes, grated carrots, cabbage, oatmeal, garbanzo beans, and margarine. In Washington state, prisons add the aforementioned mixture and mash it with ground beef or chicken, apples, and tomatoes. There are quite a few videos floating around online that show non-incarcerated individuals trying this close-to-inedible foodstuff and nearly keeling over in the process.
These concoctions are not merely unappetizing; yesterday, I spoke to David Fathi, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, who described most Nutraloaf as a “vile, disgusting, and sometimes nutritionally inadequate mess,” a holdover from a less enlightened era of prison reform. Fathi, who has dedicated over two decades of his life to advocating for prison reform across the country, believes that we’ve begun to see something of a sea change in the approach to feeding inmates in recent years—and that the repeal of Nutraloaf in Pennsylvania is a sign of greater developments to come. "The recent move away from Nutraloaf is part of professionalization of the corrections profession," he claimed. "It's part of an effort to leave the days of bread and water behind as the profession becomes more enlightened and progressive."
The move comes about a year after New York state prisons imposed a similar moratorium on the use of Nutraloaf. This change followed the work of a group of inmates in solitary who mounted a successful lawsuit against the use of the loaf in state prisons.
“This certainly might’ve been related to or prompted by what happened in New York,” John Hargreaves, Director of Volunteer Services at prison reform group Pennsylvania Prison Society, told me yesterday, speaking of Pennsylvania's recent ban on Nutraloaf. “There’s no way to know for certain.” Hargreaves had been working for six years to push the Department of Corrections to reverse the use of Nutraloaf, but change tends to come, as he put it, at “a glacial pace” in this field. Prison food has been at the center of litigation in Pennsylvania since the beginning of the current decade: In 2011, a flurry of lawsuits hit a high-security federal prison after hundreds of federal prisoners northeast of Scranton ate salmonella-contaminated chicken. Two years later, prison inmates in Schuylkill County claimed they weren't being fed regularly and that their inmates were losing weight, resulting in a civil suit. These bids were ultimately unsuccessful.
“Some corrections officials have begun to see Nutraloaf as a legal liability,” Fathi told me, citing the recent shift in Pennsylvania last month. "[The carceral system] is a conservative one—and I don't mean politically conservative, but cautious, and risk-averse. Nobody wants to be the first to do anything new. But once a few systems have done it, especially larger ones like those controlled by states, it becomes less scary," he told me. "So, yes, I do think you’ll see other state prison systems abandoning Nutraloaf in the coming months and years."
Neither Fathi nor Hargreaves could answer how many state-run prisons, exactly, continue to serve Nutraloaf; a 2014 count had it at about a dozen, including New York and Pennsylvania. But Hargreaves agreed that the recent rulings in New York and Pennsylvania, both within a year of each other, could have something of a domino effect across the country.
“The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is on the cutting edge, thanks to a progressive Secretary of Corrections,” he noted, referring to John Wetzel. “They’ve become one of the models in the country of how to do prisons right. And I bet other states are noticing it. I would not be surprised if they all followed suit across the country in a few years.” Before we ended our conversation, though, Hargreaves insisted that I keep one thing in mind: “You probably know the idiom, ‘half a loaf is better than none,’ right?” That is not the case with Nutraloaf.”