Can prison food be unconstitutionally bad?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 24 2008 8:07 AM

Taste-Testing Nutraloaf

The prison food that just might be unconstitutionally bad.

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I cooked up Vermont next, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Vermont was like Illinois but with raisins and nondairy cheese. I'm a vegetarian, so my sister-in-law Lori volunteered to cook the California loaf, which includes ground beef. As she mixed up the chopped cabbage, diced carrots, cubed potatoes, whole wheat flour, and beans, I realized that what she was making looked delicious, at least compared with the first two loaves. Lori kindly offered to make two California loaves—one with meat and one without, our only deviation from the Nutraloaf recipes.

To test the loaves, I invited friends and relatives over for what I promised would be an educational dinner party. This being Washington, D.C., more than half the adults were lawyers, which I thought gave our experiment a nice jurisprudential twist. To keep the Nutraloaf test authentic, I mandated that my guests eat with their hands; plus, after sneaking in that taste of Illinois earlier in the day, I was worried someone might stab me if I let them use utensils.

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I thought I'd start out easy with the loaf that hasn't inspired a lawsuit—yet. California looked nice on the plate, though it didn't quite hold together as a loaf. I picked some off my plate with my fingers. It tasted a bit like vegetarian chili. Not bad. My cousin Steve, a mortgage broker who had sampled the California loaf with meat, disagreed. "It's what you imagine Alpo tastes like," he said. Lori said she liked it and said she'd even consider making it again, though she'd use more spices. Lee, a lawyer and her husband, asked her not to.

Next came Illinois. I couldn't bear to try another piece; the others were divided about whether it was cruel or merely unusual. Lee described Illinois as "absolutely detestable." David, a lawyer, liked it and willingly ate a second piece. Steve summed up Illinois generously: "I think if you like baked beans, you like Illinois. I like baked beans. I wouldn't think it's fair to sue anyone over it."

Last came Vermont.  It looked the best of the three—it was moist—and the nondairy cheese and canned carrots gave it a fetching orange color. But it tasted terrible. Mike, a computer guy at NASA, said the raisins were disconcerting; you couldn't tell if they were supposed to be in there or not. Steve said he hated it, but it wasn't the worst thing he'd ever eaten. I asked him what was the worst thing he'd ever eaten. "Cat," he said. "But I didn't know it was cat." David, meanwhile, helped himself to another slice of Illinois, a decision he later came to regret. "The third slice sits a little heavy," he said.

As the night went on, and wine washed away the taste of loaves, we discussed the Eighth Amendment and how bad food would actually have to be in order to be unconstitutional. Kim, a lawyer who works in asylum law and knows a human rights violation when she sees one, said the loaves would have to be extremely bad—considerably worse than any of the food we'd just eaten. Courts have nearly all found that prison food can be unappetizing, cold, and even contain foreign objects, and still not be unconstitutional.

Inmates hoping for relief from the courts for their Nutraloaf punishments aren't likely to get it from the courts. They won't likely get it from the prison cooks, either. When the Vermont prison's lawyer was asked during oral arguments why Nutraloaf couldn't be made more appetizing, he answered that if it were tastier, then prisoners would act up for the privilege of getting Nutraloaf. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the rest of the prison menu.

Arin Greenwood is a lawyer and freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. 

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