Is serving ‘the loaf’ to prisoners cruel and unusual punishment?

Those who misbehave don’t get the bland, brownish lump just once. They have to eat it at every meal, for days or weeks at a time. The practice is starting to fade as more prisoners argue that it is cruel and unusual punishment.

Illustration of the prison loaf by Lisa Brown for NPR

“In many prisons and jails across the U.S., punishment can come in the form of a bland, brownish lump. Known as nutraloaf, or simply “the loaf,” it’s fed day-after-day to inmates who throw food or, in some cases, get violent. Even though it meets nutritional guidelines, civil rights activists urge against the use of the brick-shaped meal,” writes NPR’s Eliza Barclay

Tasteless food as punishment is nothing new: Back in the 19th century, prisoners were given bread and water until they’d earned with good behavior the right to eat meat and cheese.

But the loaf is something above and beyond. Prisons and jails are allowed to come up with their own version, so some resort to grinding up leftovers into a dense mass that’s reheated. Other institutions make loaves from scratch out of shredded and mashed vegetables, beans and starches. They’re rendered even more unappetizing by being served in a small paper sack, with no seasoning.

Prisoners who’ve had the loaf hate it. Johnnie Walton had to eat it in the Tamms Supermax in Chicago. He describes it as “bland, like cardboard.” Aaron Fraser got the loaf while he was serving time from 2004 to 2007 in several different institutions for a counterfeit-check scheme. He loathed it.

“They take a bunch of gook, like whatever they have available, and they put it in some machine,” Fraser says. “I would have to be on the point of dizziness when I know I have no choice [to eat it].”

Science behind the punishment

Scientists say it’s the monotony of eating the loaf that’s the real punishment. Marcia Pelchat is a physiological psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She 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,” says Pelchat.

And it can sometimes stop prisoners from eating altogether. “It’s very difficult to consume enough calories to keep your weight up if you’re on a boring diet,” says Pelchat.

Which is why human rights advocates say it’s unethical to use food as punishment in this way.

Today’s Question: Is serving ‘the loaf’ to prisoners cruel and unusual punishment?

  • PaulJ

    Not if it isn’t overdone.

  • Gary F

    Asked the person who got robbed or raped if it is cruel or unusual.

  • Jim G

    Yes. It’s called the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like others to treat… you. This must be called the Loaf Rule: Treat others like they are… dogs.

    • Pearly

      Thats kind of a chicken and egg thing

  • reggie

    I can see a human rights obligation to provide convicted criminals adequate nutrition, but not necessarily an appealing diet.

    Prison serves two functions: one, to deter criminal behavior, for which it must be a clear punishment; two, to provide opportunities to rehabilitate the offender. If the “loaf” is perceived to be punishment, then it has a socially beneficial effect while not necessarily inhibiting the rehabilitation function.

    • William Reynolds

      I disagree with this. Prisons being “punishing” doesn’t serve as much of a deterrent. People committing crimes do so under the assumption that they will get away with it.

      There are many cases of innocent people either being convicted of crimes they did not commit, or accepting plea bargains for crimes they did not commit. They do not deserve to be punished at all.

      The actual role of prisons is public safety. They house people that are a threat to the public, and should attempt to render the person less of a threat to the public through rehabilitation, one of the most important parts of rehabilitation has to be treating the prisoners as human beings, not animals.

  • Gayle

    Are the loafs nutritionally complete?
    A lot of us lived on C’s and LRP’s in Nam.
    Maybe today’s surplus MRE’s are an option.

  • Pearly


  • JQP

    No – not if every prison gets to self determine that the content is nutritionally balanced and safe to eat. It would be pure guess work to achieve a reliable content in a brown loaf from left overs.

    But … once its assured that the content is nutritionally balanced and safe to eat … I have no problems with that being the meal choice for misbehavior.

    As for boring diets …. and eating.less.. … there’s a lot of folks who live like that and don’t commit crimes.

  • Marie

    They should all be on a vegetarian diet, and they should be part of the preparation team making the veg,grains, legumes, and fruits (many of them surplus in the US) into nutritious meals.

  • Linda

    Don’t know where this info is from, but in Minnesota, at least the prison I work in, does not do this. In fact, I’ve never heard of it in my 10+ years.

    • Linda

      But I might like to see this! – after dealing inmates who take food items and eating utensils and stick them their various body orifices, – as self injury or to get attention, ER visits, narcotic pain meds, or as manipulative tactics…..maybe Minnesota SHOULD do this, too!

      • Jim G

        (Satirically) We could vastly improve the punishment level by adding ghost peppers to the recipe.

  • Chris

    No — there are consequences to actions, and this is a consequence. If they don’t want to eat the loaf, make good decisions.

  • Sue de Nim

    Hmm {wry smirk}. Maybe they could be offered for sale to the general public as an obesity cure.

  • Fortyseven

    Oh, for a minute there I thought “the loaf” was some sort of exotic sexual jailhouse metaphor. ;D

  • Southern Illinoisan

    The Tamms Supermax isn’t in Chicago. It was outside Tamms, Illinois, at the complete other end of the state, an 8 hour drive from Chicago. Not everything in Illinois is in Chicago, guys.

  • dapperd047

    I am sure the prisons have guidelines they must adhere too. Perhaps the answer to this is not getting yourself in a position where you must have to eat what they serve……

    • William Reynolds

      Easy to say, but it doesn’t take a lot of digging to realize how often people in this country are essentially forced to accept plea bargains regardless of innocence. Even if you are innocent, when faced with “your word against the police’s word”, a plea bargain of 3 months, or a trial where you’d be looking at 2+ years, you’re going to take the plea bargain. Even if innocent.