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?