Vermont inmates call food foul, sue over it


MONTPELIER, Vt. – When shooting suspect Christopher Williams acted up in prison, he was given nutraloaf — a mixture of cubed whole wheat bread, nondairy cheese, raw carrots, spinach, seedless raisins, beans, vegetable oil, tomato paste, powdered milk and dehydrated potato flakes.

Prison officials call it a complete meal. Inmates say it’s so awful they’d rather go hungry.

On Monday, the Vermont Supreme Court will hear arguments in a class-action suit brought by inmates who say it’s not food but punishment and that anyone subjected to it should get a formal disciplinary process first.

Prison officials see nutraloaf as a tool for behavior modification.

“It’s commonplace in other states as a way of providing nutrition in a mechanism that dissuades inmates from throwing feces, urine, trays and silverware,” said Vermont Corrections Commissioner Rob Hofmann.

“It tends to have the desired outcome,” Hofmann said. “Once the offender relents, we stop with the nutraloaf. That’s our goal, to protect our staff and not have them subjected to behavior that the average Vermonter would find incomprehensible.”

Punishment, plain and simple
Seth Lipschutz, an attorney with Vermont’s Prisoner’s Rights office, says the state has a legitimate interest in changing the behavior of inmates who misbehave.

But he says a diet of nutraloaf is punishment, plain and simple. To call it anything else is “playing with words to get what they want. It’s wrong and it’s sad,” Lipschutz said.

“If it’s punishment, you’ve got to follow the rules,” Lipschutz said. “Even in prison you get a little bit of due process.”

Even Hofmann doesn’t care for the taste of the stuff. “It reminded me of eating my vegetables and I’m not necessarily a big fan of vegetables,” he said.

Nutraloaf and its equivalents have been used for decades in prisons across the country. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a concoction used in Arkansas known as “‘grue’ might be tolerable for a few days and intolerably cruel for weeks or months.”

Michigan case for guidance
A federal judge ruled in 1988 that the use of nutraloaf by the Michigan Department of Corrections was punishment.

Now, Michigan inmates are only given nutraloaf after going through the disciplinary process that lands them in segregation, department spokesman Russ Marlan said.

“It’s done very infrequently, but it seems to accomplish its goal of preventing prisoners from using or abusing food or their containers in a way that could adversely affect our staff,” Marlan said.

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