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November 12, 2011

Debates over a healthy diet now an Eighth Amendment issue

I often tell my students that every matter of importance in society is, in some way and at some time, a matter of concern in debates over sentencing law and policy.  The latest proof of this claim comes from this New York Times article, which is headlined "Soy Diet Is Cruel and Unusual, Florida Inmate Claims," and starts this way:

One too many bouts of flatulence and cramping has led a Florida inmate to sue the Department of Corrections, arguing that the prison’s soy-based turkey dogs and sloppy Joes amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Eric D. Harris, 34, who is serving a life sentence for sexual battery on a child, said the soy in his prison chow is threatening his health by endangering his thyroid and immune system. Florida prisons serve meals with 50 percent soy and 50 percent poultry three times a day, a mixture that costs half as much as using beef and pork, the Department of Corrections says. The cost per meal: $1.70 a day for each inmate. Florida prisons first began serving soy-based meals in 2009.

As an inmate at the Lake Correctional Institution, near Orlando, Mr. Harris, a former paralegal, has few culinary choices. He can eat 100 grams of soy protein a day, use his own money to buy food at the commissary or eat a vegan diet, he said in the lawsuit, which was filed in state court in Tallahassee and which The Orlando Sentinel reported on this week.

Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said inmates can choose an alternative vegan meal if they do not want soy. “We have a constitutional obligation to feed them healthy, nutritious food, but we don’t have an obligation to feed them beef,” she said.

“Excessive soy can be toxic to the thyroid gland,” said Sally Fallon Morell, the president and treasurer of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates a diet of whole, largely unprocessed foods and food high in saturated fats, and is publicizing the lawsuit. “It can have hormonal effects.”

It turns out that Mr. Harris is not alone in his objection. Nine inmates at the Danville Correctional Center in Illinois filed a similar lawsuit there in 2009, which is pending. That lawsuit is being financed by the Price Foundation.

Prisoners who have soy allergies or other ailments are especially at risk, said Ms. Fallon Morell, who added that her organization has received hundreds of calls from inmates and their relatives in Illinois and Florida who complain about the ill effects from too much soy. Illinois switched to soy-based meals in 2004 to save money. Ms. Fallon Morrell said Illinois prisons serve more than 100 grams of soy protein a day — much more than the 25 grams the government recommends.

November 12, 2011 at 05:45 AM | Permalink

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More frivolous lawsuits costing the law-abiding taxpayer a fortune because a diaper sniper does not like soy. I am reminded of an instance when I was working during a lockdown of a maximum security facility. Because inmates generally make the meals (with civilian cook oversight), other staff had to pitch in and make sandwiches. Due to a previous lawsuit, we were notified that we could not make them using the crusts (ends) of the loaves. What a joke.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Nov 12, 2011 10:30:08 AM

I dunno, Tarls, there's a difference between unpalatable food and unhealthy food. If an inmate sues because he doesn't like the crusty end of the loaf, I'd agree the lawsuit is frivolous (especially since the crusty end is the best part). The case described in the main post, though, seems to be based on actual evidence of adverse health effects. I don't think that's frivolous at all -- malnutrition and thyroid problems aren't and shouldn't be part of a prison sentence.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein | Nov 12, 2011 11:30:10 AM

Jonathan,

There is no evidence (at least reported) of him having any serious medical issues other than the unverifiable flatulence and cramping. His claim is that it is "endangering his thyroid and immune system", not that it has damaged them. Of course his health consciousness ends with the thyroid as he has no issue with beef "endangering" his heart. Hogwash.

In addition, he is offered an alternative choice of a vegan diet.

This is obviously speculation, but my experience has found that these prison beef lawsuits usually germinate from the weightlifting contingent of inmates. The protein in beef builds muscle mass better than poultry and soy and they feel the taxpayer should pay for it.

In the end, the taxpayer is not required to provide food that he likes. They are required to provide him with the nutrition required to sustain life. This is further backed up by unsuccessful lawsuits in NY against the use of "the loaf", a cabbage, soy, bread concoction given along with water to inmates in SHU who continue to misbehave. If they can legally serve that, soy and turkey is surely not "cruel and unusual." He can either have soy and put up with some gas (based in the assumption he is telling the truth) or have a vegan diet which he probably does not find satisfying. IMHO, any more than that IS frivolous.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Nov 12, 2011 12:01:20 PM

well tell you what tarls ONCE the florida DOC staff has been on the same diet for a year with no ill effeects then and ONLY then can they talk shit about it being safe!

till then. Too bad just another stupid ideal to save money so they can get their bonus and big salary!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 12, 2011 1:28:22 PM

I hear Bill Otis loves the loaf.

Posted by: Steve Prof | Nov 12, 2011 4:27:52 PM

With 123D, there could be Ritz-Carlton grade room service, and catering, at very low cost. There would be no crime in the US. It would be far richer and far more productive. Real estate prices could actually double on average as close in, downtown neighborhoods go from Fallujah to Beverly Hills prices. The lawyer hierarchy keeping this country down for its own self dealing purposes would have to eradicated first, since they are protecting the repeat violent offender from the rapid death penalty. All 15,000 lawyer traitors should be arrested in one day, tried fairly for an hour for their legal decisions, not for any collateral corruption gotcha, within a week, and executed in the court basement at the reading of the verdict of treason and insurrection against the constitution. To deter.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 12, 2011 5:55:52 PM

I recently read an article that said that as off 2010 there were 1.5 million lawyers in the united states. So who are the 1% that you consider "traitors"?

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204224604577030562170562088.html?mod=WSJ_WSJ_News_BlogsModule

"While college students often enroll in professional programs to wait out economic soft patches, the U.S. has far more law schools than other professional schools, resulting in an excess supply of lawyers, argue investors and analysts."

It would seem to me that killing off 1% of them isn't actually going to be much help.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 12, 2011 10:20:10 PM

On-topic:

As someone who suffers from allergies I don't underestimate how miserable they can make one feel. At the same time, I have a hard time seeing it as "cruel and unusual".

"Ms. Fallon Morrell said Illinois prisons serve more than 100 grams of soy protein a day — much more than the 25 grams the government recommends."

I'm quite surprised at those numbers. The USRDA for protein is 50 grams. So if they want to cut costs why are they serving them twice the amount of protein a person needs? Or is this a agribusiness subsidy?


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reference_Daily_Intake

As far as I know there is no RDI for soy protein specifically

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 12, 2011 10:29:40 PM

Some perspective counselors:

Re: Inmate Lawsuit Over Soy-Based Foods

Funny, within the last few months, we had a perpetually tedious and litigious +repeat offender+ attempt such an one in the county penitentiary whereat I work.

It was hilarious to hear him diligently try to mobilize the disinterested in a class-action suit. I recall one of his prospective partners fumbling to pronounce "tess-tuff-tah-run" (testosterone).

The "claimant" proffered that soy was emasculating and catabolizing (my words); he also filed suits for his distasteful jail wardrobe and the insufficient medical department, among many other legal gripes.

This 'legal eagle' has been indigent for every one of his copious visits since the 1990s, and considering that he has stolen AND damaged law books more than once, AND also consumes paper and other free resources like a nematode, Al Gore could rightly cite him for Eco-abuse!

Reason for this "innocent's" incarcerations: falsely imprisoning a woman and crack possession, among many other. . . . .

P.S. I'm a vegetarian who partakes of soy daily and can deadlift about 400 lbs., so the emasculation charge against the legume is, well, impotent.

Posted by: adamakis | Nov 14, 2011 11:51:09 AM

LOL@adamakis,

I am reminded of my time working in NYSDOCS when one of my duties was to serve on the inmate grievance board (I also pinch hit for the grievance administrator when he was out). This board recommends solutions/actions to the superintendent when an inmate grieves a policy or procedure. The sup. makes the final decision. After an appeal to Albany, the inmate has exhausted all internal remedies and can sue.

We once had an inmate come through who was grieving the choice of kool-aid served at chow. He said the cheap kool aid was "eating his brain" and made him dumb. I did not know him prior to that day but I am guessing he was not curing any fatal illnesses prior to drinking prison kool aid.

These guys are a trip.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Nov 14, 2011 2:18:51 PM

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