August 4, 2002

What's Worse Than Solitary Confinement? Just Taste This

By MATTHEW PURDY

ITHACA, N.Y.
PRISON wardens everywhere have a menu of sanctions for inmates who break rules loss of recreation, loss of phone privileges, solitary confinement. In New York, the final item on the menu is the Loaf.

The ultimate discipline for incorrigible prisoners is three one-pound loaves a day made of flour, milk, yeast, sugar and lesser amounts of margarine, salt and shredded carrots and potatoes. Plus, there's a side order of cabbage. One cup, raw. And water.

The restricted diet is used as a last resort for inmates already locked in disciplinary housing for 23 hours a day, who commit serious offenses like attacking correction officers or milder infractions like disobeying their orders. The diet is often imposed for just a few days, but sometimes for weeks, with inmates served the loaf for seven consecutive days and regular food for two.

Prisons are tough places for tough people. But bread and water in the 21st century?

"It has a connotation of the Middle Ages." That's from a state prison system doctor, John Alves, who said in a recent deposition that while the diet posed no medical risk, it conjured up long-ago images: "Medieval, dungeons, shackles, bread and water."

However antiquated the loaf may sound, the number of New York State inmates on it is growing, to 478 last year from 363 in 1999. Last week, 36 inmates were on the loaf.

The restricted diet, which has been around since the mid-1980's despite legal challenges, is now the subject of two lawsuits. One is by Wilfredo Rodriguez, who has been convicted of attempted robbery and selling drugs and has racked up dozens of infractions in prison. In the 1990's, while in disciplinary housing at the Southport Correctional Facility, he was given about 100 days on the diet, court papers show.

"It's hard, partially frozen, served in a bag," he said, describing the loaf in a deposition this year. And he added, "The cabbage is really smelly."

Officials who run the prisons, hardly five-star joints to begin with, say the loaf meets nutritional standards. But you have to eat three pounds daily to get the full benefit.

In February, a judge in Elmira temporarily stopped the diet for Jessie Barnes, a chronic problem inmate. He had been on it nearly five days a week for five months, was refusing to eat and had lost 20 pounds, court papers show. "His weight loss and deteriorating health is directly attributable to the lengthy imposition of the restricted diet," wrote Justice Samuel J. Castellino of State Supreme Court.

Florida's policy is similar to New York's, but other states and federal prisons prohibit using food for discipline. In Texas and Pennsylvania, food cooked into a loaf is used as a security measure for inmates who throw trays or utensils. Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas prisons, never mistaken for resorts, said, "We're not allowed to use food as a kind of punishment." In California, "We had the bread and water thing," said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the prisons. "But that was way back 19th century."

The American Correctional Association, which accredits prisons, "precludes the use of food as a disciplinary measure" in its standards. But the food rule is voluntary, and New York's prisons are accredited despite the restricted diet.

New York is sticking by the loaf. A 2000 prison memo calls it "a valuable tool for controlling inmate behavior" in disciplinary housing. It can be imposed on inmates who commit food-related infractions, those who throw urine or feces, or who are chronic troublemakers.


A SPOKESMAN for the Department of Correctional Services, Jim Flateau, says that the loaf is ordered when "there's nothing left to take away," and that it is part of a disciplinary system that has led to record low rates of inmate violence.

Jennifer Wynn, a researcher with the Correctional Association of New York, called the diet "a very restrictive, punitive and pointless policy that's not a sign of an enlightened system."

Besides, she sampled it. "It's dry and tasteless," she said.

The prison system has done what it can with the loaf. A few years ago, nutritionists changed the recipe to lighten the loaf, adding white flour instead of whole wheat and adding margarine. The reviews have not been raves, but the cuisine was once even crueler.

Said one prison official, "There used to be liver added to it."


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company