Local jails using 'nutraloaf' to serve up discipline


It's a dish served to people who are serving time - a food that's sometimes used as a form of punishment.

Many describe what's known as the nutraloaf as a flavorless, spongy blob. It's designed to be bland, and it's served up to inmates who act out behind bars.

Behind the armed deputies and past the bulletproof glass at the Clark County Jail, nutraloaf is a disciplinary tool that has cooked up controversy nationwide for decades, and it's a tool Commander Michael Anderson knows all about.

"When [the nutraloaf diet is assigned] it has to be approved by a sergeant, and they can approve it up to two days," Anderson explained. "If it's longer than that it has to be approved by a commander or above."

The nutraloaf is served as two 11-ounce patties, and it's made up of all the essential food groups found on the food pyramid, although there are a few odd ingredients too.

"Just like mom's or grandma's meatloaf - without taste," Joseph Loftgern, the Jail Industries Manager at the Clark County Jail, described. "We include fresh vegetables that are done every day, but how many people can say we're going to put applesauce in our meatloaf?"

The Clark County Jail is in Washington, but the nutraloaf is mentioned by name in the Oregon Department of Corrections rules, which outline how jails can use it. Inmates can be placed on the diet when they throw or misuse food or human waste, or if they don't return their trays or utensils after a meal.

Jails can only force nutraloaf on an inmate for seven straight days, though, and staff members must document the length of time and reasons for it being served.

"We use it as a behavior modification tool, we don't use it as a punishment," Anderson said. "We do it because there's a legitimate penological interest to give it to them, to keep them from damaging cameras to not making messes."

So, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, rather than a variety of foods, an unruly inmate instead gets a monotonous menu of the loaf.

Officials at the jail say it works.

"We're on an eight-week rotating menu, and the inmates have memorized when they get what, and they look forward to it," Anderson said. "So, if they misbehave on certain days they know they have to be off [the nutraloaf] in order to get mac and cheese."

So, how does it taste? Well, that depends on who answers the question.

"I have heard it described here personally as not so bad," Loftgern said. "It's not bad-bad, not great-great, but somewhere in the middle."

Whether or not it's tasty isn't the main concern for David Fathi, the director of the ACLU National Prison Project. The bigger question is, he says, is it legal?

"At best, it's legally right on the line, and facilities that are still using it are needlessly exposing themselves to potential liability when there are plenty of other tools at their disposal," he said.

Fathi calls nutraloaf a modern-day take on the old prison food called grue, which was a much less nutritious meal that was ruled unconstitutional. He also said the general idea of using food as punishment is a stale concept that just doesn't work.

"It's a relic of an earlier, more primitive and less civilized period of corrections. A lot of correction officials I know regard [the nutraloaf] as kind of an embarrassment," Fathi explained. "There are certainly prisons and jails that manage just fine without it. So yes, I think it's a bad idea whose time is up, and we should get rid of nutraloaf."

MORE: Curious about what the nutraloaf tastes like? Click here for the recipe to try it for yourself.

There have been a few lawsuits involving the nutraloaf, including in Oregon. In 2016, a Washington County inmate called the meal "revolting," and alleged that staff fed him the nutraloaf diet for an extensive period, and he called the punishment unjustified. That case is currently unsettled.

Nevertheless, the nutraloaf still used in jails and prisons across the country, and Clark County has no plans of scrapping the loaf from the menu anytime soon.

"They have a constitutional right to nutritious meals," Anderson said. "They don't have a right to say what we're serving them."

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