Does service of a meal that consists of a colorful brick-like lump of pureed vegetables, raisins, meats and various unknown ingredients constitute cruel and unusual punishment? The answer is now a definite “maybe.”
The founding fathers probably didn’t consider the issue when, concerned about the centralization of power in a national government, they sought to ensure that federal authorities did not impose excessive monetary penalties or disproportionate, tortuous and barbaric punishments upon undeserving citizens. Inspired by the English Bill of Rights of 1689, they drafted a prohibition that was ultimately ratified as the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It provides that [e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Gotcha. But this is a constitutional standard, and doesn’t that mean that it applies to the federal government and not state prisons?
As ratified, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments applied only to the federal government. In the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, the United States Supreme Court held that it also applies to state governments as a matter of due process. The judiciary did not, however, initially set forth a universal standard to differentiate between valid exercises of police powers and those acts that are unconstitutional abuses. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing on behalf of the Supreme Court, later explained that
[t]he basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man. While the State has the power to punish, the Amendment stands to assure that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards. Fines, imprisonment and even execution may be imposed depending upon the enormity of the crime, but any technique outside the bounds of these traditional penalties is constitutionally suspect…. The words of the [Eighth] Amendment are not precise, and that their scope is not static. The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.
The Supreme Court has suggested that unconstitutional punishments include drawing and quartering, public disembowelment and execution by burning a living criminal to death. It has also considered the application of the prohibition criminal death penalty cases, including proceedings that would result in the execution of minors and mentally handicapped criminals.
Who woulda thunk that the list may also include unappetizing meals consumed by crooks, thieves, con men and rowdy prisoners?
Inmates are arguing that the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is being violated by correctional facilities that serve a meal affectionately referred to as the “nutriloaf” or the “nutraloaf.” The brick-like pseudo-meatloaf meal is typically only served to troublesome inmates as a means of deterring negative behavior, such as throwing feces, urine, trays and utensils.
The recipe varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and facility to facility. Chicago Dining Critic Jeff Ruby is one of the few people who voluntarily – as in, of his own free freakin’ will – secured a reservation at a county jail and dined on Illinois’ version of nutraloaf, which he described as
a thick orange lump of spite with the density and taste of a dumbbell [that] could only be the object of Beelzebub’s culinary desires. Packed with protein, fat, carbohydrates, and 1,110 calories, Nutraloaf contains everything from carrots and cabbage to kidney beans and potatoes, plus shadowy ingredients such as “dairy blend” and “mechanically separated poultry.” You purée everything into a paste, shape it into a loaf, and bake it for 50 to 70 minutes at 375 degrees.
Fine. I get it. The dish looks something like a science experiment gone awry or that crazy thing growing in the back of my refrigerator, and I’d be worried that an inmate who was fed the substance would explode and shower a cell with gore. But does it really constitute cruel and unusual punishment, at least insofar as the constitutional standard has been applied to punishments such as drawing and quartering, public disembowelment, burning alive, and other means of execution?
Most courts have held that nutriloaf may be repugnant but that service of the dish does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The judicial temperament may now be changing. Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal appellate court to explain that service of the nutriloaf may violate the Eighth Amendment. The case was initially brought in district court by an inmate who claimed that his consumption of nutriloaf caused rapid weight loss, repeated vomiting, severe constipation and an anal fissure.
Yes, an anal fissure.
The trial court dismissed the claim on summary judgment, but the Seventh Circuit remanded the case and directed the trial court to reconsider the ruling. Judge Posner, writing on behalf of the Court, opined that
Deliberate withholding of nutritious food or substitution of tainted or otherwise sickening food, with the effect of causing substantial weight loss, vomiting, stomach pains, and maybe an anal fissure (which is no fun at all, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anal_fissure (visited March 15, 2012)), or other severe hardship, would violate the Eighth Amendment.
Kind of makes pink slime sound like a culinary treat. Maybe.