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Gruel and Unusual: Prison Punishment Diets and the Eighth Amendment

By Jackie Cuellar. Full Text. 

For as long as prisons have existed, food has been used as a mechanism of prisoner control. One of the earliest forms of food as punishment was the aptly named “bread-and-water diet,” providing prisoners with just 700 calories per day. The diet was later deemed cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment, but this was far from the last use of food as punishment in prisons.

Today, one disciplinary diet persists in correctional facilities across the country—nutraloaf. The exact recipe for nutraloaf varies but typically involves blending together bread, potatoes, non-dairy cheese, beans, fruits, and vegetables, shaping it into a loaf, and baking it. Nutraloaf is served three times a day for days, weeks, or even months. Prisoners placed on the diet frequently experience a multitude of adverse health outcomes, including vomiting, diarrhea, gastrointestinal bleeding and distress, and significant weight loss.

Despite the seemingly outdated nature of nutraloaf, courts have generally resisted finding that it violates the Eighth Amendment. However, the recent case Prude v. Clarke signals a shift in jurisprudence. In Prude, a prisoner placed on a nutraloaf diet experienced serious damage to his health. The court held that the “[d]eliberate withholding of nutritious food or substitution of tainted or otherwise sickening food” violated the Eighth Amendment. However, the court stopped short of suggesting that all nutraloaf is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Prude and its underlying rationale provide a path toward finally ending the use of nutraloaf.

This Note argues that the courts must hold nutraloaf unconstitutional. First, the Note provides a brief history of the evolution of the Eighth Amendment standard. Next, the Note discusses the use of food as a mechanism of control within prisons and the disciplinary diets previously ruled unconstitutional. The Note then discusses nutraloaf cases specifically, and argues that nutraloaf constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Note concludes by providing guidance for lawyers bringing future nutraloaf cases, and listing examples of evidence that are critical to surviving judicial scrutiny.