Can Bad Food Be a Violation of the Eighth Amendment Prohibition of Cruel and Unusual Punishment?


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For those who have never been to prison, considerations of prison food are probably not high on the list of concerns about prison conditions. But, many a prisoner has suffered through daily rations of “nutriloaf” and probably has a very different take on the matter.

As a result, a number of legal challenges have been raised across the United States challenging “nutriloaf” and other poor prison meals as a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and a violation of the inmates' Eight Amendment Rights.

Nutriloaf is a foul-tasting brick of food products. It is often served to prisoners as a disciplinary matter, and has had reported side effects like vomiting, stomach pains, and even anal fissures. Nutriloaf is among the many foul-tasting meals served up each days in American prisons. Some wardens have bragged about serving food that costs less than a dollar per day per inmate. Anyone who has ever shopped on a budget knows just how nearly impossible such a menu is to achieve with food of any quantity or quality. Some prisons have taken to using cast-offs from other government programs, like old school meals, or the unused portions of organic modification experiments. Others are reported to rely on roadkill, though these reports are unsubstantiated.

A number of lawsuits have begun popping up in courts across the U.S. challenging poor food in prisons. And, a few courts are beginning to take notice. A U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit said that nutriloaf could violate the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment if its side effects were as described, with vomiting and stomach cramps common.

Granted, inmates do not have a right to gourmet cuisine, but the Eighth Amendment does require prisons to serve prisoners food with sufficient nutritional value to keep them reasonably healthy. Foods like nutriloaf, that make the inmates sick, are not acceptable. But, just how far courts will interpret this right remains in doubt. After all, on the other end of the spectrum are prisons that have taken to serving intentionally fattening food while reducing access to exercise equipment in an effort to render prison populations lethargic and easier to manage.

In the 1960's and 70's, courts enacted a number of reforms that greatly overhauled the prison system. Judges today seem far less likely to engage in such reformation, but these cases may indicate a new wave of prison reform rulings on the horizon. The public has become less focused on punishing crime, as crime rates have reached the lowest levels in decades. Still, prisons are hugely overcrowded and financial considerations have left prison budgets extremely strained. This could lead to additional reforms that may, among other things, allow some inmates to go free under conditions such as inedible food.

If you or someone you know has been fed inedible prison meals, you should contact an attorney in your area. This attorney may be able to help you or your friend or loved one to obtain recovery for the suffering experienced in these circumstances, to prevent further such abuse while incarcerated, and/or help others to avoid undergoing the same sort of mistreatment. for a list of attorneys in your area, visit the Law Firms page of HG.org.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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