{Remembering Attica} The Loaf

Even though I write for a food blog, my real passion is prisons.  I worked as a prisoners’ rights attorney for the last seven years.  Before becoming a lawyer, I was an academic administrator and teacher in a prison college program at a men’s maximum-security prison.  Most recently I spent a lot of time hanging out in prison mental health wards and disciplinary units as a monitor for a settlement agreement in a lawsuit on behalf of mentally ill inmates who are subject to solitary confinement.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Attica rebellion (September 9 -13, 1971) which started after news spread through the prison that an inmate was being tortured by guards.  Prisoners seized 33 hostages and issued a statement in which they said, “We are men.  We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten and driven as such.”  They demanded changes to their living conditions, including a better diet, decent medical care and access to education, as well as changes to the system of parole.

One guard was injured during the initial take over and died in the hospital after three days.  The prisoners demanded amnesty and held knives to eight hostages’ throats, asking to see the governor.  The response of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller was to call in the New York State Police who dropped tear gas in the yard where the hostages were being held and started shooting into the ensuing smoke and chaos.  The State Police killed 39 people, 10 hostages and 29 prisoners, and injured dozens more.  State officials originally lied and said the prisoners had slit the throats of the hostages.  Four more prisoners were killed in retaliation after the shooting stopped.  After the rebellion was quelled, prisoners were stripped naked and many of them were beaten and forced to run through a gauntlet of angry and emotional guards who hit them with clubs or rifle butts and kicked them. (Recommended reading:  A Time to Die, by Tom Wicker.)

A number of reforms were enacted after Attica, some of which, like the college programs, have since been taken away.  Diet in the prisons still isn’t great, it is kind of like hot school lunches without pizza or tacos, probably because pizza and tacos are considered to be too much fun.  Most of the prisoners I know cook for themselves whenever they can, using items sent from home or bought from the commissary.  They are pretty inventive.  Some other time, I will write about some of their recipes.

Prisoners in disciplinary segregation, also known as solitary confinement, the box, the bing or the special housing unit, do not get to cook for themselves.  In fact, if prison officials want to punish someone for a rule violation related to food, or if the prisoner already has box time until his prison sentence expires, he can be additionally punished by feeding him the restricted diet, a.k.a. “The Loaf,” instead of regular meals.

three loaves, one day

The loaf is delivered to the prisoner’s cell three times a day for the period of punishment, accompanied by a wedge of cabbage and a cup of water.  Sometimes it is delivered half frozen.  The punishment is usually three to seven days long, but it can be longer and multiple punishments may be imposed.  There is no limit to the number of times a healthy prisoner can be ordered on the loaf, although people on the diet have to be checked by doctors periodically to make sure they are not suffering medical consequences. Some of my clients refuse to eat the loaf and fast instead.  Seriously mentally ill people are not supposed to be given the loaf but sometimes they are put on it anyway if the prison officials think it is necessary to punish them for willful, food-based infractions.

The loaf, cabbage, a glass of water.

In remembrance of all of the people who died at Attica, I decided to make the loaf and eat it for a day on Saturday.  Almost every state or county jail has its version of the loaf.  This is the version made by New York State.  The original recipe that I obtained through a FOIL request was for 40 loaves, so this is scaled down to make  just three; one day’s worth for one person. It is a lot of food, but pretty monotonous. Bread and water.

Not batter you feel like licking.



The New York State Nutritional Loaf

Makes three one-pound loaves

1 1/2 cups grated carrot

3/4 cup grated potato

6 tablespoons margarine

6 tablespoons nonfat dry milk

9 tablespoons sugar

3 1/4 teaspoons baker’s yeast

4 cups 1% milk

3/4 teaspoon salt

6 cups white flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Place a roasting pan with hot water in the oven rack below the baking rack.  Combine all ingredients.  Divide mixture into three greased one-pound loaf pans and bake for an hour or until done.  Eat with a side salad of a wedge of cabbage and a container of water.

Kate likes the loaf. Kate likes everything.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Jillian says:

    Heavy, in a good way. Thank you.

  2. Jennifer H says:

    I’ve never heard about the Attica incident. Thank you for sharing. I am very glad that I am a law abiding citizen.

  3. Liz says:

    As Jillian said, heavy, but in a meaningful way for me today. This weekend at church [obviously I am a Christian and as such this comment may not resonate with some, I know that my faith works for me but isn’t universal] I listened to a talk on forgiveness related to 9/11, and how our vengeful cultural response is the opposite what God asks of us, which is forgiveness even for those who have committed the most heinous of offenses. I am embarrassed on many levels that my initial response to prisoner rights is something along the lines of “they committed a crime and don’t have rights or deserve much” but I am thankful to you, Dianna, for another version of this lesson on forgiveness. Crimes or not, all humans deserve respect and forgiveness, and the loaf is a sad example of how our culture/government fails to offer forgiveness even in a small way.

  4. SallyA says:

    I remember when Attica happened but your post made it alive again. The information, while interesting, is horrifying to me. Thank you for posting it.

  5. Wowie, what an interesting and polarizing post.

    When I was in college, I took a class on the History of Punishment. We spent a lot of time talking about prison riots (like Attica, the Coxsackie riots, etc). We read “The Book of Job” and looked at blueprints of Eastern State Penitentary. Very interesting and informative class.

    It’s interesting to put this in the context of our relationship with food, how it is both a necessity and a luxury. Something I’ll be thinking about today.

    @Liz don’t be apologetic for your beliefs! They are what make you Liz, and I think we all lurve us some Liz 🙂

  6. Dianna says:

    Thanks guys and sorry for the delay in replying. I am at a conference on Attica at the University at Buffalo Law School. We had a very emotional presentation this morning by a surviving hostage, who was one of the most thoughtful speakers I have ever heard, a former prisoner at Attica, who watched his best friend get shot and killed while handcuffed after the riot was over, and the daughter of the officer who died from injuries during the take over. The thing they had in common was they each made the audience weep. The guard’s daughter, his name was William Quinn, said she evolved her opinion from straight support of law enforcement to thinking that people should not be labeled. Whatever stereotypes we all hold about people are seldom true.

    That said, I am very glad to be a prisoner advocate and I think Christianity has some teachings on helping the least among us. But I don’t think of my clients as anything but fully human. And they humanized me.

  7. Dianna says:

    Oh and the kid who was killed while handcuffed was in Attica on a parole violation for driving a car without a license. He was 20.

  8. Daniel B. says:

    And some say food bloggers don’t tackle important subjects. Thank you for sharing this and shedding some light on prison life both modern and in the past. I knew about Attica, but didn’t quite realize how bad it was.

    I don’t write about it much, but I think the sheer volume of people incarcerated in this country is unconscionable. Maybe as politicians face increasing pressure to reduce the size of the federal government, they will finally end the war on drugs and close some of our prisons?

    Dare to dream.

  9. Kim says:

    I think it is fascinating (and horrific) that part of the way that prisons try to dehumanize those prisoners that they are trying to punish or “break” is by attacking the quality of their food. Conversely, one of the ways that prisoners maintain their humanity is by cooking. Food is so fundamental to our humanity. Thanks Dianne for posting this.

  10. Kim says:

    I also think that I will challenge the students in my Forensic Science and Criminal (In)Justice class to take the Loaf challenge for a day.

    1. Dianna says:

      That’s wonderful! Thanks Kim. I’d be interested to hear how they do. I had a very hard time eating the loaf for a day, by three I felt totally repulsed by it. And I only ate one loaf: I gave one to Christina and didn’t bother eating the third at all since it is more food than I needed. I don’t know how people eat this for seven days.

      1. Kim says:

        Any chance you want to come talk about what the prison experience is like to my class? We are really focused on issues around forensic science but I think that it would be very educational for them to hear from you and your perspective. Any interest? I promise that i won’t feed you loaf during the experience.

        1. Dianna says:

          Absolutely. I’d love to. When would you like me to come? and what would you like me to talk about? I love hearing the sound of my own voice!

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