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.
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.
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.
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.