Monday, May 26, 2008 | 2 a.m.
In the oven, a half-baked “institutional loaf” wafts something almost appetizing. Sweet, even. But not for long.
When it’s done, when the lard stops bubbling up the sides of the bread pan and the top springs back firm on your finger, an institutional loaf looks and smells like vomit resurrected.
This is the meal — a red-brown brick of food — that Nevada inmates are served when they disobey certain rules. It’s not considered a punishment, per se, but merely an incentive: Quit screwing around and you’ll get something other than slop slipped through the food slot.
In some circles, it’s called a behavioral management meal. Yes, it’s prison food that’s worse than prison food.
In March, the Vermont Supreme Court began examining whether inmates are entitled to a hearing before being served the brown block. It could be months before it makes a decision.
Nevada’s prison baker hasn’t batted an eye.
The loaf has been used here for more than 20 years with inmates who are “food-abusive.” That’s prison parlance for people who hurl meals at guards. The loaf, the logic goes, is solid and soft, so not only will it be easier to clean up, it won’t hurt as much on impact.
Oh, and it’s bad enough to encourage good behavior. Thus it’s the only recipe you’ll find in the Nevada Corrections Department’s regulations manual for prison kitchens, which have yet to win any Michelin stars.
“It just doesn’t look appetizing at all,” said corrections spokesman Greg Smith, who remembers serving inmates the loaves as far back as 1986. “They wouldn’t even try it. It was effective.”
Here’s why: An institutional loaf consists of powdered milk, potato, carrots, tomato juice, cabbage, ground chuck, lard, flour, celery, egg and red beans. The prison manual suggests you mash then mold the ingredients into a loaf pan, bake at 350 degrees “until done” and serve.
It sounds harmless on paper, but in person, it’s wet and dense and slick with lard. It’s mealy but broken up by stray beans, which burst with a bland starch in your mouth. Combined, the meat and the milk and the vegetables and the fat are sickly unsavory, crying out for some kind — any kind — of seasoning.
It’s dog food, really. Sure, you could eat it, if you had to.
Smith says guards at Nevada’s maximum security prison in Ely end up putting an inmate on the loaf diet about once a month, and not for more than a few days. The warden must approve each serving of institutional loaf. It does not come with water, coffee or juice. Moreover, if you’re on the loaf menu, it means you’re also in disciplinary housing, with no canteen privileges. So, Smith says, “it’s institutional loaf or nothing.”
The issue being debated in Vermont is not whether the loaf is cruel, but whether it’s punishment. The attorney representing inmates in the fight, Seth Lipschutz, says loaf is a punishment, and therefore, inmates should be given a hearing beforehand to determine guilt, as required by Vermont law. Even in prison, Lipschutz reminds, people are entitled to at least a little due process.
Vermont prison officials insist the loaf isn’t punishment, but a behavioral modification tool. Nevada’s prison manual says the same thing: “The imposition of the Alternative Meal Service is not an approved disciplinary sanction.”
The semantics at work there are as simple as swallowing a spoonful of loaf.
Nevada’s recipe was specially formulated long ago by a nutritionist nobody can remember. It differs from other states’ institutional loaves in one significant way — no raisins.
In Vermont, where raisins are part of the recipe, most prisoners pick them out to eat alone, Lipschutz says. Otherwise, they elect to starve.
“Short term, the loaves won’t kill you,” said Lipschutz, who works with Vermont’s Prisoner’s Rights Office. “But all the fiber might give you some kind of gastrointestinal problem.”
If they’re not trying to choke down some loaf, Nevada inmates are served meals best described as classic cafeteria: Meat (splat) and sides (splat). Chicken a la king is particularly popular, Smith said. It comes with green beans and potatoes. Sometimes there’s a cookie too.