What Are the Inmate’s Rights to Healthy Food in Prison

Prisoners have the right to life's basic necessities like food.

What Are the Inmate’s Rights to Healthy Food in Prison?

If you or someone you love is in jail or prison, you may have questions about inmate’s rights to healthy food. Has a jail or prison failed to acknowledge your dietary requirements?

A failure of the correctional facility to acknowledge the inmate’s dietary restrictions is a frequently argued topic. Under the provisions of the Eighth Amendment, case law, food law, and more, federal courts have determined that the prisoner has protection from cruel and unusual punishments. Prisoners are served an array of unappetizing or spoiled foods and, sometimes, they’re denied food (starved). Privatization of prisons has led to lower quality, fewer choices, and less diversity in foods provided to inmates.

Individuals with special dietary needs due to a chronic health condition, e.g. cholesterol issues, diabetes, high blood pressure, or allergies; religious dietary requirements; or other nutritional concerns about prison food have filed lawsuits addressing medical requirements, and religious concerns, to name a few.

Prisoner Lawsuits Concerning Food and Nutrition

Over the years, many prisoners have filed lawsuits about the (1) quality or quantity of food, (2) special requests about food, e.g. medical and religious concerns, (3) fasting (religious, medical, or “hunger strikes,” (4) forced feeding when the inmate refuses to eat, or (5) inmates’ consuming special foods or wine in their religious ceremonies.

Under federal law, the correctional institution cannot deprive the inmate of their “basic necessities of life”:

Prisoners are not due “comfort” or entitled to “luxury” under the law

Although Rhodes clearly shows that the inmate is not due “comfort” and luxuries in the prison or jail, they are entitled to live in an environment that’s compatible with the “evolving standards of decency” that demonstrate the progress of a mature society.

Inmates suing guards and other facility officials and staff for allegations of the violation of their constitutional rights complained about many negative scenarios in confinement, e.g. poor food service or bad sanitation. In Rhodes, the case evaluates whether the prison conditions cited were true deprivations of life’s necessities. In Wilson, the case considers prison officials and staff’s state of mind in order to deem liability under the law. (The court ruled that prison employees can’t be held responsible for “inadequate” conditions in prison. The concept of “deliberate indifference” to the prisoner’s rights is a subjective state of mind. The law requires the defendant to show deliberate indifference whether the prison condition or environment at issue is “systemic” or “short-term.”

The Court also ruled that the deliberate indifference standard was applied to prisoner’s lawsuits over health and medical care. It reasoned that the prisoner’s medical care is as much of a “condition” of the prisoner’s confinement as the diet, clothing, and environmental temperature, etc.

Clearly, mere accident or negligence is insufficient to determine the prison’s liability for a prisoner’s alleged condition of confidence (including the food the prisoner receives in prison.)

Quality and quantity of food in prison

Many lawsuits have filed lawsuits about the quality of their food, how much food they receive, and the frequency of their meals in prison:

  • Young v. Quinlan, 960 F.2d 351 (3rd Cir., 1992) shows that the court addressed the prisoner’s minimum constitutional obligations, including food.
  • Graves v. Department of Correction Employees, 827 SW 2d 47 (Tex.App., 1992) shows that a prisoner’s constitutional rights may be violated if they are deprived of food when prison officials willingly and knowingly demonstrate “wanton disregard” for the prisoner’s welfare.

Many lawsuits have been tried over food and religious matters, e.g. demands for kosher meals by Jewish inmates, “halal” meals, pork-free meals, and prisoners of other religions with specific dietary needs, e.g. vegetarian or vegan meals.

The current legal standard in these cases is that if the prison or jail denies the inmate’s request  and in doing so places a significant burden in the practice of their religion, the denial must be backed by compelling government interest. The denial must also be shown as the least “restrictive” way of serving the compelling government interest. In many cases,

  • The prisoner’s written request for a religious restricted diet may be honored by the prison. The request must be in accordance with “sincere religious beliefs.”
  • Case law shows that some inmates may make dietary requests when such meals aren’t part of the religious practice they pronounce. In this cases, the courts show less willingness to accommodate the prisoner’s dietary requests.

Clearly, it is essential for the prisoner to submit written communications about their dietary requirements to the prison as soon as possible.

In contrast, the dietician employed by a correctional facility failed to supply a diabetic inmate with their medically-recommended diet when the prisoner complaint argued the diet was a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights. In another case, a prisoner with a stated lactose intolerance and egg allergy won their claim concerning a violation of Eighth Amendment rights. The lawsuit argues that the prison failed to provide a therapeutic diet for diabetes.

Courts have also found that prison meals must provide “adequate nutrition” for prisoners’ health as well as:

  • Accommodate inmates’ sincere religious beliefs
  • Meet prisoners’ medical needs, e.g. lactose intolerance, allergies, diabetes, or food-related medical conditions or sensitivities.

Case law shows that the prison isn’t required to offer prison food that is pleasing in appearance. In some cases, “disruptive” prisoners have been punished by receiving meals referred to as “food loaf” or “nutra-loaf,” a mashed or ground concoction of leftovers in the prison. Courts have most often upheld the practice when the underlying disciplinary rationale is considered as appropriate.

Prison, prisoners, and prison food

Numerous lawsuits have been filed concerning prison food and the sometimes detrimental costs to inmates. Serving rotten food, completely withholding food, or serving prisoners distasteful food may be used to punish prisoners. Unfortunately, the clear “wanton disregard” for inmates’ health is realized as those who suffer from poor food benefit the correctional facility’s profit & loss statement.

If you or someone you love is dealing with the harsh reality that prison food is no longer a source of sustenance, or if it has become a type of harsh punishment you bear daily, you may be facing a potential violation of provisions under the Eighth Amendment. Contact Attorney Keith Altman at K Altman Law to request a case evaluation now by calling 248-987-8929 or email him at SD@kaltmantlaw.com now.

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