RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Food, mealtime, is one of the few daily pleasures inmates have in prison, and food should not be used to enforce discipline or punish prisoners. That's according to the American Correctional Association, which sets standards for the nation's prisons. Still, many institutions do just that when inmates break the rules.

NPR's Eliza Barclay has that story.

ELIZA BARCLAY, BYLINE: Back in the 19th century, prisoners were given bread and water until they'd earned with good behavior the right to eat meat and cheese. Today, some prisons and jails feed prisoners a bland lump when they misbehave. They call it the loaf.

SHERIFF DAVID CLARKE: It's a food source. It contains all the vitamins and nutrients and minerals that a human being needs. It's been approved by the courts. I've had it myself. It's like eating meatloaf.

BARCLAY: Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has used the loaf in his jail for five years. No one knows exactly how many institutions use it. But prisoners hate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) Hey, did you get this loaf thing? Looks like three different dinners mushed together into a mound.

BARCLAY: The Netflix show "Orange Is the New Black" is based on the experiences of many former inmates who got the loaf in what's known as the SHU, or the isolation unit. The SHU is where Aaron Fraser had the loaf while he was serving time from 2004 to 2007 for counterfeit. He loathed it.

AARON FRASER: I would have to be on the point of dizziness when I know I have no choice.

BARCLAY: On the face of it, the loaf doesn't sound so bad. In Pennsylvania state prisons, it's made with potatoes, cabbage, oatmeal and margarine. A county jail in Washington State makes theirs with meat, apples and tomatoes. But prisoners who misbehave don't just get it once. They have to eat it for every meal, days or weeks at a time. That's why it works as a deterrent, says Sheriff Clarke.

CLARKE: When we started to use this in the disciplinary pods, all of the sudden the incidence of fights, of attacks against our staff, started to drop tremendously. You know, we'll often hear from inmates, please, I won't do that anymore. Please, don't put me in the disciplinary pod, I don't want to eat nutraloaf.

BARCLAY: Marcia Pelchat is a psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She says humans have evolved to crave a variety of food.

MARCIA PELCHAT: Having to eat the loaf over and over again probably makes people miserable. They might be a little bit nauseated by it, they're craving other foods.

BARCLAY: And it can sometimes stop prisoners from eating altogether.

Which is why human rights advocates say it's unethical to use food as punishment in this way. David Fathi is director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

DAVID FATHI: Given that food is clearly recognized as a basic human need to which prisoners are constitutionally entitled, taking away food has always been sort of legally right on the line.

BARCLAY: The Federal Bureau of Prisons says it has never used the loaf. Still, it persists in other parts of the corrections system, and no agencies or organizations are keeping track of where and how often it's used.

Benson Li, the former president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates, offered to help us find that out.

At a recent meeting of the association, Li, who is also the food service director at the Los Angeles County Jail, conducted an informal survey. The answers he got suggest that the loaf is gradually being phased out.

BENSON LI: They are using less or some of them maybe using very sparingly - maybe two or three times in the past couple years.

BARCLAY: Li thinks that one of the reasons for this is that prisoners have been challenging the loaf in the courts.

They're hoping the courts will rule that the loaf is cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution. These suits date back to the 1970s, after the Supreme Court ruled that a potatey paste called grue served to inmates should be outlawed under the Eighth Amendment.

Prisoners have rarely convinced the courts that the loaf is that bad. Of the 22 cases brought since the beginning of 2012 alone, none have succeeded. But the corrections industry is taking notice.

Eliza Barclay, NPR News.

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