SMYRNA, Del. (AP) – Dinner is served in cellblock 18, and one can’t help but approach it with trepidation.
It’s finger food – not even sporks allowed – sitting unadorned on a piece of brown paper. The stuff of legend and lawsuits.
“I would equate it to the zucchini bread my mom used to make, except for the surprise pineapple pieces,” said Delaware corrections commissioner Robert Coupe.
Prisoner No. 256265 has a simpler description.
“Basically, it’s baked slop,” Kevin Dickens said as he picked at a hunk of nutraloaf during a recent prison interview.
Dickens is no stranger to the concoction also known as an alternative meal plan. He’s been on a loaf diet for longer than any other Delaware inmate – five straight weeks.
Prisons and jails in other states also have served “the loaf” to unruly inmates, typically for misbehavior involving food or bodily waste, but its use is on the decline following years of lawsuits around the country, some equating it to cruel and unusual punishment.
Prison officials maintain that the loaf is not meant as punishment. They consider it a behavioral management tool, used in response to disruptive conduct that threatens the safety of prison operations.
Nevertheless, the New York Department of Corrections agreed to eliminate its “special management meal” in 2015 as part of a settlement of a broader ACLU lawsuit over prison conditions. Pennsylvania replaced the loaf with bagged meals in October, and Maryland prison chief Stephen Moyer last month rescinded a directive allowing its use following a query by The Associated Press.
“The secretary was unaware of the directive … and just believes there are other disciplinary options,” said Maryland DOC spokesman Gerard Shields, adding that the loaf had been used only sparingly.
Virginia prison officials still use what they call “diet loaf,” but a corrections spokesman said they do not track its use and declined to provide a copy of related policy guidelines.
According to American Correctional Association standards, alternative meal service should be based only on health or safety considerations, meet basic nutritional requirements, and be used for no more than seven days, absent administrative review and approval of a health care practitioner.
It’s unclear how many prisons and jails still use the loaf, but Prison Legal News, a project of the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center, reported last year that at least a dozen state prison systems still have it.
“It is my understanding that any use of nutraloaf by prisons and jails around the country is pretty limited,” Jon Nichols, executive director of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates, said in an email.
Delaware, however, is sticking with its alternative diet. Coupe said it was served to 30 inmates in 2015 and to 17 last year.
A first occurrence of misbehavior involving food or bodily waste is subject to a nutraloaf diet for three consecutive days. A subsequent occurrence can result in seven more days. Coupe said a decision to order a loaf diet requires a medical review and approval by the warden.
Meanwhile, state officials are asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Dickens over his treatment in prison, including a claim that he was “constructively starved” when placed on a nutraloaf diet for five consecutive weeks in 2009.
“It started to affect my health. I lost like 60 pounds,” said Dickens, who says he suffered from frequent blackouts and low blood pressure.
Prison officials maintain that they did not violate Dickens’ rights and that the loaf provides the daily nutrients a prisoner needs.
That doesn’t mean it has to taste good.
During the AP’s visit with Dickens, prison officials served a loaf for a taste test.
“They always bring out the best for the company,” joked Dickens, saying the loaf was moist and well-cooked, with a better consistency than usual.
This reporter found the “best” to be a bland, brownish, earthy, suet-like concoction, occupying a culinary space somewhere between a loaf and a casserole. A crumbly, zucchini bread-type mashup gone awry. Not as awful as feared, but sorely wanting some spicing or saucing up.
During a follow-up prison visit, the AP got a chance to taste another loaf, which had more of an orange tint, perhaps because of more cheese sauce or carrots, even though kitchen workers follow a strict recipe. This version was far tastier than the first, with prison staffers agreeing it was roughly comparable to lasagna.
“It’s all right. It will fill you up,” inmate Antoine Money said after his first taste of nutraloaf. Money, who works as a diet cook in the prison kitchen, has prepared nutraloaf several times for other prisoners but, unlike Dickens, had never tasted it previously.
“I think Mr. Dickens was keeping the AMP in business for a while,” food service director Chris Senato said jokingly.
Dickens, who was sentenced to four years behind bars in 2002 for assault, has been convicted 18 times since then for assault in a detention facility, often involving flinging bodily waste. Without those additional 18 charges, he would have been released in 2006 but is now looking at a release date of 2051.
Dickens says he’s not a trouble maker and that guards frequently bait him and taunt him.
“Rules go both ways. Your authority ends where abuse begins,” said Dickens, who has developed a strategy for confronting the loaf: He first goes for the pineapple chunks, then picks around the corners and edges for whatever else he can stomach.
“It’s not something you swallow easily,” he said. “After you take two or three bites, you want to gargle and barf.”