The closer you look, the grimmer it gets. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Center on the States, one out of every nine black men between age 20 and age 34 is locked up. Hispanics are pulling a distant second, with one in every 36 behind bars.
Not surprisingly, these bleak numbers have birthed a boatload of generalizations about our prison system. Such as: What do you expect when we have a privatized, for-profit penal system? And: We're an over-lawyered three-strikes culture where nonviolent offenders too often end up sharing bunks with murderers and rapists. And don't forget my personal fave: We're barbarians.
Each of these answers has the whiff of truth. Still, the only generalization I can fully get behind is this: These days, more people than ever are on The Loaf — Prison Loaf, that is.
Known officially as "Confinement Loaf," "Special Management Meal" or "Meal Loaf," behind bars it's known simply as "The Loaf," as in: "If you don't un-keister that shank, Blinky, we're gonna put you on The Loaf."
Used in state penitentiaries across the country, The Loaf is sort of like dessert on a prison's menu of punishments. Act up once, and for an appetizer the guards will serve your meal on a Styrofoam tray. Flout the rules again and you'll get the main course: A sack meal — still food they feed the general population, only now served in a paper sack. Still hungry for more, Bubba? Then it's time for The Loaf — a bland, brick-like substance served in your cell. On freezer paper. Without utensils.
"Basically we use it for offenders who have continuously demonstrated behavior that we consider to be a threat to other inmates and staff," says Brian Hauswirth, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Corrections. "We're talking about people who throw food items. We're talking about people who don't return their food utensils or trays. They've flooded the cell in some cases. They could be throwing urine, or feces, or semen. Things like that."
Though many offenses dictate The Loaf, the substance itself varies little from prison to prison. The recipe generally includes grated carrots, dehydrated mashed potatoes, canned spinach, beans, white bread, cheese food, powdered skim milk, some sort of sugar, some sort of meat and vegetable oil, blended together and baked hard.
Medieval? Perhaps. But even though the American Correctional Association, which accredits prisons, frowns on the use of food as a disciplinary tool, many state prisons continue to deploy The Loaf as a punishment of last resort.
For one thing, The Loaf is easier to clean up after a food fight than, say, mashed potatoes and Jell-O. Better yet, put a cantankerous inmate on The Loaf on Monday and by Wednesday he'll be meek as a lamb. Guaranteed. Not only that: Eating The Loaf three times a day meets a prisoner's basic nutritional requirements.
"We use approved recipes," says Hauswirth, who estimates that Missouri currently has "under 100" prisoners on The Loaf. "We have one that's meat and one that's vegan. Those recipes must be strictly followed to ensure that nutritional needs are met — we're talking about USDA standards."
Fair enough, but USDA standards don't say anything about food tasting delicious. And I have to say: Brewing up a brick of big-house cuisine at home over the weekend left me yearning to place The Loaf in the administrative segregation that is my trash can.
Its ingredients list doesn't exactly favor your flavor-forward foodstuffs. What's more, instead of enhancing one another (like, say, the classic duo of canned spinach and cheese food), The Loaf's constituent parts cancel each other out, resulting in a dry, crumbling substance of unmitigated blandness.
The Loaf was pretty bad. Still, I put myself on the loaf. I ate it more or less like an amuse-bouche, knowing full well that my next meal would be home-cooked. Trying to imagine The Loaf as my three squares? That's enough to scare even the hardest criminal straight.
Then again, the Pew's numbers don't lie, which gets me to thinking: Maybe it's time prisons started publishing their menus.
Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to email@example.com.