Cruel and Unusual: Gluten-free Jail Time?

And now for something completely different.

I’ll let the first paragraph of the Seattle PI’s article on this bit of gluten-free news do the talking for me:

A convicted killer is facing felony charges after telling King County Jail staff he planned to go on a murderous rampage in part because his dietary concerns – he claimed to need wheat-free food – weren’t being addressed.

Obviously, this man did not choose a solution-oriented approach to his problem. But he raises an interesting question: what happens if someone needs to be gluten-free in jail?

There’s a bizarre article from the UK’s Independent newspaper about a gluten-intolerant former rock star whose marijuana-related jail time was dropped back in May. The lack of jail time wasn’t necessarily for fear of accidental glutening in prison, though, so this seems like a one-off situation.

As if jail could be any less appetizing...
As if jail could be any less appetizing...

The web doesn’t have much on the topic of gluten-free prison food, but from what I can find it doesn’t look good. Prison Talk has one thread from the past year about being gluten-free in jail – although the person in question was ultimately able to get a satisfactory situation worked out, it was by no means easy or quick.

Another thread pointed to the BOP, or Bureau of Prisons, whose Health Services department should be able to accommodate dietary and religious requests.

The question of prisoners’ rights is a delicate one, but this seems like a clear-cut tragedy to me. Regardless of the crime, the health issues that arise from constant glutening are a cruel and unusual punishment. And, since celiac disease is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, there’s no legal reason it shouldn’t be recognized.

While I hope that none of us ever have to deal with prison as anything other than an abstract concept, I’m curious. Has anyone had experience with being gluten-free in jail? If you, your friends, loved ones, neighbors or acquaintances have stories to share, I’d love to hear them.


18 thoughts on “Cruel and Unusual: Gluten-free Jail Time?”

  1. I don’t know about the American system. I’m Canadian, and since I translated some parts of Correctional Services Canada’s policies on meals (CSC is the authority responsible to care for offenders sentenced to 2 years or more), I know that there are policies in place for offenders who have food restrictions (allergies, intolerances, religious or moral choices, etc.). When an offender is sentenced to 2 years or more, he is assessed by medical staff, and the Institution has to respect dietary restrictions, especially if it’s a medical concern.

    But, for people who serve a few days only, most of the time, there is no time to assess…

  2. I don’t know about the American system. I’m Canadian, and since I translated some parts of Correctional Services Canada’s policies on meals (CSC is the authority responsible to care for offenders sentenced to 2 years or more), I know that there are policies in place for offenders who have food restrictions (allergies, intolerances, religious or moral choices, etc.). When an offender is sentenced to 2 years or more, he is assessed by medical staff, and the Institution has to respect dietary restrictions, especially if it’s a medical concern.

    But, for people who serve a few days only, most of the time, there is no time to assess…

  3. This is a really thought-provoking article. I don’t have any personal experience before, but I have definitely thought about this scenario. Thanks for posting.

  4. This is a really thought-provoking article. I don’t have any personal experience before, but I have definitely thought about this scenario. Thanks for posting.

  5. This is a great, thought provoking point. I was thinking of this myself the other day. Now granted, prisoners should be denied certain rights, thats what jail is….but this is above and beyond. Denying them FOOD. I bet a person with a peanut allergery in jail NEVER has to worry about it (probably for many reasons other than the allergy as well).

  6. This is a great, thought provoking point. I was thinking of this myself the other day. Now granted, prisoners should be denied certain rights, thats what jail is….but this is above and beyond. Denying them FOOD. I bet a person with a peanut allergery in jail NEVER has to worry about it (probably for many reasons other than the allergy as well).

  7. Can you share what your authority is for stating that celiac disease is covered by the ADA? It’s not specifically mentioned in the statute by name. I was wondering if there is case law on this but I couldn’t find any on the ADA website. I agree that it seems like it would be covered, but I was just looking for a legal authority to point to.

  8. Can you share what your authority is for stating that celiac disease is covered by the ADA? It’s not specifically mentioned in the statute by name. I was wondering if there is case law on this but I couldn’t find any on the ADA website. I agree that it seems like it would be covered, but I was just looking for a legal authority to point to.

  9. ND, thanks so much for the info. I’m glad to hear there are processes in place for longer-term prisoners (and hopeful that I’m never thrown in the slammer, even for a few days).

    Kendra, good question. Let me do some extra research and pull some information, and I’ll put up a post about the ADA next week.

    Erin and Dr. Michelle, thanks for commenting!

  10. ND, thanks so much for the info. I’m glad to hear there are processes in place for longer-term prisoners (and hopeful that I’m never thrown in the slammer, even for a few days).

    Kendra, good question. Let me do some extra research and pull some information, and I’ll put up a post about the ADA next week.

    Erin and Dr. Michelle, thanks for commenting!

  11. my brother is in prison for something his wife did … admittedly he picked her but he has been very sick for 15 years he has 5 years left but how do you act good when you are messed up all the time … think about it next time you mess up and your wife complains you are not nice. feed people food they can eat if its rice and beans fine but killing people is wrong and that is what is being done in prisons

  12. The prison system has a duty to provide basic food, shelter, and medical care to all incarcerated persons. To give a gluten-intolerant prisoner a choice between ingesting gluten or starving is cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, some studies in Europe have shown celiac disease associated with convictions and incarcerations although the mechanism is not well understood — mood alteration? neurological damage? So we might think of providing a prisoner with medically necessary diet as part of the rehab effort.

  13. prison is not a hotel vacation. i had a son in jail for a year once and he had a toothache. they do NOT supply medical and meds for prisoners. We had to send money to the jail for an aspirin and it was like $2.50 an aspirin. Had to buy underwear as well.
    So our taxes should NOT pay for specialities and should of thought of that BEFORE breaking the law. we don’t owe them anything but punishment for breaking the law.
    come on people, that is what is wrong with the system, we coddle the guilty and act like they deserve “special” treatment. IT is J A I L…not the Hilton.
    So I am not for spending my $$ for special food for someone who chose to be there.

  14. No, Karen, It is not a Hilton, nor should it be a concentration camp for Celiacs. My son was in county prison for a year. They finally acknowledged he had celiac disease, but gave him the same thing every day for dinner…a baked potato or fries and beans. He got no vegetables on his plate. Someone obviously did not know what celiac disease was. Prison should be a place to rehabilitate, not make you more bitter and sick.

  15. I am amazed at this. There was also a recent prisoner who died because he had Addison’s Disease (another auto-immune disease that sometimes travels with celiac) and he was refused his medication. The idea that a criminal should think before they commit the crime that they will be forced to starve or be very sick while incarcerated seems a little near-sighted to me. I expect to receive appropriate medical/psychiatric care if I am incarcerated, and that includes recognition of my diagnosis as celiac, Hashimoto’s and Addison’s. The prisoner may very well have been experiencing the panic and anxiety that can come from eating gluten and having long-term vitamin deficient conditions.

  16. Karen, with all due respect, your comment is absurd. I don’t know if you have any idea how celiac disease effects someone who suffers with it, but your worst toothache couldn’t even begin to compare to the misery someone who has celiac would endure if they were fed foods containing gluten day after day after day. And starvation is not an acceptable choice either. Newspapers, magazines, books, television, recreational time outdoors, visitation rights – these are all “extras” that we allow prisoners. Food is not an extra, it is a necessity of life. Even the most brutal, murderous criminal is deserving of some minimal level of human dignity. You want to lock him in his cell for 24 hours a day with no human contact – be my guest. However, subjecting him to a life sentence of physical illness because the prison can’t be bothered accomodating food allergies is beyond cruel and unusual punishment. And, not to mention, there are plenty of people in prison who DO NOT belong there, but nevertheless are there because of draconian laws, overzealous prosecutors, or a host of other factors.

    Let me put it another way in a hypothetical: Suppose you’re driving down the highway one day, minding your own business, obeying the traffic laws, a car pulls in front of you, and you get into a bad accident and the driver of the other car is killed. Was that your choice? Did you “choose” to take a life that afternoon? I think not. Yet, if you were charged with manslaughter and sent to prison, you would be there nontheless. You may feel bad about what you did, as anyone would, but you didn’t intend to take another life. Wouldn’t you at least want to be treated with some level of human dignity and respect during your stay in prison, whether it’s for a week, a month, a year, five years, or so on? I think so…

  17. Karen, you act as if all prisoners are guilty of horrendous crimes such as rape and murder. The United States, land of the free, has more people locked up than any other country. The majority of them are there for victimless crimes. The judicial system also has very screwed up incentives for prosecutors and detectives which has lead to thousands of innocent people being locked up. But even for the worst criminals, how does denying them access to food they need to live allow them to repent and change their life for the better? Untreated celiac disease and corresponding leaky gut syndrome have been shown to cause nearly every psychological disorder in the DSM. Surely making prisoners insane, or more insane, is of no benefit to anyone. Far worse though is that untreated celiac disease will eventually kill you either from malnutrition or colon cancer. When a prisoner is sentenced by a judge to jail time do you really believe it is just to let the Prison sentence those with medical issues to death by providing an unhealthy environment?

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