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Vermont Supreme Court: “Nutraloaf” Diet Is Punishment that Requires Hearing

On March 13, 2009, the Vermont Supreme Court held that placing a prisoner on a “Nutraloaf” and water diet constitutes punishment that requires a hearing before the punitive diet is imposed.

William Borden, Richard Pahl and Brian Pelletier, Vermont state prisoners, filed a declaratory judgment action in superior court seeking to have the imposition of a Nutraloaf and water diet by prison officials declared punishment. Under 28 V.S.A. §§ 851-853, the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) is required to conduct a fact-finding hearing before imposing punishment on prisoners; the plaintiffs argued that a hearing was necessary prior to implementing a Nutraloaf and water diet. The superior court held that such a diet did not constitute punishment, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The Vermont Supreme Court noted that Nutraloaf is “a compost of whole wheat bread, non-dairy cheese, carrots, canned spinach, raisins, canned Great Northern beans, vegetable oil, tomato paste, powdered milk, and potato flakes, mashed together and baked in a loaf pan.” Called “food loaf” or “meal loaf” in other prison systems, it is “designed to be ‘less appealing than normal food.’”

A Nutraloaf and water diet is imposed on prisoners who abuse food, utensils or bodily waste. Nutraloaf is high in fiber and requires the prisoner to drink a lot of water to avoid constipation. It is served without eating utensils.

DOC Directive 413.09 requires Vermont prison officials to determine whether guards have first attempted to end the offensive behavior by issuing warnings before a prisoner is placed on a Nutraloaf diet. It limits imposition of the diet to seven days, and requires a medical assessment following the week-long Nutraloaf regimen.

The Supreme Court held that the fact that Nutraloaf was designed to be unappetizing compelled the conclusion that its purpose was primarily deterrence. Since “‘retribution and deterrence’ are ‘traditional aims of punishment,’” the Court found that “the Nutraloaf-and-water regime is classic punishment deterrence.” It held that DOC officials must thus provide prisoners with a fact-finding hearing pursuant to 28 V.S.A. § 852, in which the prisoner is “entitled to notice of the charge, to confront the person bringing the charge, to testify, and to question witnesses.”

Accordingly, the superior court’s judgment was reversed. The plaintiffs were represented by Defender-general Matthew F. Valerio, and Seth Lipschutz and Dawn Seibert of the Prisoner’s Rights Office in Montpelier. See: Borden v. Hofmann, 2009 VT 30 (Vt. 2009); 2009 Vt. LEXIS 23.

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Related legal case

Borden v. Hofmann