FORT WAYNE – You don’t exactly know what’s lurking inside the foam container, so you kind of expect the worst.
Judging by the smiles on the law enforcement officials surrounding the conference table, you get the feeling they’re just itching for you to flip open the lid.
This is a conference table inside the Allen County Jail, by the way, and you’ve voluntarily requested – for some reason – a hearty helping of jail food.
Not just any jail food, though.
No, what you want is a charming little concoction they call meal loaf.
I tried it, Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries says, maybe half-joking. It’s not bad. I can’t wait for Candy (his wife) to make this.
In jails and prisons all over the country it can be something different.
In some places it’s called Nutraloaf. In others it’s dubbed simply prison loaf or food loaf or even confinement loaf.
Typically a bland mishmash of meats and veggies, the food is designed to meet all the nutritional guidelines set forth by the federal government.
It made a bit of a splash across the Internet and blogosphere earlier this year after National Public Radio published a story on its use as punishment in many of those jails and prisons.
Allen County Jail does not use its version for punishment, but it has been used – though sparingly – and this past week officials cooked up a special batch just for The Journal Gazette.
The foam container is on the table, just sitting there, and you open the lid
Imagine beef and macaroni.
Imagine eggs and corn and breadcrumbs and strands of sweet coleslaw.
Now, picture all of those ingredients – and probably others – smashed together in a giant casserole or soufflé, into a ball of yellows, greens and browns, cooked for 25 minutes and served on a paper towel.
You now have meal loaf.
At least, this is how meal loaf looked at the Allen County Jail on Wednesday using the ingredients available for that day’s food.
Basically, it can change every meal, says Capt. Trina Haywood, the assistant jail commander.
While other jails and prisons might use their version of the loaf for punishment by serving it to unruly inmates – and incurring numerous lawsuits throughout the years – Allen County takes a different approach.
The food is served only to those inmates who might otherwise harm themselves or don’t eat.
Jail officials said they have had inmates who will eat the paper plates or foam serving trays they receive their food on.
Some inmates have been known to put their silverware in places silverware shouldn’t go, according to jail officials.
These inmates – who likely are not mentally sound – are the ones given the meal loaf, which can be picked at with fingers.
It’s to prevent self-harm, Haywood says.
And the jail staff cannot just make up the loafs to serve on a whim.
First, behavior warranting the need to serve certain inmates meal loaf must be observed and documented.
Jail administrators must then sign off on giving an inmate meal loaf.
Once served, a confinement officer must watch the inmate receiving the meal loaf eat, to ensure the inmate does nothing else with the food.
In the past 3 1/2 to four years, Haywood could remember only two inmates who needed to be served meal loaf.
‘Don’t go to jail’
You take a pinch and break it off.
In between the tip of your forefinger and thumb is a smattering of warm meat, macaroni and eggs with strands of coleslaw flailing about.
You take a whiff.
Not too bad.
Then you tilt your head back and throw it down your gullet.
It’s not even remotely what you expected, is it? Jail Commander Charles Hart says.
You went in thinking the worst and now you realize what you found in this foam container isn’t all that bad.
The beef is good, and the sweet coleslaw actually adds a bit of zing to the aftertaste – though Sheriff Fries disagrees.
I could go without that, he says.
According to NPR, the use of such loafs in prisons seems to be on the downward trend.
The news organization conducted an informal survey at an Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates meeting recently.
Forty percent of the prisons and jails that responded said the use of the loaf is declining while 30 percent said they did not use the loaf, according to NPR.
The decrease in its use coincides with a rise in lawsuits, with inmates claiming that being served the food is cruel and unusual punishment.
According to NPR, of 22 various lawsuits brought against the use of loaf nationwide since 2012, none has succeeded.
Still, there is a relatively easy way to completely avoid ever getting a taste of the loaf or any jail food, according to jail officials.
If you don’t like the food, don’t go to jail, Hart said.