You’ll Eat It and Like It: Rehabbing Vegans in Texas Prisons

David Cassuto

First the bad news then some good news then some middling, reality check observations.

It seems that a prisoner in Texas wishes to eat a vegan diet but the prison system will not let him.  Texas currently offers only a “meatless option,” which includes dairy and eggs.  The prisoner has sued under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (more about the statute here), to force the prison to respect his dietary wishes.

Prior to the lawsuit, the state based its refusal to provide a vegan diet on the expense involved (once again raising the bizarre reality that eating animals that eat vegetables is less expensive than eating the vegetables themselves).  However, in responding to the lawsuit, Texas now intends to present expert testimony from a prison dietitian who “will opine that a long-term, strict vegan diet is likely to lead to the development of nutritional deficiencies and significant health problems for most people.”  Yes, that’s right, sports fans: vegan prisoners are starving themselves and need meat and/or dairy to survive.  

Putting aside the gigantic irony embedded in the fact that Texas’ concern for the health of its prisoner population is apparently second only to its desire to kill them, one has to wonder how it is that in this day and age, someone (much less a state) could still be so ignorant of basic nutrition.

Now for the good news.  I learned about this case because my colleague, Michael Mushlin, a renowned and tireless worker on behalf of prisoners’ rights, brought it to my attention.  He  learned about it from a prisoners’ rights  listserv.  And the post asking for advice on potential experts to counter Texas’ position quickly generated some excellent responses.  It thus seems likely that when this would-be vegan has his day in court, he will have some strong expert testimony with which to refute his jailer’s ignorance.  So, it’s good news that there is a group of dedicated attorneys working on behalf of prisoners and it’s further good news that some of them are very knowledgeable about veganism.  It’s also good news that there exists a cadre of experts out there (including but not limited to these) that provide an excellent resource for pushing back the forces of dietary ignorance wherever they lurk and hide.

Now the reality check: no matter how much progress has been made introducing veganism into mainstream consciousness, ubiquitous redoubts of ignorance remain.  For better or for worse, this work is really just starting.

7 Responses

  1. I support a prisoner who requests a vegan diet on religious-spiritual grounds; if Muslims and others can receive special food why not them? I mean it’s not like these folks did anything wrong or have offended society in any way and aren’t nice people….oh wait, these are convicted felons right? I’m sure they’re innocent and were unjustly imprisoned by corrupt Cops, a racist Criminal Justice system and it’s all mistaken identity.

    On another note, I was curious about your position on people who have medical conditions, such as Celiacs, or severe food allergies who cannot be vegetarians. There are growing numbers of people who are finding out they have serious physical problems when eating grains and beans and are forced to adhere to diets like the Paleo diet. In addition to those folks, molecular research in the last 50 years has shown that many modern ailments, diabetes, IBF, Crohns, some forms of depression and certain types of autism can be cured or greatly reduced by eliminating grains, gluten and various other foods. So my question is this, does the vegan-vegetarian community distinguish between those that eat meat by choice and those that must do to dietary restrictions?

    I honestly believe many medical issues ranging from thyroid problems to rheumatoid arthritis can be controlled by changing diet and exercise levels. However, Doctors would much rather tell a patient to take 10 pills a day than follow a very strict diet and exercise regimen. So is the vegan-vegetarian lifestyle for everyone? I don’t believe so, but then again, who am I to say, I’ve only seen the Paleo-style diet work for several people including my wife.

  2. You ended your post by writing: “Now the reality check: no matter how much progress has been made introducing veganism into mainstream consciousness, ubiquitous redoubts of ignorance remain. For better or for worse, this work is really just starting.”

    True, truer and truest…what is really amazing is that the prison system is attempting to enforce a diet that demands violence for its existence…prison authorities supporting violence? Bizarre and strange do not begin to describe…

  3. @MAD: I haven’t the faintest idea what your 1st paragraph is trying to communicate so I’ll move on to the 2nd. You ask what my position is on people who can’t eat certain kinds of vegetable matter? While I assume you know that there is no known illness that *forces* one to eat the “paleo diet,” I’ll also assume the second part of your comment queries what my reaction is to those who eat meat because of health issues. I’ll divide my response in two:
    1st: I wonder why you’re asking since the question has nothing whatsoever to do with this post. Nothing herein suggests anyone should be forced to eat any kind of diet. It is rather all about *not* forcing anyone to eat a particular kind of diet.
    2nd: Since you ask, and though I don’t purport to speak for the “community,” here are my thoughts: If someone needs to consume animal products to survive, that is what we in the legal world call necessity. In my view that situation would transcend typical normative discussions. However, since such circumstances are exceedingly rare, they have little relevance to a broad discussion of dietary ethics.

    @Veganelder: I hear you. Bizarre, indeed.

  4. ok, I’ll admit I’m not much of a wordsmith, so I’ll explain – I’m not happy about the fact that included in the $50,000 or so it costs taxpayers to keep a prisoner cozy and warm that we (the taxpayers) also must respect their dietary requests, despite the fact that they don’t respect our laws. But whatever, just my personal view of the correctional system.

    Now, regarding your assertion that I should know that there’s no known illness that forces someone to eat a very restrictive diet (of which) the Paleo diet is one), I guess I’m just a believer in science over religion. Maybe you should read up on the research of biochemists Elaine Gottschall (specific carbohydrate diet) Robb Wolf & Loren Cordain (Paleo diet) and about a dozen other folks who have published peer reviewed papers concerning the detrimental effects of grains, soy and other foods. Additionally, there are scores of ailments that are alleviated or reduced to the point of insignificance due to dietary changes avoiding these deleterious substances.

    Concerning my wife, whom I have personally seen go thru depression, thyroid problems, gastro-intestinal distress and a host of other maladies had them all virtually disappear within 9 months after radically altering her diet. In fact, her TSH levels were lower while following the Paleo diet than when she was taking Synthroid. Here’s a short list of her food allergies:Severe allergy:
    – casein
    – wheat
    – soy
    – lentil
    – lima beans
    Moderate allergy:
    – avocado
    – eggs (whites and yolk)
    – coffee
    – ginger
    – navy bean
    – pinto bean
    – all beans should be avoided because of cross reactivity
    – barley
    – oats
    – rice
    – rye
    Mild allergy (should still be avoided)
    – almond
    – aspergillus (mold)
    – mustard
    – sunflower
    – tuna
    Mild allergy (can be eaten in moderation)
    – chicken
    – salmon
    – chocolate
    – strawberry
    – crab
    – lobster
    – pistachio
    After changing Doctors 3 times because they wanted to medicate her with anti-depressants, Synthroid and other crap, we finally found someone who had helped others with severe food allergies that end up causing other major ailments.

    I understand your position on veganism, but please don’t insult me with incorrect statements regarding medical issues that my wife and I have researched and experienced personally. We have scoured the published medical literature and research for 3 years addressing these problems and to be dismissed so cavalierly is disingenuous and quite sad. Sorry for the rant.

  5. MAD: I think you need to read carefully what I wrote (and what you wrote); it is not I who was insulting you, nor was I dismissing your wife’s difficulties. I was simply noting that there are undoubtedly other means than the paleo diet to avoid your wife’s food sensitivities. Note that at no time in the post or in the comment did I say that she (or anyone else) should be vegan, or that I understood her health issues better than either of you. Nor have I dismissed the idea of food sensitivities or possible detrimental health impacts of grains, etc. You seem bound and determined to feel attacked but I’m afraid you’re going to have to find someone else to do the attacking; I’m not interested.

  6. @ David: Having mentored prisoners (juveniles in reform school, boot camp and detention; adults in county jail) for seven years, I can attest to the fact that not all prisoners ARE guilty. No, I wasn’t at the scene of the crimes, but I’ve studied some of the cases in more depth than have the prosecutors. It’s well known in my county that some court-appointed defense attorneys are lazy, incompetent, and useless; moreover, prosecutorial misconduct is not exactly rare here. In addition, the police crime lab has had its problems.

    In addition, some prisoners do change. Not in typical jailhouse religion fashion but through sincere repentance and radical reform. I know several people whose thoughts, hearts and lives were 180 degree changed when they agreed to set aside their past and see themselves in the right light.

    I’m glad you and your wife resisted going the medication route. I truly hope she’s feeling 100% now!

    I hope the prisoner in question, whether innocent or guilty of the crime he was convicted of, receives vegan meals. Maybe it will start a trend in his prison and maybe prison violence will decline as compassion escalates. You just never know what events are going to trigger changes that ripple far and wide.

  7. David, Can you please give enough information about the Texas inmate’s suit that I could contact they attorney. I represent an individual with similar problems about to enter the system and I would like to brainstorm. Thank you

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