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Vegetarian prisoners shouldn't be forced to eat meat

October 6, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Prison inmates who are vegetarian ought to be fed something more than cheese sandwiches.

The 29-year-old prisoner who escaped while en route from Florida to Washington state this week to face additional child molestation charges (he's already served time for similar offenses) claimed he escaped because he is a vegetarian and the guards weren't feeding him enough. He spent the night in a barn and a corn field near Fargo, where he undoubtedly got even hungrier. He was captured a few days later and is now in even bigger trouble than he was already in. There is obviously no excuse for what he did or for escaping from custody and it sounds like he deserves punishment.

That said, I think forcing any prisoner who is a vegan or an ovo-lacto vegetarian to eat animal products amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. It sounds like the jail guards pretty much expect this guy to eat a cheese sandwich or whatever isn't meat in the regular meals being served to the other prisoners. That probably adds up to a pickle, french fries that may or may not have been fried in animal fat, and maybe an anemic tomato. He may even have a guard or two who told him to just pick the burger off the cheeseburger and eat what's left. I couldn't do that without getting physically sick and I don't know many vegetarians who could.

As a vegetarian child, I ran into similar attitudes from my teachers and school lunchroom staff. "Just pick out the meat," I was told or "Stop being stubborn." My second grade teacher forced me to eat turkey at lunch and I threw up all over the lunchroom table in front of my classmates. I ended up eating a lot of plain butter sandwiches for lunch after that and skipping lunch altogether when I hit high school. But at least I had the option of bringing my own lunch from home or eating something else for the two other meals of the day.

A prisoner is just that, a prisoner, and the state has a certain obligation to see that he doesn't starve or that his health doesn't suffer because of the diet he is given. At a minimum, a vegetarian prisoner should be given a balanced meal with a vegetable, a fruit, and some sort of plant-based protein.

Undoubtedly other prisoners would benefit from healthier meals too and the prison system would save on health care costs for prisoners if they are eating a healthier diet.


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