by Andrew W. Saul, Editor
I used to teach college courses in jail. No, not as an inmate. As an adjunct professor.
“Jail is the best I’ve ever had it,” said one of my penitentiary students. The other inmates in my remedial health science class looked at him with surprise equal to my own. One of them asked how that could possibly be.
He answered, “Because in jail I have a bed, a roof over my head, and three meals a day.”
Makes you think, doesn’t it. From the bottom of the barrel it can be a long climb out.
Well you may surmise, but I can tell you from experience that prisons are awful places. First of all, they smell. As in floating prison hulks three hundred years ago, little has changed: you still have the fundamental problem of packing as many as possible into the space available. The “keep the lid on the garbage can” theory serves the public to be sure. Well, what else are you going to do? There are more Americans incarcerated per capita than in any other Westernized country on earth. Pack ’em in, and push the lid down harder, of course. After all, the argument goes, what should we care about their living conditions? They get three squares a day, clean sheets and a roof over their head for free.
With well over two million Americans behind bars, and even with more prisons being built literally every day, serious overcrowding continues. I’ve seen it all close up.
Let me tell you that one of the most frightening individuals I have ever seen was not on a movie or TV screen. He was an inmate at the medium-security prison where I was teaching in 1991. Like most of my students, he really didn’t belong in a college science class. Not that he, or the others, were a discipline problem, because they usually weren’t. He had simply never had a single high school science class, the most basic prerequisite for even my simplified, no-lab freshman biology course. (There were no lab classes because inmates could make weapons out of the apparatus.)
So, this big guy struggled with the material, nose down to his book, week after week. It occasionally crossed my mind that it might be good for the whole inmate population if this man passed the course. It occasionally crossed my mind that it might be good for me if this man passed the course.
During one class, I was lecturing on human nutrition. I mentioned foods that are especially wholesome, such as leafy vegetables, legumes (peas, beans lentils), whole grains, wheat germ and such. To spark class interest, I asked what foods the prisoners were fed. White bread, meat, potatoes and sugar was the general consensus.
“What about vitamin supplements?” I asked.
This really got them going.
“No. They never give ’em to us,” came the reply. “Got to buy them yourself, at the commissary store. They just got multiple vitamin pills there. Gotta buy them with your own money.”
No doubt with the bountiful proceeds from the license plate business.
I mentioned that a multiple vitamin each day would be a good idea for every inmate. They listened. I said that, really, three multis a day would be even better: one with each meal. They listened even more intently. They were either planning to break out with this information, or they really cared about their health.
It is somewhat surprising that the State does not give inmates a cheap daily nutritional supplement. It would save significant money on health care expenses, thereby making the taxpayers happy to spend the 15 cents per day it would cost to provide each inmate with a multivitamin each meal. I kid you not: you can still find a daily multivitamin at a big-box discount store for this price.
Nothing doing. Politicians and public don’t want anything to do with an idea like that. It is a familiar argument: “Why should convicted felons get free vitamins? I work hard to make an honest living and I have to buy them.”
Why give vitamins to convicts? For a start, approximately one in four inmates tests positive for tuberculosis. These are often multi-drug resistant strains of TB at that. One of my college students outside the Big House was a prison nurse. Did she ever fill us in. In some correctional facilities, she reported, the tuberculosis rate is nearly one in two.
Tuberculosis is well known to flourish where diet is poor. There is also a connection with diet to most other contagious diseases. It is economical for the taxpayer to keep inmates from getting sick. Medical care inside a prison is no cheaper than anywhere else. And the spread of disease outside of prison cannot be halted, even with a change of clothes, or rubber gloves.
If you want to let prisoners infect each other and die, and if you consider that punishment to fit their many crimes, I will not contest it. I remind you of this, however: Even though you lock them up, nearly every inmate will get out eventually. Their sentences will expire; they will be released. Even without work-release, even without parole, you still cannot imprison everybody for life. And even if you could, or even if you executed them all, you would still have the guards, the nurses, the cooks, and all other staff that work at the prison coming home each night to their families, to their communities, to where you live. If you in any way subscribe to the idea of the germ theory, this guarantees the spread of viruses and bacteria outside of prison walls.
Think about that.
Many prisons are more like hospitals now. Certainly one of the ones that I worked at was. According to the captain of the guards, about 50% of the inmates in this particular facility were HIV positive. There, I remember that the oppressive smell of disinfectant was enough to gag a maggot.
At another one of the slammers where I worked, 90 inmates were crowded into huts designed to hold 45. With bunk beds and all things considered, the odds are that any inmate is breathing just a few feet away from a TB positive individual.
The Big Guy
Now back to that big, scary inmate. During my talk about wheat germ and vitamins, he made eye contact with me more than ever before. The class went on to the next chapter.
A number of classes later, everybody was filing out and the Big Guy lagged behind. He moved towards me.
“Uh, can I talk to you for a minute?” he whispered.
“Sure, sure,” I answered. You got a better answer?
“I, uh, I been eatin’ that stuff, that wheat germ you told us about,” he said.
“How did you come up with it?”
“They sell it at the prison store.” he answered. “They got those mul-tie vitamins, too. Been taking them.”
There was an uncomfortable several-second pause, and then he continued:
“Well, I just want to tell you,” he said, “that I been taking those vitamins and eatin’ wheat germ for a couple o’ weeks now.”
“And?” I said.
“And, well, I just want to tell you that I feel more clear.”
He put an unusual emphasis on the word “clear,” looking me straight in the eye.
It finally dawned on me that this was a compliment, a thank-you.
“Oh, good!” I said. “Keep on doing it.”
He left, squeezing through the classroom door like a supertanker going under a low bridge.
From time to time, I have considered the benefits to society of having a man like that feeling more “clear.” I think that reaching some form of clarity in prison might go a long way towards actually making them correctional institutions.
Nutritional supplements can help make it happen. Indeed, they already have.
What? Vitamins for felons?
Fifteen years ago, the BBC reported that a double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that adding vitamins to the diets of inmates at a maximum security institution cut offences by 25%. The greatest reduction was for serious offences, including violence which fell by 40%. There was no such reduction for those on placebos. (1) The researchers said that improving diets could be a cost-effective way of reducing crime in the community and also reducing the prison population. To quote lead study author Bernard Gesch, “The improvement was huge.” (2)
I do not know of any prison that gives daily multivitamin supplements to inmates. Yet look at how much money we spend on our penal system:
- Average USA cost to keep one inmate locked up for a year: $31,000
- Cost to keep one inmate locked up for a year in New York City: $167,000 (3)
The cost of three multivitamins per day for one inmate for a year would be $55. That step has not been taken. Not at all. Not anywhere.
If you feel that you’ve not gotten your tax dollars’ worth, it’s because you haven’t.
1. Gesch CB, Hammond SM, Hampson SE, Eves A, Crowder MJ. Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners. Randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry. 2002 Jul;181:22-8. http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/bjprcpsych/181/1/22.full.pdf
See also: Zaalberg A, Nijman H, Bulten E, Stroosma L, van der Staak C. Effects of nutritional supplements on aggression, rule-breaking, and psychopathology among young adult prisoners. Aggressive Behavior. 2009 35: 1-10. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/328a/defc8b875449fa1250798b4cb61ab02dd03a.pdf
2. Healthy eating “can cut crime.” BBC News, June 25, 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/hi/english/health/newsid_2063000/2063117.stm
3. Santora M. City’s annual cost per inmate is $168,000, study finds. NY Times, Aug 23, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/nyregion/citys-annual-cost-per-inmate-is-nearly-168000-study-says.html
Editorial Review Board:
Ilyès Baghli, M.D. (Algeria)
Ian Brighthope, M.D. (Australia)
Prof. Gilbert Henri Crussol (Spain)
Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D. (USA)
Damien Downing, M.D. (United Kingdom)
Michael Ellis, M.D. (Australia)
Martin P. Gallagher, M.D., D.C. (USA)
Michael J. Gonzalez, N.M.D., D.Sc., Ph.D. (Puerto Rico)
William B. Grant, Ph.D. (USA)
Tonya S. Heyman, M.D. (USA)
Suzanne Humphries, M.D. (USA)
Ron Hunninghake, M.D. (USA)
Michael Janson, M.D. (USA)
Robert E. Jenkins, D.C. (USA)
Bo H. Jonsson, M.D., Ph.D. (Sweden)
Jeffrey J. Kotulski, D.O. (USA)
Peter H. Lauda, M.D. (Austria)
Thomas Levy, M.D., J.D. (USA)
Stuart Lindsey, Pharm.D. (USA)
Victor A. Marcial-Vega, M.D. (Puerto Rico)
Charles C. Mary, Jr., M.D. (USA)
Mignonne Mary, M.D. (USA)
Jun Matsuyama, M.D., Ph.D. (Japan)
Dave McCarthy, M.D. (USA)
Joseph Mercola, D.O. (USA)
Jorge R. Miranda-Massari, Pharm.D. (Puerto Rico)
Karin Munsterhjelm-Ahumada, M.D. (Finland)
Tahar Naili, M.D. (Algeria)
W. Todd Penberthy, Ph.D. (USA)
Jeffrey A. Ruterbusch, D.O. (USA)
Gert E. Schuitemaker, Ph.D. (Netherlands)
Thomas L. Taxman, M.D. (USA)
Jagan Nathan Vamanan, M.D. (India)
Garry Vickar, MD (USA)
Ken Walker, M.D. (Canada)
Atsuo Yanagisawa, M.D., Ph.D. (Japan)
Anne Zauderer, D.C. (USA)
Andrew W. Saul, Ph.D. (USA), Editor-In-Chief
Robert G. Smith, Ph.D. (USA), Associate Editor
Helen Saul Case, M.S. (USA), Assistant Editor
Ralph K. Campbell, M.D. (USA), Contributing Editor
Michael S. Stewart, B.Sc.C.S. (USA), Technology Editor
Jason M. Saul, JD (USA), Legal Consultant