Why you should care
The battle over ice cream behind bars has been raging in the U.S. for at least a century.
In 1915, H.O. Fishback, a county commissioner in Washington state, refused to pay $1.75 to provide ice cream to inmates at the county jail. “Ice cream is a little too good for prisoners,” he said, suggesting that if they needed a treat, pies should be provided instead. “And thus another question in the prison reform movement is introduced,” reported the Ice Cream Trade Journal.
For as long as there have been prisons, the amenities offered to inmates have varied greatly. In general, the more rehabilitative-minded the place, the better the food. In 1871, Col. Lawrence Shuler fed inmates at Indiana State Prison a diet of turkey, ice cream, oysters and cake at a cost of 14 cents per inmate per day. Not only was this far cheaper than most prison food at the time, but the prison’s inmates were considered some of the most cheerful and productive in America.
But just because inmates like ice cream, does that make it their civil right? In 1992, inmate Roy Clendinen filed a civil rights suit against Mohawk State Prison, asking for $1 million in compensation for the cruel and unusual punishment suffered when a guard refused to freeze his ice cream. Clendinen’s case was dismissed. So was the 1996 case brought by Tennessee inmate Michael Lyell, who had been prescribed double portions of food by prison doctors … but who sued after a jailer gave him his second scoop of ice cream by tossing it onto his bed. Lyell alleged cruel and unusual punishment, but a U.S. district judge told him to “grow up and do his time.”
There has been increasing pushback against the limited prison diet.
“Food has a long history of being an item of control,” says Salvador Jiminez Murguía, author of Food as a Mechanism of Control and Resistance in Jails and Prisons: Diets of Disrepute. “When people are confined to incarceration, they are vulnerable to this reward, as food becomes a kind of stand-alone item that is understood to be a product of services rendered.” Murguía argues that the quality and quantity of prison food is easily manipulated to punish or reward inmate behavior. “The anticipation of either on the part of a prisoner is tantamount to social psychological control,” he says. U.S. prisons feed an estimated 2.3 million inmates three times daily — that gives a lot of power to the jailers.
It’s no stretch to say that food in prisons generally isn’t very good. The poor quality of the fare served has a long and troubled history. In the 19th century, a typical prison diet included bread, meat, gruel and occasionally cheese. Sometimes inmates would get cake. In 1931, English prisons made servings of plum pudding mandatory at Christmas. But treats weren’t standard fare.
Prisoners have let their discontent be known. A request for better food was one of the main demands made by prisoners during the Attica uprising in 1971. The type of food served to inmates varies from state to state, but inmates who misbehave are often punished with culinary horrors like nutraloaf — a mishmash of foods that have been pureed and then baked — which provide adequate nutrition but no pleasure. Even when ice cream is on the menu, inmates who act out are denied it. Ice cream is an oft-requested item for death row last meals: Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh ate two pints of mint chocolate chip before his death by lethal injection in 2001.
There has been increasing pushback against the limited prison diet. A 2015 Australian study found that proper nutrition — specifically getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, which admittedly are not found in most ice cream — can help reduce recidivism and aggression. The ice cream war continues to be fought in the courts; more recently, it has focused around prisoners’ religious right to eat ice cream. In 2014, Nevada inmate Alex Snelson sued for access to ice cream, which was necessary, he claimed, for his practice of Satanism. In 2018, in North Carolina, Wiccan inmate Jennifer Ann Jasmaine sued for access to appropriate religious food — which included vanilla ice cream. Both cases were dismissed. (While some pagans behind bars have managed to win discrimination cases, as in 2016 when a Chicago court ruled that it was unconstitutional to confiscate a small pentacle medallion, other pagan practitioners say they’ve had religious materials confiscated.)
“There’s a lot of bigotry in prisons toward pagans from the guards and the inmates,” says Circle Sanctuary Reverend Selena Fox. She says she’s often forbidden from conducting services and that when she mails inmates religious food or texts they go missing. Ice cream, though, might be an easier fix: Some prisoners make their own. An inmate named Joseph penned a letter for prison blog Between the Bars detailing his own recipe, which includes milk, coffee creamer and vanilla extract. ”As I am sitting here enjoying my ice cream that was made in a peanut butter jar and a trash can, I can’t help but laugh at my situation,” he wrote. “I have learned things I never thought I would learn.”