Pirates and Prisoners: Scurvy, Beriberi, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Pirates and Prisoners: Scurvy, Beriberi, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons

It was centuries ago when sailors at sea had to worry about great dangers, spending many months and years on the ocean.  The hazards of adverse weather, and rudimentary ship-building technologies.  No access to medicine or doctors, and poor hygiene.  Pirates!

For the most part, though, the biggest barrier to the sailor’s health was diet.  Diseases like Beriberi and Scurvy savaged the oceangoing fleets for centuries.

In recent past centuries, as technology began to allow longer trips at sea, it took quite a while for many sailing nations to understand that diseases like Beriberi and Scurvy were related not to foreign airs, but to a lack of nutrients in seagoing diets.

Beriberi is a nervous system disease that occurs when one’s diet doesn’t include enough Thiamine or Vitamin B1.  Pork, enriched cereals, grains, soybeans, and nuts are good sources of this vital nutrient, which wasn’t sufficient in the old European sailor diet of dried meat and biscuits.  Likewise, a deficiency of Vitamin C caused Scurvy, a disease that savaged sailors’ health, leaving them prone to injury and dental distress.  But once the links between these diseases and nutrition became apparent, these disorders were all but eliminated.

But are Beriberi and Scurvy gone for good?  Maybe not.  Indeed, in “modern” American prisons, the trend toward reducing costs by eliminating the provision of goods and services to prisoners would appear to put many of our two million or so prisoners at risk for malnutrition and “old” diseases like Beriberi and Scurvy.  The reduction in access to, or elimination of, such “amenities” like citrus fruits in prisoners’ diets makes these risks apparent.

Many prisons across America no longer provide meals that even come close to meeting minimum nutritional standards.  With budgets already slashed to the bone in this era of economic distress, some facilities have resorted to eliminating some meals altogether.  In Texas, and in other correctional systems, some facilities distribute weekend food on Fridays.  This makes a subpar dietary plan even worse, as the food routinely served is of the non-refrigerated, processed variety.  Other prisons no longer serve an evening meal at all and supply prisoners with cheap, nutritionally worthless fare like baloney and “cheese” sandwiches, cookies, and “drink mix” packets.  Corporate suppliers like Aramark get rich selling substandard food products to correctional systems without remorse.

Even within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, much-vaunted for its professionalism, severe budget cuts, and purported security concerns have left many prisoners with diets that do not meet the government’s own nutritional guidelines.  Some prisons have effectively eliminated key nutritional components from prisoners’ diets, permanently.  For example, here at FCI Petersburg, where this author is incarcerated, “budget cuts” have been blamed for a sharp reduction in the availability of nutritional staples like eggs, once thought to be a cheap source of protein but now deemed too expensive.  In the name of eliminating homemade wine (called “pruno” or “buck” informally within the BOP), the Warden has ordered a prohibition of the sale of citrus products in the prison commissary and has eliminated citrus fruit from the Food Service menu altogether.

Shocking as it may seem in this modern era of correctional thinking, a diet like the one in place at FCI Petersburg presents a real risk for Scurvy and the health dangers associated with that disease.  While wealthier prisoners can afford to buy $6.00 multivitamins, the majority of the prison population cannot.  Many are paid less than the price of a bottle of vitamins for a month’s work at their prison work assignments.

It isn’t going to get better.  With no access at all to quality grains and nuts, limited vegetables, and pork deemed too pricey, perhaps Beriberi will also become an issue for American prisoners, too.

Some might ask, “Well, plenty of American’s don’t get enough to eat, why should prisoners?”  The answer is simple: we, as a society, have locked up more than two million Americans in our prisons, and we are responsible for their health and safety.  While no one advocates for true amenities anymore, the fact remains that prisoners have a right to basic nutrition, and correctional officials have a duty to supply it.  Surely, we can do better than conditions akin to an 18th-century sailing ship.  If not, I fear that the deplorable state of prison healthcare will serve us no better than that of the chow hall.