Prison life isn’t supposed to be easy. But should it make prisoners sick? That’s the central question in a novel federal lawsuit filed last year over the soy-laden diet the Illinois state prison system serves to prisoners.
Eight inmates in four different institutions are suing prison officials over their high-soy diet, which they claim is causing a litany of health problems such as irregularity, hypothyroidism and “brain fog.” The inmates are seeking injunctive relief and damages from state prison officials.
The suit also claims two inmates have experienced retaliation after complaining about the soy content of their diet, including being placed in solitary confinement and being denied medical care.
The suit apparently is the first of its kind, though it may not be the last. Several other state prison systems have switched from a predominantly meat-based to a soy-based diet, according to Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nutritional organization that is funding the inmates’ case.
And the issue isn’t confined to prison populations, Morell says. Soy is being used as a substitute for meat in many hospitals and nursing homes. And at least one Illinois school district has a pilot lunch program using textured soy protein instead of meat in several popular dishes.
Soy is widely touted as a way to save money and provide a diet lower in calories and saturated fats. But some groups, including Morell’s, contend that soy contains “plant estrogens and other toxins and anti-nutrients that make it unacceptable as a source of nutrition except in small amounts.”
“They’re slowly being poisoned,” she says of the inmates.
In November a federal judge in Illinois dismissed the claims against the Illinois Department of Corrections and the state Department of Central Management Services, the agency that procured the soy contract. But the judge allowed the case to proceed against Michael Randle in his official capacity as director of the state Department of Corrections, and against nearly three dozen others named in the suit.
“It’s good for us,” says Columbus, Ohio, lawyer Gary Cox, who represents the inmates. “It means we get to go forward with our case.”
Illinois prison officials declined comment on the suit or the use of soy in the inmates’ meals. But Department of Corrections spokeswoman January Smith said any inmate with a doctor’s prescription for a soy-free diet would be accommodated.
She also insisted that no inmate had been retaliated against for complaining about the high soy content of the food.
“Absolutely not,” she says.
Watch a press conference about the suit: