Inmates at the Montgomery County jail are not being adequately fed, leading to substantial losses in body weight and symptoms of malnutrition, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Albany.
The suit alleges inmates are being fed only 1,700 calories per day, and sometimes less. For comparison, the suit contends active adult males need 2,400 to 3,000 calories, depending on physical exertion.
The suit also contends the food inmates do get provides “little-to-no protein, and little fresh fruit and vegetables.” The result, the suit alleges, has been unhealthy weight loss, hair loss, bleeding gums and constant hunger, among other claims.
The suit was filed on behalf of 41-year-old Perry Hill, who was held at the jail from October 2013 to March 2014 on a parole violation. He is represented by Amsterdam attorney E. Robert Keach. Named as defendants are Montgomery County, Sheriff Michael Amato and Jail Administrator Michael Franko.
“The County’s policies, practices and customs … are both inhumane and unconscionable,” the lawsuit reads. “Forcing detainees to live on an unsustainable diet, that results in the development of severe health conditions is blatantly illegal and is unacceptable in a civilized society.”
Montgomery County Attorney Doug Landon said the county had not been formally served with the lawsuit and declined comment on specifics. County Executive Matthew Ossenfort said “any allegation of this type is serious” and will be looked into to ensure the jail is following state requirements. He did not have specific information on the allegations.
Regarding the suit, Ossenfort said Landon will be consulted on how to proceed.
The state Commission of Correction sets out minimum standards for inmate meals, according to a state official, who noted she was commenting only on generic requirements and not on the lawsuit. Inmates must be provided “an appropriate level of nutrients and calories,” a standard based upon the “current recommended dietary allowances of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council.”
Someone with Hill’s age, height and weight living a sedentary lifestyle would need just under 2,400 calories per day, according to an online calculator available on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website and based on National Academy of Sciences numbers. The next activity level up from sedentary, “low active,” would require just over 2,600 calories, according to the calculator.
Hill, the suit reads, weighed about 160 pounds on entry, but his five months of incarceration resulted in a loss of 24 pounds. The suit contends other inmates lost significant weight, as well, including one who dropped 90 pounds in six months.
The suit does not cite a source for the 1,700-calorie claim, basing the claim of such a policy “upon information and belief.”
Each jail must submit written and dated menus that are then reviewed annually and approved by a nutritionist or dietician certified by the state Education Department, according to the state. The commission also checks jails each year on a variety of minimum standards, though not every standard every year, state officials said.
The food service at the Montgomery County Jail was last checked in 2012, state officials said. No violations were noted.
The evaluations are scheduled and staff told what standards will be reviewed, officials said. When food and nutrition standards are checked, menus are reviewed for proper certification and a meal preparation is audited to verify correct items and portion sizes. Keach questioned the reliability of those checks.
“I have great respect for the Commission of Correction, but they’re not at the Montgomery County jail 365 days a year, like the inmates are,” he said.
No specific dollar amount is sought in the suit, though Keach is seeking court certification as a class action lawsuit, representing an entire group of plaintiffs. In the suit, Keach cites the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Not providing an adequate amount of food, the suit contends, is a violation of that.
The suit contends those with religious or medical dietary restrictions get even fewer calories. Food prohibited under the dietary restrictions is simply not added to their plate, and no substitute is given.
Hill’s hunger even drove him to the “humiliating and debilitating practice” of eating toothpaste and cocoa butter, the suit reads. He also witnessed “numerous other detainees” doing the same.
Inmates filed grievances alleging lack of adequate food but those grievances were denied or ignored, the suit alleges.
Inmates were allowed to purchase extra food at the commissary, including ramen noodles, the lawsuit says, a practice that stopped several years ago but resumed in recent months.
The lawsuit says other problems at the jail, including almost all of the fights there, are due to inadequate feeding.
Keach has filed multiple jail-related lawsuits, including one earlier this month on behalf of a wheelchair-bound inmate who blamed inadequate shower facilities for a fall that broke his hip.
One of Keach’s more prominent lawsuits related to the jail was filed in 2003 over the jail’s strip search policy. That class-action suit resulted in a $2 million settlement in 2006.