The Change in Diet

black panther behind fence

In a maximum security prison, you are a caged man. You spend most days in your cell on “lockdown status.” This happens someone causes an incident that challenges the security of the prison. Or so the staff will say.

Then all you get is “three hots and a cot.” You get a ten-minute shower once a week. Your meals are brought to you in a cell. No other movement is allowed. My only reprieve from this boredom was to read the law. Jimmy Soto’s words were always there: “Nobody cares but you, learn the law and beat the man at his own game.” So I would go to yard when it was given and I would go to chow hall to eat. But my time in the cell—about twenty-three hours a day—was spent studying the law, learning the rules of the man’s game.

In July 1997 I was released from segregation and transferred to the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois—it looks like Castle Greyskull sitting on the mighty Mississippi River. One must just drive down Kaskaskia Street and view this beast. If you have a young child going down the wrong path, bring him to see his future. It is the perfect picture of their doom.

I am a hard-core man. I will make the best of my situation, wherever I am placed. The two years with my head in the books had flown by—I have learned not to obsess about time.

The man had the joints back now, there was no more cooking the moonshine. I got a job in the prison kitchen, it was six days a week—I signed up for the lock-down crew. Now even on the frequent lockdowns at Menard I was out of my cell for eight hours a day and I received a shower after work. Then back in the box until the 5 a.m. trip back to the kitchen. Now I had my niche working in the kitchen, and studying the law. I discovered the many wrongs done to me in my trial—they all came to light.

I have always been a really healthy man, and I remained healthy in prison. I had been a boxer for my teen years forward and was never sick. In prison, I played handball to keep in shape.

The 2003 Governor’s race put Rod Blagojevich in office. This would start a set of events that would cripple my health—the one good thing I still had.

Blagojevich had gotten into bed with Archer Daniels Midland, a soy-producing company in Decatur. They gave him “political contributions” in return for state contracts. Later he would be sent to prison for these crimes. But before he was caught he dealt a most severe blow to the men in captivity. He replaced the real meat we had always received with the soy beans sludge that ADM was having trouble selling to the public. Then he gave his brother the contract to supply poultry scraps to be mixed with this soy sludge.

The State of Illinois used to have a great farm system that produced the food for the prisoner population cost free. The prisons grew their own vegetables and processed their own meat in prison abattoires. But the powers that be could not shake down a kick-back from the convict raising his own food. So the farms were closed. Today the farms and facilities sit idle, gathering dust and rust while the food is contracted out to vendors who play the pay-to-play game—and the Illinois taxpayer pays the price.

The precedent for the soy contract was set earlier when the cattle used in the milking barns were sold off. Then a contract was given to supply a dry formula to the prison each month, to be reconstituted into the garbage we are now served.

Starting in January 2003, he beef, pork, turkey, shrimp pieces—everything real—disappeared and the prison served mostly chicken patties with 70 percent soy and soy meat substitutes. Blagojevich fired the capable black woman who had run the prison cafeteria system for years and brought in his own girl. Everything now had soy in it—the chicken patties, the meat substitutes, the breakfast sausage—they even started adding soy flour to all the baked goods.

I started getting real sick, real fast. In two years my health declined so that I could hardly function. I was passing out for no reason. At times, I could not breathe. My thyroid gland was under attack. The soy was killing me from the inside out.

In May 2006, after many collapses, I was taken to the Belleville Cardiac Center. There a pacemaker was placed in my chest.

It wasn’t just me—everyone was getting sick. In addition to the symptoms of hypothyroidism—low body temperature, brain fog, fatigue, weight gain, frequent infections and enlarged thyroid gland—the men suffered from severe digestive problems including sharp pains in the digestive tract, vomiting, constipation and debilitating diarrhea. Many reported passing out and heart palpitations (as I had), as well as rashes, acne, insomnia, panic attacks, depression and hormonal changes. Many men grew breasts and became infertile.

Friends and relatives on the outside were able to find information about the negative effects of soy—in spite of the slew of pro-soy propaganda at the time, hailing it as a miracle food—from the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation ( There we learned that soy contains powerful goitrogens (thyroid-depressing chemicals), is loaded with plant-based estrogens, and contains lectins, hemagglutinins and other chemicals that cause digestive problems. Soy is very high in oxalic acid that can cause stones in the kidneys and other parts of the body.

One day I phone the Weston A. Price Foundation offices—in prison, all your calls are collect calls, but the Foundation accepted my call and I spoke to the president, Sally Fallon Morell. She sent me more information about soy, including the book The Whole Soy Story by Kaayla Daniel, PhD. I began to write letters and file grievances complaining about the soy, and helped other inmates do the same.

You must understand that the courts have consistently ruled that inmates have the right to a nutritious and sustaining diet. The diet we were getting was filled with poison, and the suffering of the men was intense. When we complained, we were told “If you don’t like the food, don’t eat it.” But soy was in all the prison food. The only alternative was to buy food from the prison commissary, but that cost money, which most prisoners do not have.

Because of my activism,. I was shipped to the Western Illinois Correctional Center in February 2007. In August I filed the first soy diet lawsuit. In November 2007, the Weston A. Price foundation joined the lawsuit and provided a lawyer, Gary Cox, to help. I became the lead plaintiff of five in Harris et al. v. Brown, et al., Case No. 3:07-cv-03225. Our goal was to get an injunction against serving soy-laden meals to Illinois prisoners and damages for the five men who were plaintiffs in the case. The suit argued that the feeding of soy-laden food constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth amendment to the Constitution, and that it is a denial of their liberty in violation of their due process rights under the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution. The lawsuit also alleged that the private corporation and its private doctors, Wexford Health Services, Inc., had been negligent in failing to provide adequate medical care to each of the plaintiffs, who suffered bodily injury and adverse health effects from being fed too much soy.

At the same time, a Dr. Richard Pooley, member of the Foundation, looked at my blood tests and wrote an affidavit stating that it was clear that I was suffering from hypothyroidism. I wrote a grievance asking for a no-soy diet. This was a precedent the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) did not want to set. So I was packed up and moved to the Western Illinois Correctional Center. This was a medium security prison, a step up for me with better living conditions by far. But the staff there, the medical staff, had been alerted I was coming.

Sally kept sending me the material I needed to confront the Medical Staff. Between her, Dr. Pooley, and the hired gun of attorney Cox, the IDOC folded. The Wexford medical staff gave me the first prescription for a no-soy diet. I was the first prisoner in the Illinois Department of Corrections to be issued but it came with a stern warning to shut up and not to share this information with my fellow prisoners. But I could not deny them the knowledge when I saw the suffering they were going through.

I got the no-soy diet in December of 2008, and retaliation for sharing the knowledge about the soy diet soon followed. I was placed in the naked house—in solitary confinement, the jail within jail. Then I was shipped all over the State. I landed at Lawrence Correctional Center in December 2008. There they gave me my medical no-soy diet but they had a new plan of attack. I was sent to the back of the line to wait for my diet tray. It took them a few minutes to find it. Then when I was finally seated I was told that the time to eat with over, to dump the tray and get out.

The women in prison succeeded in getting soy diet removed. It stopped their monthly cycles and disrupted their reproductive system. It also caused excessive weight gain. So the ladies united and refused to go to the chow hall. Soon the State investigated and removed it from their diet completely.

But the men did not stand together. The amount of soy in the diet has been reduced, but we fight on to get it removed altogether.

As for our lawsuit, with the help of the Weston A. Price Foundation, the plaintiffs presented evidence from expert witnesses on the toxicity of soy, especially in the large amounts fed to the prisoners. As expected, the state argued that soy was a health food, not a health threat, and on February 25, 2015, Judge Baker of the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois dismissed our claim, citing conflicting scientific evidence; he also noted that I was receiving a no-soy diet and therefore was not the subject of deliberate indifference or cruel and unusual punishment.

Once Judge Baker had issued his decision, the Illinois Department of Corrections responded by suddenly refusing to honor my doctor-prescribed soy-free diet. Officials also began a series of retaliatory actions, inciting other prisoners to attack me, moving me to back to maximum security prisons without cause, and placing me in segregation for weeks at a time. When in segregation, prisoners are not allowed to purchase commissary food. Without my no-soy diet or purchased soy-free commissary food, I was starved for days and even weeks at a time.

After letters from the Weston A. Price Foundation, Gary Cox and my daughter to the offices of the Governor and the Attorney General, I was released from segregation, returned to a medium security prison and allowed to purchase commissary food. However, the Department of Corrections still refuses to restore my doctor-prescribed no-soy diet. I have filed a new complaint demanding reinstatement of my no-soy diet and compensation for the retaliatory actions against me (see Harris-vs-Dempsey, et al, 2:17-cv-02010-SLD).

One reason for the retaliation was because I exposed the fact that the dietary manager was taking the funds from the present dietary budget to buy non-soy meals for the staff each day. The dietary manager had told me I must become a vegan, for Springfield gave him no money to feed me any real meat. See the irony here. For the officers and staff have no dietary budget. They are allowed to eat a free meal each shift, but it must be the same meal served to the prisoner population. But each day they are given a non-soy meal at the expense of the prisoner population. Why? Because the soy meals make them sick too.

So now you have my history getting us to this point in time. Any questions will be answered in full. I have nothing to hide, but the State has a different view.

Author: Larry Harris

My name is Larry “Rocky” Harris and I am serving a sixty-five year prison term in the state of Illinois for a crime I didn’t commit. After I went to prison, I began to study the law, and now I am what is called a “prison lawyer.” I provide legal advice to inmates who can't afford a lawyer. I am looking forward to telling my story in this blog, and also providing a forum for prisoners everywhere.

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