Larry detailed the appalling health problems that he and fellow prisoners were experiencing since the introduction of a diet extremely high in soy, starting as soon as Rod Blagojevich became governor of Illinois in 2003. The men were suffering from severe digestive problems including sharp pains in the digestive tract, vomiting, constipation and debilitating diarrhea. Many reported passing out, heart palpitations, rashes, acne, insomnia, panic attacks and depression along with hormonal changes that caused the men to grow breasts (bitch tits in prison talk) and become infertile (chemical castration, as they refer to it). The high oxalate content of soy foods caused a rash of stones, not just in the kidneys but elsewhere in the body—one prisoner was diagnosed with a stalactite in his stomach.
Chief among the negative consequences was hypothyroidism with its symptoms of low body temperature (feeling cold all the time), brain fog, fatigue, weight gain, frequent infections and enlarged thyroid gland.
Ironically, the soy diet—including “meat” patties containing 60-70 percent soy protein, fake soy cheese, soy sausage and soy flour or soy protein added to most baked goods—replaced one that was quite healthy for the prisoners. Well into the late 1990s, the prisoners operated prison farms and abattoirs, producing most of their own food. The meat patties contained a high percentage of nutrient-dense organ meats. It wasn’t gourmet fare, and there was lots of grumbling about the meals, but the food was nutritious and sustaining. (The courts have consistently ruled that prisoners have a right to a nutritious and sustaining diet.)
When Blagojevich became governor, he fired the African American woman in charge of food service and instituted the soy-based diet—because, according to rumors, he owed a political debt to Archer Daniel Midlands, producer of soy foods.
(Blagojevich was later impeached and removed from office for corruption, having solicited bribes for political appointments, including Barack Obama‘s vacant U.S. Senate seat after he was elected president. Blagojevich was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He went to a federal prison—not an Illinois prison–meaning he would not have to suffer from the high-soy diet that he imposed on the incarcerated men in his state.)
And indeed, the suffering of these men is intense. Medical care is palliative at best. Many have had sections of their digestive tract removed, but all requests for a soy-free diet are denied. The men are told, “If you don’t like the food, don’t eat it.” That means that unless they can afford to purchase commissary food, they must eat the soy food or starve.
Larry suffered severely with the soy-based diet—eating soy caused him to pass out and brought on painful digestive problems. He developed Hashimoto’s disease with heart palpitations and had to get a pacemaker. He was able to get the doctor performing his pacemaker operation to give him a prescription for a no-soy diet. The prison administration was not happy about this, but honored it by giving him hard boiled eggs and canned beans, which have kept him alive over the years.
You might be asking, why does the title of this blog only refer to men—aren’t there women prisoners in the state of Illinois? Indeed there are, but women prisoners only received the soy diet for a short period of time. It caused them to stop menstruating, and after a few complaints, the Illinois Department of Corrections stopped feeding soy to the women.
Moved by Larry’s request for help, and also hundreds of letters from Illinois prisoners pleading for relief, the Foundation provided funds for litigation to challenge to the Illinois Department of Correction’s use of soy-laden foods in the prison diet (Harris et al. v. Brown, et al., Case No. 3:07-cv-03225). With the help of attorney Gary Cox, 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.
With our help, 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 the claim of Harris and the other plaintiffs, cited conflicting scientific evidence; he also noted that Larry was receiving a no-soy diet and therefore was not the subject of deliberate indifference or cruel and unusual punishment.
With the backing of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Harris and the other plaintiffs filed for appeal to the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals, located in Chicago. Rather than go to trial, the State offered to settle—but only offered a paltry sum to the plaintiffs. The suit remains in legal limbo.
In Larry’s case, however, the Illinois Department of Corrections responded to Judge Baker’s decision, and to Larry’s continuing (and perfectly legal) prison lawyer activities, by suddenly refusing to honor his doctor-prescribed soy-free diet. Officials also began a series of retaliatory actions, inciting other prisoners to attack him, moving him to maximum security prisons without cause, and placing him in segregation for weeks at a time. When in segregation, prisoners are not allowed to purchase commissary food. Without his no-soy diet or purchased soy-free commissary food, Larry was starved for days and even weeks at a time.
After letters from myself, Gary Cox and his daughter to the offices of the Governor and the Attorney General, Larry has been released from segregation, returned to a medium security prison and allowed to purchase commissary food. However, the Department of Corrections still refuses to restore his doctor-prescribed no-soy diet. Larry has filed a new complaint demanding reinstatement of his no-soy diet and compensation for the retaliatory actions against him. (His new soy case, which includes information provided by WAPF, is Harris-vs-Dempsey, et al, 2:17-cv-02010-SLD.)
Throughout this sad saga, we have received considerable moral and financial support from Weston A. Price Foundation members. However, occasionally we receive letters chiding us for wasting time and money helping prisoners. Our response is that the role of incarceration is to punish criminals for a period of time, and then release them with the hope that they can start a new life as useful members of society. But the soy diet actually tortures them, and makes them unable to work or function normally when their sentence has ended. Instead they go on disability for the rest of their lives—something that all of us must pay for.
Also consider this: it is estimated that one-third of men in prison did not commit any crime. It’s bad enough to incarcerate innocent people, but to then torture them with a poisonous diet—there are over two hundred fifty references to soy toxicity in the FDA’s poisonous plant database—one that renders them unable to lead a normal life after they are freed. . . this is not the behavior of a rational and just society.
As for Larry, he remains in prison with sentences of forty-five and twenty years for two counts of armed robbery, crimes he did not commit. The state had no evidence against him, and relied only on the testimony of a “jail house informant” who got a reduced sentence for fingering Larry. The normal sentence for this crime is twelve years. Larry’s obscene sentence was given as punishment for his refusal to plea bargain. You can read his story at https://freelarryrockyharris.wordpress.com/.