Prison grub never had a high culinary reputation, but now some inmates say it's not just the taste they don't like.
Illinois convicts have gone to court, claiming that too much soy in their diets has left them with severe health problems, including heart issues and thyroid damage, along with allergic reactions and gastrointestinal distress.
Eddie Martinez, 50, was released in September after 4 1/2 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections, where he says his claims of gastric distress - belching, pain, cramps and constipation - and his fear that they were connected to his soy-rich diet there, were not taken seriously. He continues to see doctors for problems that he says will not go away, though he takes many medications.
"At my age, my health is a concern," says Mr. Martinez, a native of Puerto Rico who came to the U.S. when he was 8. "I keep reading about cancer risks, and obviously this is upsetting."
Now, Illinois is the target of a lawsuit filed by attorneys for the Washington, D.C.-based Weston A. Price Foundation on behalf of several Illinois inmates.
The foundation argues that inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections regularly consume about 100 grams of soy protein, when just about 25 grams is recommended as part of a healthy diet. The lawsuit seeks to stop the use of soy in prison recipes, a common tactic that cuts food costs at many correctional facilities around the nation.
Sally Fallon Morell, the foundation's founder and president, said prison diets in Illinois changed under then-Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich in 2003. While meat patties served to inmates used to be filled with "very nutrient-dense" organ meat, the new burgers changed to 70 percent soy protein and about 30 percent actual meat.
"They started using soy cheese on macaroni and cheese, soy nuggets in spaghetti sauce, soy flour added to all baked goods," she said. "The first thing that shows up is digestive disorders. Soy is extremely hard to digest, so you get vomiting, chronic constipation and horrible gas. You can imagine the effects in close quarters after eating this."
In recent years, the $4 billion soy industry has seen its products receive acclaim as part of a healthy diet, helping to lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol, relieve symptoms associated with menopause and reduce certain cancer risks.
But scientists acknowledge that many people suffer from soy allergies that can contribute to gastric symptoms similar to those described by Mr. Martinez, including abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea.
Mr. Martinez, who is not involved in the lawsuit but said he would testify gladly, says he hopes someone will acknowledge that inmate-health issues matter.
"This is not financial for me, but about the others who are still there," he said from his home in Chicago. "I'm just really happy to be heard. It was a nightmare for me. I begged with people in the prison to please diagnose this, to please find the source of this. They are hurting a lot of inmates who are still there."
He says he visited prison doctors multiple times after his symptoms would not abate. Only after he had taken a bevy of drugs, including Prilosec and Zantac, and had beseeched prison doctors to diagnose his problems did they finally acknowledge to him quietly that the soy could be an issue. But they said they could do nothing to change his diet, encouraging him to buy food at the commissary to avoid the prison kitchens, something he says he could not afford.
"I said, 'How can you do this to a human being?'" he says of multiple complaints to medical staff. "'We are not animals. We have families, moms, sisters, brothers, kids. This is immoral.' And they knew it was going on. They knew."
"I wish one person there would come out and say it, but times are hard, the economy is bad and nobody wants to lose their job," he said with frustration, noting that he is not a part of the lawsuit but upset enough to speak out. "I´m sure if they had whistleblower protection, someone would have stepped up."
He says he was in four prisons within the state system and consumed much of the same things for his meals in each. Once he was released, he asked for copies of his medical record to document his plight, and says he contacted the foundation when he heard about the soy litigation because his prison grievances were not taken seriously.
A spokeswoman from the Illinois Department of Corrections did not return a call for comment.
Spokeswoman Stacey Solano told the Associated Press that her department "takes the health and nutritional needs of its offender population seriously," noting that many studies have found soy safe.
Soybeans are important to Illinois' agricultural economy, with the state ranking second in the nation in soy production. A trial in the case could take place sometime at the end of the year or in early 2013. The state sought a dismissal, but a federal judge ruled that the case could move ahead to trial.
Ms. Fallon Morell said her foundation began receiving calls from inmates in 2007 "from really desperate men."
"I couldn´t ignore their cries for help," she said. "People have criticized us for helping prisoners, but the next place this is going to be big-time is in schools. And growing children should not be fed all this soy."
She argued that inmates who emerge from prisons with chronic health problems will continue to cost society in the long run, many unable to work because of chronic problems. She mentioned one prisoner who had consumed a high soy diet for nine years in prison and required an operation when he got out.
"His doctor said he had all the symptoms of being poisoned," she said.
She said the lawsuit does not seek damages but should create awareness for an issue that deserves attention. "I'm hoping this will be the next asbestos, and attorneys will start to take these cases as contingencies."
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