This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.
I was born in 1965, the fourth child of six in a blue-collar Italian neighborhood where everybody knew everybody and a lot of pizza and pasta were consumed. By the time I was 3, I’d started vomiting and having diarrhea after every single meal.
After much testing and a hospital stay, a doctor in Little Falls, New York, determined that I had celiac disease, now infamously common among millennials, and he instructed my mother how to provide me a wheat-free, gluten-free diet.
Fast-forward several decades and as a middle-aged man, I made some bad decisions (namely, grand larceny) and ended up at the Oneida County Jail in February 2018. I was then locked up at a prison in Western New York and was released in April after 14 months of incarceration. All that time, I couldn’t wait to go home, restart my life, restore the faith and love of my friends and family — and eat a diet that didn’t kill me.
When I first talked to the medical people at the jail, I stated that I had celiac and needed a gluten-free diet. Their response was, “Only when your doctor confirms it.”
He did, within a week. But they still did not start my diet, claiming that I now had to wait for the kitchen staff to get on board.
Meanwhile, food was running through me and I was losing weight. When added to the anxiety of prison’s “nothing to do and all day to do it” environment, I became a mess of physical frustration. Only my fellow inmates and visits from my daughter gave me hope.
Two weeks after my doctor’s confirmation, the “gluten-free” meals finally arrived. At first I was unaware, because the special-diet trays are dispensed before anyone else’s, and since my name was never actually called, I didn’t know to go up and get one.
When a guard finally told me about this, one day, I started receiving taco shells in place of bread, no matter what else was in the meal. Cereal, grits, bologna, cheese — whatever it was, I always got four to six hard corn taco shells. Every meal.
Sometimes the shells were already in the food, soggy and broken apart. Quite a few times I received them covered in gravy—which is usually thickened with wheat flour, by the way. (I would give these away because I didn’t like to waste food.)
One time after I complained and asked for a new tray, the same tray was brought back to me with most, though not all, of the gravy simply wiped off the taco shells. I was afraid to complain again and spent much of the rest of the day in the bathroom.
Another time, two officers asked me to educate them on the disease, which I gladly did. I told them about wheat, barley, and rye — as well as the digestive issues, depression, and stunted development they caused — and explained that despite it all, I didn’t like to bring my meals back to the kitchen because the guards were always giving me so much attitude about it.
They helped me out the next few meals. But then I got transferred to another prison.
When I first arrived at Collins Correctional Facility, I weighed myself and was already down to 139 pounds from the 164 I’d been before getting locked up, just 16 weeks previously. To make matters worse, I checked with the mess hall workers and they informed me there were no special diet trays at this prison at all.
A few nights later, I got called to the central rotunda because I had been issued a disciplinary ticket for something or other. When I got there, they told me the kitchen had issued the ticket on me — because I had been skipping meals for two days and was therefore “wasting food.”
I explained to the sergeant about my disease, but he “found me guilty” (no judge or jury of course) and gave me 13 days of no recreation.
The following day, I did start receiving “gluten-free” meals, finally. But again, I should have been careful what I’d wished for.
Every meal they gave me at Collins had four plain rice cakes and two pats of butter spread. For breakfast, I also get one ounce of rice Chex (even if the rest of the population gets oatmeal, which is gluten-free). For lunch and dinner, I get two scoops of rice with a mystery meat floating in the water/fat it was cooked in, along with a packet of ketchup (even when everyone else gets tater tots or french fries, which are also gluten-free, or hot dogs).
Those were my meals. Every day. Rice cakes, rice Chex, rice.
Well, twice a month they did give me some tuna salad with my cakes, and some carrots that may or may not have been peeled.
If I tried to sneak a serving of oatmeal or tater tots, an officer would yell at me to give it back, and then yell at whoever was trying to give it to me.
Two times at Collins I was given elbow macaroni. On each occasion, I looked at it suspiciously, compared it to someone else’s and judged that by all appearances the two pastas were exactly the same. But the first time, I gave the facility staff the benefit of the doubt — and lost horribly in the bathroom. The second time, I asked the chef to confirm that the noodles were gluten-free, and he told me, “Since it’s made on the other side of the prison, I can only confirm that your tray has ‘gluten-free’ written on it.”
I gave them the benefit of the doubt again, and lost again. Toilet times four!
I put in a grievance about this and it was “lost in the mail,” even though of course it wasn’t even leaving the building. I tried again, and the grievance officer told me to “be careful what you wish for.”
Alas, all because of a single tiny little grain. But the smallest things loom large in prison.
Peter Inserra, 53, was incarcerated at Collins Correctional Facility in Collins, New York, for fourth-degree grand larceny from May 2018 until his release in April 2019.
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision did not respond to requests for comment on the claims included in this article.