by Andrew W. Saul

I used to teach college courses in jail.
No, not as an inmate. As an adjunct professor.

Prisons are awful places. First of all, they smell. As in floating prison hulks three hundred years ago, little has changed: you still have the fundamental and repugnant problem of packing as many as possible into the space available. The "keep the lid on the garbage can" theory serves the public to be sure. First of all, what else are you going to do? There are more Americans incarcerated per capita than in any other Westernized country on earth. Pack 'em in, and push the lid down harder, of course. After all, the argument goes, what do we care about their living conditions? They get three squares a day, clean sheets and a roof over their head for free. Perhaps they are lucky we didn't take Marge Simpson’s grandfather’s advice and just "shoot 'em all, and let God sort 'em out."

With some two million Americans behind bars, and even with more prisons being built literally every day, serious overcrowding continues. I am not pouring out my heart asking for more money for more compassionate prisons. The state is doing us a real favor putting most of these characters away. I've seen it all close up.

Let me tell you that the most frightening man I have ever seen was not on a movie or TV screen. He was an inmate at the medium-security prison where I was teaching in 1991. Like most of my students (I called them my "captive audience") he really didn't belong in a college science class. Not that he, or the others, were a discipline problem, because they usually weren't. He had simply never had a single high school science class, the most basic prerequisite for even my simplified, no-lab freshman biology course. (There were no lab classes because inmates could make too many weapons out of the apparatus.)

So, this big guy struggled with the material, nose down to his book, week after week. It occasionally crossed my mind that it might be good for the whole inmate population if this man passed the course.

It occasionally crossed my mind that it might be good for me if this man passed the course.

During one class, I was lecturing on human nutrition. I mentioned foods that are especially wholesome, such as beans, whole grain bread, wheat germ and such. To spark class interest, I asked what foods the prisoners were fed. White bread, meat, potatoes and sugar was the general consensus.

"What about vitamin supplements?" I asked.

This really got them going.

"No. They never give 'em to us," came the reply. "Got to buy them yourself, at the commissary store. They just got, like, "One-a-Day" multiple vitamin pills there. Gotta buy them with your own money."

No doubt with the bountiful proceeds from the license plate business.

I mentioned that a multiple vitamin each day would be a really good idea for every inmate. They listened. I said that, really, two a day would be even better; one at breakfast and one at lunch. They listened even more intently. They were either planning to break out with this information, or they really cared about their health.

It is somewhat surprising that the State does not give inmates a cheap daily nutritional supplement. It would save money in health care expenses, thereby making the taxpayers happy to spend the three or four cents extra per person per day. I kid you not: you can still find a daily multivitamin at Wal-Mart for this price.

Nothing doing. Politicians and public don't want anything to do with an idea like that. It is a familiar argument: "Why should convicted felons get free vitamins? I work hard to make an honest living and I have to buy them."

Weigh in this fact before you respond to this idea:

At least one in four inmates in New York State prisons tests positive for tuberculosis.

These are often multi-drug resistant strains of TB at that. One of my college students outside the Big House was a prison nurse. Did she ever fill us in. In some correctional facilities, the tuberculosis rate is nearly one in two.

If you want to let prisoners infect each other and die, and if you consider that punishment to fit their many crimes, I will not contest it. I remind you of this, however: Even though you lock them up, nearly every inmate will get out eventually. Their sentences will expire; they will be released. Even WITHOUT work-release, even WITHOUT parole, you still cannot imprison everybody for life. And even if you could, or even if you executed them all, you would still have the guards, the nurses, the cooks, and all other staff that work at the prison coming home each night to their families, to their communities, to where you live.

If you in any way subscribe to the idea of the germ theory, this guarantees the spread of viruses and bacteria outside of prison walls.

Think about that.

Tuberculosis is well known to flourish when diet is poor. There is also a connection with diet and most other contagious diseases. It is economical for the taxpayer to keep inmates from getting sick.

Medical care inside a prison is no cheaper than anywhere else. And the spread of disease outside of prison cannot be halted, even with a change of clothes, or rubber gloves.

Many prisons are more like hospitals now. Certainly one of the ones that I worked at was. According to the captain of the guards, about 50% of the inmates in this particular facility were HIV positive. There, I remember that the smell of disinfectant was enough to gag a maggot.

The tuberculosis epidemic in American prisons is kept quiet, just as the Nazis kept quiet about typhoid epidemics in their concentration camps. Any time your actions are comparable with Hitler's, it is high time to reconsider.

In addition to the play-down-the-TB-epidemic policy, our prisons are incapable of dealing with what they have now. Infirmary beds are around a dozen per thousand inmates. At one of the slammers where I worked, 90 inmates were crowded into huts designed to hold 45. With bunk beds and all things considered, the odds are that any inmate is sleeping just feet away from a TB positive individual.

A letter was written to the State about the TB problem in its prisons. I have in my possession the written response from the central Department of Corrections office. It says that "we are doing everything possible to contain the spread of this virus." The letter is signed by a senior health official.

Everyone knows that tuberculosis is not viral, it is bacterial. Well, almost everyone knows that. Corrections certainly doesn't seem to be working on all cylinders.

Back to that big, scary inmate.

He made eye contact with me more during my talk about wheat germ and vitamins than ever before. Yeah, yeah. The class went on to the next chapter.

A number of classes later, everybody was filing out and the Big Guy lagged behind. He moved up close beside me.


"Uh, can I talk to you for a minute?" he whispered.

"Sure, sure," I answered. You got a better answer?

"I, uh, I been eatin' that stuff, that wheat germ you told us about," he said.

"How did you come up with it?"

"They sell it in the commissary," he answered. "They got those mul-tie vitamins, too. Been taking them."

There was an uncomfortable half-second pause, and than he continued:

"Well, I just want to tell you," he said, "that I been taking those vitamins and eatin' that wheat germ for a couple o' weeks now."

"And?" I said.

"And, well, I just want to tell you that I feel more clear."

He put an unusual emphasis on the word "clear," looking me straight in the eye.

It finally dawned on me that this was a compliment, a thank-you.

"Oh, good!" I said. "Keep on doing it."

He left, squeezing through the door like a supertanker going under a low bridge.

From time to time, I have considered the benefits to society of having a man like that feeling more "clear." I think that reaching some form of clarity in prison might go a long way towards actually making them correctional institutions.

Nutritional supplements could make it happen.


HEALTHY EATING "CAN CUT CRIME" (From the BBC News, Tuesday, 25 June, 2002)

A study by researchers at the University of Oxford has found that adding vitamins and other vital nutrients to young people's diets can cut crime. They found that improving the diets of young offenders at a maximum security institution in Buckinghamshire cut offences by 25%.

Bernard Gesch and colleagues at the University of Oxford enrolled 230 young offenders from HM Young Offenders Institution Aylesbury in their study. Half of the young men received pills containing vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. The other half received placebo or dummy pills. The researchers recorded the number and type of offences each of the prisoners committed in the nine months before they received the pills and in the nine months during the trial.

They found that the group which received the supplements committed 25% fewer offences than those who had been given the placebo.

The greatest reduction was for serious offences, including violence which fell by 40%.

There was no such reduction for those on the dummy pills. The authors described the finding as "remarkable". Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, they said improving diets could be a cost-effective way of reducing crime in the community and also reducing the prison population.

(Lead author) Gesch said: "The supplements just provided the vitamins, minerals and fatty acids found in a good diet which the inmates should get anyway. Yet the improvement was huge."

Related reading:

Dr Abram Hoffer’s comments:

Copyright 2007 and previous years by Andrew W. Saul. Revisions copyright 2017; 2020.

Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )


Andrew W. Saul


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