During the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists discovered that a diet that lacked fresh fruits and vegetables caused health problems in both adults and children. By the beginning of the 20th century, researchers discovered the science behind a proper diet. Various compounds called vitamins and elements called minerals were necessary for good health. Fortunately, most of the vitamins and minerals needed were present in food, and eating a well-balanced diet could prevent diseases that caused weak bones, vision loss, skin ulcers, bleeding gums and dental problems.
Home economists and the United States Department of Agriculture printed pamphlets to educate the public on the advantages of proper eating. However, many institutions tried to save money by feeding their inmates a diet lacking the appropriate nutrients. One of those institutions was the Pettis County Jail.
In 1922, the state supervisor of jails and almshouses visited the Pettis County Jail twice. During his first visit, he made several suggestions about improving the cleanliness and healthfulness of the institution, some of which were implemented. When he returned for a second visit, he interviewed the prisoners. Their most bitter complaint was the quantity and quality of the food served.
Prisoners reported what they were served six days per week. They received two meals a day. For breakfast, they received oatmeal, bread, syrup (probably sorghum), and coffee. For dinner, they received beans and pork fat. On Sundays, the food served varied somewhat.
While these foods could be part of a balanced diet, by themselves they were far from adequate. While they provided some iron, calcium, magnesium and a bit of protein, the protein lacked the necessary amino acids, and the foods lacked vitamins A, C, D and most of the B vitamins. Such a diet over a lengthy period would result in a variety of health problems.
The prisoners had access to a small oil stove on which they could prepare food, but most of them did not have the money to pay for food or family members who could bring food to them.
The sheriff profited by the prisoners’ poor diet in two ways. First, he could keep jail costs down and show himself to be a good manager of county monies. Second, he concocted a plan to provide a “private boarding table” in which prisoners could pay for and receive extra food from him.
The inspector had discovered the sheriff’s private catering service at the first visit and ordered him to stop charging prisoners for extra food. By the time of the second visit, the sheriff had done so, but he had not changed the prisoners’ diet.
While Inspector Miller recognized that prisoners generally complained about the food they received, he acknowledged that the county officials must investigate the amount and quality of the food. He required the jailer to present daily reports of the menu to the county commissioners so they could verify the prisoners’ complaints.
Inspector Miller also warned the county commission of a situation that had existed for many years — the need for a new jail. The county grand jury convened to review conditions at the jail agreed, and promptly condemned the existing jail. The county commission refused to act, and a new jail was not built for at least 40 years.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.