The short answer is “yes.” Correctional institutions must not deprive prisoners of the “basic necessities of life.” To do so would violate the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment due process rights of pre-trial detainees. However, to what extent does a correctional facility have to go in order to determine what it means to “eat safely”?
Prison population is generally low-risk for food allergies
Not many people maintain their food allergies into adulthood. Those who do are overwhelmingly allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish. Prisons don’t serve shellfish, and the process of eliminating tree nuts isn’t too burdensome. Peanut butter, however, because of its inexpensiveness and ease of use, is a problem.
Verify risk and degree of allergy
First, a peanut allergy should be verified and a risk assessment performed for individual patients who appear to be at risk. People at high risk of severe allergic response would be those who have experienced breathing difficulty or anaphylactic shock in the past. Prisoners should be able to discuss a visit to the emergency room, their EpiPen prescription and results from an allergy test. For absolute verification, a CAP RAST test can be ordered. Skin prick tests could also be ordered, and the results would be immediate.
Prison policy may need to be modified
Once a prison has discovered a severe allergy, it’s time to talk policy. Prisons can restrict commissary admission for significant peanut allergies if the kitchen is using peanut oil or peanut products. Should the inmate be banned from work in the kitchen? Does it make sense, in light of the severity of the allergy, to house the inmate away from those who are eating peanuts? Finally, who will carry the EpiPen if one is needed?
Basically, adult food allergies are rare and can be verified. Once established, a few modifications, usually of little expense, can be made to keep the inmate safe and the prison following the letter and spirit of the law