Soy Wars

At least once a year, I teach a class at a men’s prison– one of the few prisons, out of Illinois’ 46, that offers academic community college courses. The class is similar to a regular class with notable differences: the students are incredibly rigorous and living conditions are tragic, alienating, dulling and perverse. In this place, it is the classroom that mCeakes a small exception to the logic of confinement. In the prison, the classroom is practically sacared; men ask critical questions, pose intelligent problems and thoughtfully debate points. This doesn’t happen anywhere else on the prison grounds. Because this space and time is so coveted, I rarely hear students complain about work duties, cellies or officers. However, there is one complaint that I do hear often: soy in the food.

If the men were not consuming soy in the free world, they surely know a lot about it just by doing time in any of the state’s prisons. Many prisoners are Chicago and East St. Louis residents—city dwellers; now they live scattered around the state in and on farmland, amongst miles and miles of corn and soy fields. Sprayed, planted, sprayed again and harvested the soy and corn is visible from their very narrow cell windows.

In 2003, as a cost saving measure, Dept. of Correction substituted a significant amount of meat portions with soy, one of the state’s main crops and a big part of the federal farm bill. Soy rules the mid-west, so when Illinois made a deal with Archer Daniels Midland to add soy to the food, it not only saved money, it made money. However, the men at Danville prison, where I teach, regularly complain about it. It’s not that they are so picky about food—you can’t be picky about food in prison– it’s that they are worried about ‘feminization’. They believe that soy might lower the testosterone production, making men, well, altered. At least one recently published study says that soy does lower sperm count but researchers don’t know why. No one at the prison has uttered what kind of prisoner-cyborg this soy-food might create, but the myth is out there. Not just at Danville, but in many of the prisons. The state is fucking with them. In fact, many men have fallen ill, seriously ill with rashes, thyroid problems, irritable bowel syndrome and heart problems. There is a lawsuit pending right now. I see this ‘risk of feminization’ silly, even a bit offensive, but I do sympathize with their fear and recognize the reality experienced by these men.

There are strict regulations in place prohibiting various kinds medical research on prisoners but not other kinds of ‘experiments’. In this case, the experiments will not yield a study and placebo group, which might develop a new drug. The experiment is one of new relationships for state subsidies, with cost efficiency as the alibi. As state budgets shrink, it’s not just the schools that will feel the pinch. Instead of lowering the prison population, or creating programs that are proven to be cost efficient (because people get out and stay out, or have shorter terms in), states will most likely continue new experiments to trim unevenly distributed budgets of prisons.

Here are a few links that might be of interest:

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4 Responses
  1. lisa nakamura says:

    Lilly: heh, I am glad that you went there! I thought of Soylent Green too, as the state’s planned inadequacy at dealing with “food insecurity” reaches its gross and memorable conclusion.

    Just this Sunday the times had an article on the link between food insecurity, obesity, and poverty that was really striking in light of Sarah’s post. The prisoners who are part of this food experiment are not skinny, overtly malnourished, telegenically starved spectacles such as might impress a viewer or reader–instead, their bodies bear this burden in relatively invisible ways. Having the state subject you to its nutritional exigencies makes you unable to bear witness or visualize your own victimization, which is one of the worst parts of this.

  2. lilly says:

    Thanks for this really interesting post, Sarah! The gender and justice issues are so entangled.

    Would it be ridiculous to wonder whether the soy-feminization link is not also supported by issues of racial stereotypes of feminized asian men? It is probably a stretch.

    That said, subjecting prisoners to the extremes of our monoculture is yet another form of injustice in the prison-industrial complex.

    Also, I have to mention it…SOYlent green.

  3. Sarah Ross says:

    Thanks for these comments. I became more and more interested in this as a close friend was finishing her dissertation. Her work, in part, looked at children in school lunch programs and how their bodies sort of become the state subsidy. So it is true that this is not just prisoners, however, what is different here is the shear volume of soy they consume.
    I appreciate your ideas on the construction of soy as ‘queer’, indeed the psychology in the prison is both interesting and distorted. I believe it is the side effects of false scarcity (in this case, scarcity of information).

  4. lisa nakamura says:

    Dear lord, Sarah, I had no idea that this was going on. Over 100 grams of soy a day as one of your links says–I see products like pricey snack bars called “Soyjoy” that trumpets the glory of soy (tastes like crap, by the way) and soy is showing up in face creams, soaps, candles, and lotions, but this sounds like basically “food” is being replaced by “soy.” I can see why this isn’t a scandal, as soy as positive associations for many people as a healthful food. However, this is absolutely exploiting that perception for financial expediency, as it is horrifying to hear.

    The technologization of gender via knowledge about hormones in deployed in interesting ways in the context of the prison. I know that prisons are sites where masculinity is very much at issue, and I can see how soy become an occasion for protest around feminization. Soy is getting constructed as “queer” in this context: the concerns seems to be more about genitals and such than, say, bowel problems, which seems to be a side effect of a mostly-soy diet.