It seems silly to comment on prison food, but you’d be surprised. There’s a lot to be said about the overall experience.
First, let’s establish some basic concepts. The chow hall (aka “food service”) is responsible for feeding inmates. There’s a menu that rotates every X weeks and has some consistency from one week to the next (for example, we had burger days and pancake days with some regularity). This mass-produced meal is designed to feed inmates based on a mandatory caloric minimum, and you could survive a sentence only eating from the chow hall.
As you would expect from mass-produced, government-funded food, it wasn’t the highest quality. However, some of the best ingredients to be had within the institution (fresh vegetables, ground beef, etc.) were used to produce these meals. But more on that later.
In addition to the chow hall, many inmates bought food from the commissary from time to time. Or constantly, depending on the inmate’s financial situation. The best free-world parallel I can draw on prison food selection is that of your neighborhood drug store (Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, etc.). Lots of processed options, microwavable foods, and snacks (“zoom zooms and wham whams” in prison vernacular). You could buy honey buns, instant coffee, off-brand Slim Jims, chips, powdered milk, and bagged tuna, but don’t expect to see an apple or uncooked spaghetti. If you might readily consider something a true grocery item, it probably wasn’t sold in the commissary.
Now, a third resource existed, of course: the outside world. Technically, some food came in from the outside, but it was prohibitively expensive, and extremely dangerous to be found in possession of. A Burger King wrapper was found in the trash at one point and a unit went on lockdown. Outside contraband was frowned upon in any form.
Knowing this, it’s important to note that contraband food was extremely common nonetheless, but it didn’t come in from illegal drops. It came from the chow hall.
We’ll delve into this deeper in another post, but almost all inmate jobs offered an opportunity for a side “hustle”, and food service was no exception. Leftovers found their way out of almost every popular meal, often distributed among food service workers (cooks, cleanup, dishwashers, etc.) who would then sell and/or give away these leftovers to other inmates.
However, the food prep inmates had the real inside track: access to raw ingredients. A large bowl of fully-prepared chili mac might sell for $1 in the unit. If uncooked, the ground beef in that bowl might catch three times that price. Raw vegetables (usually onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes) would be smuggled out by the bag or box, fetching an easy profit for those willing to steal and/or store them for the few hours it would take to sell them, and the supply of them never stopped. Meats, cooked or not, gained a particular premium. Some roast beef, sausage, or chicken leftovers from one meal could earn a cook more than his “pay” from the prison for the month.
These profits didn’t come without risk, of course. Technically, food service ingredients were for the chow hall only, and therefore they were contraband in the unit. Buy and sell at your own risk. An onion could get you a sentence extension, if a CO were so inclined, though vegetables were overlooked more than other options. Raw perishables like meat and eggs were damning to almost any inmate.
That said, food preparation is one of the few creative outlets available to the inmate masses. A certain discipline and/or talent is required to learn music, theology, or a trade, but almost anyone with the time (which is most inmates) can experiment and learn the wonders of the microwave. So it held a lot of appeal, and social gatherings centered around food preparation and consumption every weekend for many inmates.
In most cases, chow hall ingredients were included. Fresh vegetables were chopped up with sharpened pieces of plastic or cleverly repurposed disposable razors. A lucky few got their hands on shredded cheese, though a few angled holes in a sardine can produced an improvised grater for those stuck with blocks of cheese. Maybe you’d get some ground beef. Garlic powder and similar essential spices flavored the air around most microwaves.
Tomato sauce, tortillas, onions, peppers, and a mix of processed meats and cheeses make for a “pizza bowl”. A used popcorn bag is filled with some olive oil and instant rice to produce a surprisingly convincing fried rice effect. That bagel? We’ll slap cheese dip and some microwave-simmered concoction of commissary meats to make a compelling burger. The resourcefulness of these inmates can hardly be overstated.
I had a rice bowl a few times that was cooked using Coca-Cola, and it was amazing. And I don’t like Coke.
A Rare Gift
For all the standard fare, some enterprising culinary artists ventured for more.
Those off-brand Oreo cookies in the commissary? Scrape the cream filling off a whole package, prepare with milk and some other ingredients to produce a thick icing, coat honey buns with it, and dip the result in a fudge made from the cookies and various candies. Then sell the delicious result, guided by your drug-dealing experiences. Step one? Offer free samples in the housing units.
One guy I knew kept a live yogurt culture on ice and constantly fed. He had a steady stream of yogurt that he’d flavor with whatever fruit he could acquire that week. I tried it, and despite being thicker and lumpier than the cups you’d find in the store, it tasted about the same.
The most shocking (literally) creative food I saw cooked was lovingly referred to as “trash can apple pie”. A special honey-based syrup is prepared through some unknown means and then filled with apple slices. The mix is then rolled into tortillas and bound up using dental floss. Then, they’re dropped into a trash can filled with cooking oil, heated through a short-circuit device called a stinger. I resisted trying the fried apple pies that came from this unsavory combination of unsanitary and lethal the first couple times I had an opportunity. But they smelled so good. And I eventually gave in. The verdict? Easily better than McDonald’s. And, I told myself, what pathogens could possibly survive boiling grease?
A Spiritual Quandry
Even the church got into it. We would put together large-scale meals and feed the inmates, inviting in the lost and saved alike. These outreaches were wildly successful, and it wasn’t unheard of for us to feed a third of the prison population.
Yet a legitimate spiritual quandary awaited us, along with any believer when it comes to food in prison. Technically, the production and gift of food en masse was against the rules (you’re only supposed to have food you bought yourself), but this was readily overlooked, so this wasn’t the concern. Rather, it was the question of contraband ingredients.
Technically, any onion we sliced up into a noodles dish was contraband, obtained through theft and bought on what amounts to the black market, the only place source for most of such ingredients. Despite the “everyone else does it” aspect, the truth of the matter was that inclusion of such ingredients in any church setting (or even in our own personal dishes) brought up questions of integrity. What do we do? Obviously, common sin is still sin, and the pseudo-endorsement of such activities (that is, a frequently deliberate blind eye and even an occasional “save some for me”) by the COs in charge doesn’t change much.
Silly as it sounds, my Christian brothers and I wrestled with this intensely. Fresh vegetables became the source of a great deal of prayer, deliberation, soul seeking, and meditation. And the result was mixed. Not everyone agreed (go figure; even in prison, we’re still the church).
My Choice on Contraband Food Ingredients
Where did I end up on the scale? Did I compromise my ethics? Did I eat the forbidden
fruit vegetable? Did I eat the food sacrificed to idols? Did I support this ecosystem of sin? Did I hide my light under a bushel of sin? Did I lose my saltiness, becoming one with the world?
Well, I’ll admit I bought, prepared, ate, and served food with contraband ingredients from food service. And perhaps I will face judgment before God on the matter. I’m honestly unsure on that point, though. I don’t feel like I compromised my integrity, and despite my searching, I never felt any conviction on the matter. I found myself constantly returning to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8:8-9 (NASB):
But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
I remained mindful of my brothers and never encouraged others to compromise. If they felt a conviction for themselves, I instructed they should follow it. As for my part, I filled my belly with my integrity intact, despite the presence of shredded cheese. Yet I frequently revisited my position. I had frequent cause; I got hungry a lot despite the legitimate chow hall meals’ availability and “sufficient” nutrition.
I can honestly say that there are few questions I’ve pondered more fully than this one. It was a frequent mention in prayer, in small groups, and in leadership meetings. And I think I’d make the same decision today, in the same position. Interestingly, though, I wouldn’t make the same decision in the free world.