Meals Behind Bars: A Reading List

Alcatraz Dining Hall by Carl Sundstrom. (Public Domain)

Food is everywhere — we eat at home, at work, at school, on the go, and while traveling. Many of us are able to eat what we choose, when we choose; for some, deciding what to eat, obtaining it, and preparing is enough of a burden that we’re turning to meal-replacements like Soylent in such numbers that orders are backlogged for weeks. That all changes in jail, where you eat what you’re given — or you don’t eat at all. Among the many freedoms prison limits, where does losing the ability to choose the timing, quantity, and, most importantly, flavor of your food rank? Pretty high.

Three of these pieces look at what mealtime is like on the inside, from an examination of chow hall food to stories of inmates’ ad-hoc cell-made meals to an in-depth look at a commissary food that’s both dietary supplement and currency for thousands of inmates. A fourth adds a different dimension, revealing how some of the foods on our own tables are the product of prison labor.

1. “Fixed Menu” (Kevin Pang, Lucky Peach)

Kevin Pang doesn’t take food for granted: “It is within my civic right as a dedicated grocery shopper and keeper of leftovers, imprinted in the Charter of Man, that I am free to eat however much I want, of what I want, when I want.” Those freedoms disappear in prison, where inmates describe some of the meals they’re served the way “grandpa recall[s] war atrocities he witnessed: spoken with a heavy sigh, best left in the past.” Welcome to mealtime at Westfield Correctional Facility in Westfield, Indiana, where food is “mush” on a good day, and a mysterious, spongy slab called “Nutraloaf” on a bad one.

2. “Tales of a Jailhouse Gourmet” (Daniel Genis, The Daily Beast)

Daniel Genis spent his decade in the New York state prison system honing his jail cell cooking techniques. In an attempt to supplement a prison diet that was “an expression of hatred in soy-protein,” he learned to prepare jailhouse versions of bouillabaisses and linguini with clams using care-package ingredients and commissary-purchased foods. The stovetop? An empty jumbo-size tuna can over a jerry-rigged grill, or a disassembled nail clipper jammed into an electrical outlet, then dropped into a can of water. In Genis’ story, even the risk of death by accidental electrocution isn’t enough to deter people from seeking flavorful foods — a testament to the role food plays in our emotional well-being.

3. “Honey Buns Sweeten Life for Florida Prisoners” (Drew Harwell, Tampa Bay Times)

In Florida, prisoners supplement their diets with over 270,000 packaged Honey Buns, a pre-packaged, processed pastry that outsells both tobacco and Coke in the prison system. The Buns aren’t just added calories and flavor, they’re currency. They’re used to fashion apples pies and birthday cakes. They sweeten fermented orange juice for a proto-prison wine. They’re last meals. A replacement for vices, like alcohol and drugs, that can’t be indulged in jail. They’re no simple treat: failing to repay a Honey Bun debt can lead to murder. Drew Harwell looks at the expanding role of the Honey Bun for Florida inmates’ waistlines and economies, and learns something about both prisons and the people they house.

4. “From Our Prison to Your Dinner Table” (Graeme Wood, Pacific Standard)

Do you like tilapia? Honey? Blackberries? Buffalo mozzarella? In the U.S., the cheese gracing your pizza tonight was probably made by prisoners, who “work” within Colorado Correctional Industries without the protections afforded other laborers. (And because of loopholes in labeling requirements, you’ll never know it.) As the prison-industrial complex grows, you can drop your disobedient dog off to be trained by inmates, purchase a hand-crafted zebra wood fishing rod made by an inmate, or drink chardonnay made from inmate-tended grapes. Still, the work gives many prisoners a sense of purpose — while they work for $1.50 an hour, or nothing at all. Graeme Wood’s investigation asks: are prison industries a way to to occupy and motivate inmates, or U.S.-based sweatshops?