“Johnko, what is this, this?” and I pointed to the Bimbos.
“Bimbo brand bread? In a women’s facility? Are you kidding me?”
“It’s Mexican. Beeembo. See? Says it on the label.”
The bag sported a Pillsbury dough boy knock-off, a white bear, pronouncing the brand name because someone, somewhere, knew this was bad marketing.
“It also says that it’s the bread that lasts forever. That’s a real claim to freshness. I know we get these dog brands and cast-offs and odd-lot foods, but really? Bimbo?”
“Beeembo. I told you. It’s Mexican.” Johnko shrugged, like that was sufficient to explain the world’s worst marketing plan, one, incidentally, that’s apparently effective on the people who surround me now.
“I seen these shits before,” Maria defended the Bimbos.
“These are sold here? I thought when he said it was Mexican it was some foreign food that we got for a low price.”
“Yeah, in bodegas. They got it in there,” Maria offered. She sort-of caught my pseudo-righteous feminism.
“Well, I, I don’t shop there and I’ve never seen this,” I huffed. I’m not so easily shocked that the Bimbos would bowl me over but the people selling this bread in the U.S. weren’t even trying to make it an attractive buy which, to me, means one of two things. Either the product was so good it was a guaranteed sale or it was the only product around so it was a guaranteed sale.
I had wandered again into a desert, and not the usual wiggly heat of confusion blocking my view as I looked for the oasis of freedom. I was witnessing the effects of a food desert, an area with low-income and minority residents that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Being poor isn’t just not being able to afford stuff. It’s not being able to afford stuff that’s inferior quality because you can’t access the better, more affordable stuff that is produced and packaged by people with a wit of sense. Imagine Stop and Shop near me selling Bimbo bread that lasts forever. It would have to be so cheap that it was free. And even then, no one in my family would buy it. But other people have to. And they don’t have the luxury of taking offense at faulty branding like I do.
“Surely they hired a marketing expert who should’ve picked another name for the bread and another slogan. I mean, perpetual bread? That’s not even how they describe the fucking Eucharist.”
“I dunno,” Maria said and was moving on without me. “You still want me to rotate these racks?”
“Sure. I guess this prison’s lesson for me? That the staff of life is a bimbo?” I asked anyone and no one. I figured that was the last word on the topic but [another kitchen supervisor] Ms. Van Damme had walked in behind me to answer.
“Wait, what’re you saying about the staff?” she asked.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 11 – 17, 2017
◊◊◊◊VERY IMPORTANT◊◊◊◊: Floridians for a Fair Democracy needs more signatures for its petition to add Voting Restoration Amendment to the 2018 ballot (restoring voting rights to people with criminal records after completion of their sentences). If you live in Florida, sign the petition here. If you don’t live in Florida, share the link with your friends and associates who do. And, if you’re a Republican and you think that restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies is handing votes to the opposition, read my op-ed in The Tampa Bay Timeshere. Keeping anyone from voting – in addition to being immoral and violating the principles on which this country was founded – will actually hurt Republicans in the long run. People need to sign the petition by December 31, 2017.
Most people missed this, but a poll conducted by Emerson College in advance of Tuesday’s election in Alabama to choose the senator who will replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions found that voters with felony records supported Roy Moore over eventual winner Doug Jones. It was a small sample, but go figure.
Rates of imprisonment amongst blacks are going down and they have been for a while. Read about it here, a joint venture between The Marshall Project and The Washington Post‘s Wonkette blog.
Again, I’ve been moved, tossed from one tier to another. I spent the first few hours in my new cage overly focused on unpacking my belongings from a trash bag and folding my mattress like a taco so I could tie ends of the sheet around it because, apparently, those Pratesi fitted jobs my mother covets are a luxury, totally unnecessary because you can knot the corners of a flat sheet underneath your mattress and sleep on that huge cotton bolus, Princess and the Pea-style.
My new cellmate got here a few months before I did, when she was 19. Now she’s 23. As I was folding, tying, tightening, pressing, I heard something about being born here at York to a mother who had since passed away, pro forma foster care with older couple who couldn’t handle her, placement in a group home for troubled teens.
“…and this guy who worked at the group home, he…I had sex with him so I could get Nerds.”
Did I just hear sex and candy?
“His girlfriend worked there too and she snitched on us. Cuz she’s jealous. She wanted him to be walked off [fired] just to get him for cheating on her. She even called the fuckin’ cops. Cuz jealous bitches are dirty like that.”
“This was when you were in a group home? How old were you?” Weren’t you like, seven, yesterday?
“Oh God. I’m sorry.”
“I wanted the Nerds. And I wanted to fuck him.”
“Did he get arrested?” I wanted to know. Do I need to start writing letters about this menace to make sure he’s not still working with kids?
“Yeah, it was in the paper.”
“Was your name in the paper?”
“Nah. I was a minor,” she answered, revealing that she knows enough about rules and law and – especially – her status in every situation she finds.
“I mean, I’m not telling you any secret. I tell everyone here. The C/O’s know, everyone knows that I got this guy walked off because I fucked him. So that’s why the staff doesn’t like me. You need to know that if you’re gonna live with me.”
“Well, they’re not crazy about me either, so no problem. But you know you weren’t wrong in that situation, right?”
“I was bugging him for the Nerds.”
“Yeah, but it’s just a hard-and-fast rule that guys aren’t supposed to fuck 12-year-olds anywhere, for any reason, even if the 12-year-old wants it.”
“I liked him. I wanted to fuck him. So I let him fuck me against a wall in a closet.”
“Well, since he’s the adult he had to let you down. Not only that, he could’ve given you the Nerds for free. That was always an option.”
“He told me girls my age get married and fuck their husbands in far away places like India and Kentucky,” explaining the grooming method he used, equating Kentucky with a third world country. He wasn’t 100% wrong about that, but what a substitute for social studies. Molestation fills in for normal pre-teen activities yet again.
I don’t know if I will ever be able to explain how fascinating and repulsive the combination of eroticism and childhood sweets was that day. Guilt and shame swirled and marbled her street sass. When he hollowed out her self-esteem by letting her gulp a box of Nerds she bartered sex to get, he drained all judgment from this girl. It was her fault that she wanted someone to commit a mundane, innocuous act between adult and child, one that’s happened millions of times daily since the discovery of sugar cane – gifting a piece of candy – and The Candy Man hijacked it into a situation where he could get a piece of ass. In a closet. Standing up. With a kid.
Prison life is like a cross of Ad-Libs and the board game Clue. You start the adventure by filling the blanks of an erstwhile normal story with zany adjectives and nouns – Plural Noun? Nerds! Flat sheets! Verb? Molest! – and then spend the rest of the time deciphering why the story you just wrote yourself actually happened and who the real guilty party is.
My first few days living with her taught me that the group home incident wasn’t the only reason why the staff had a problem with her. She’s walking trouble: talking back to some staff, flirting with others. Drama in relationships with the other inmates, trading commissary as ruthlessly as anyone who ran with Pablo Escobar. She reports to our room repeating directives from her ‘mom’ – a Latina woman from Rhode Island who’s doing LWOP [Life Without Parole] for 2 execution-style murders – who advises her on all things moral, ethical, culinary and correctional. Only 84 hours of celling with her have exhausted me, yet I have to admit that I hold her pretty blameless for all of it. I’m shocked that anyone thought her story was going to end differently.
When we walked out for dinner tonight, she was behind me on the walkway and a C/O slithered out of the guards’ shack in Yard 1. The ratt-tatt-tatter of small sugar pieces against cardboard twisted my head to catch him in November dusk, shaking a box of Nerds at her. I turned back around and kept walking but she
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM
FROM NOVEMBER 6 – 12, 2017
Tell me how ideas related to criminal justice didn’t permeate last week’s election. And I will counter with these developments:
In Virginia, the election of Democratic candidate Ralph Northam means ex-offenders are not going to lose the voting rights restored to them in April.
Also in Virginia, prosecutor who ran on a platform of police accountability was re-elected.
In New Jersey, the governor-elect proposes to legalize marijuana, which Gov. Chris Christie has opposed.
In Philadelphia, despite huge opposition from police unions, former public defender Larry Krasner switched sides, being elected district attorney.
In New York, voters approved ballot measure that will prevent elected public officials convicted of felonies related to their work from collecting their pensions.
Prosecutors aren’t even required to believe the theories and evidence they present to juries. The Marshall Project‘s Ken Armstrong and The New Yorker ran an important story – a typically New Yorker-length examination of how this really happens and innocent people go to prison – and WaPo’s Radley Balko broke it down for us here.
And, because there are so many criminal justice topics to plunder from the Roy Moore story – the fact that it was revealed last week that the former Alabama Supreme Court Justice and current Republican Senate candidate probably had inappropriate sexual contact with underage girls as young as 14 years old – I have to choose just one aspect of the torrid tale to focus on. The fact that we’ve normalized having sex with little girls – and boys – is why we have our national mass incarceration crisis right now. Not only has Roy Moore likely committed a crime, but he (and men who act like him) have enabled countless crimes to be committed by their victims. It all leads back to childhood sexual abuse, ladies and gentlemen. All. Of. It.
“I did everything I could to get away from that man. I cooked his chicken in Windex, everything.”
Wanda was telling me her past of abuse when I had been here about a year. These stories were starting to depress me, so to prevent myself from feeling them, I anointed myself an embedded reporter, convinced myself that I had to be objective in my understanding of my surroundings in order to inquire and investigate matters properly so I could explain to people what happens inside prisons when I got home.
“Wait, why did you cook his chicken in Windex? What does that do?” I asked.
She squinted at me.
“Cuz it’s poison. Ain’t nobody live through a Windex chicken,” Wanda explained.
“Oh, you were trying to kill him. To…to get away from him?” I tried to clarify.
“So, just let me ask you, what does the Windex do that, say, another household cleaner wouldn’t do? Is that, you know, like a thing? A ‘Windex chicken’? Do other people do that? I mean, I’ve never heard of that combination.”
“What the fuck is you talkin’ about?” She looked at me and searched my face for comprehension.
“I guess, I mean, why did you choose Windex and chicken to do this? Like, how did that combination come together for you?” I asked.
“Shit was in my kitchen.”
“Oh, so it was a combination of convenience, would you say?”
“I dunno,” she trailed off. The conversation veered away from her pain so she wasn’t interested in telling me anymore. I wanted to ask if the chicken turned blue, whether he ate it and, if so, did he taste the ammonia but she walked away and I heard her talk to another inmate about me in an un-subtle whisper:
“Everybody say that bitch so innocent. Trust and believe, she lookin’ to kill a motherfucker…”
Of course I wasn’t asking because I’m going to off someone with whatever’s under my sink at home. I was just fascinated. Maybe because it’s such an unnatural food color and the smell advances on you so quickly and she hadn’t said whether she used a breast or a thigh, I didn’t connect Windex with eating. Now I know that no one survives a Windex chicken. If they eat it.
Not only do other people view us through a prism of suspicion, it’s how we view ourselves. That’s because we see the potential for evil destruction in anything.
Where you see a cleaning solution, Wanda saw a solution to her problems, if you get what I’m saying. You see a kitchen, but I see an armory. Where you see a TV stand, I see a hangman’s noose. You look at the edge of a wooden table which I behold as something that can crack a skull. You see streak-free windows but I look through them to see a murder. The means are around. We wait for opportunity. Many of us already have motive.
I don’t want to hurt anyone. Never did. But all of this knowledge came to me in learning how to be safe. When you tell someone: this can hurt you, the corollary lesson is that it can hurt someone else, too. It’s amazing that teaching people how to protect themselves can make them lethal especially since, when you don’t teach them how to protect themselves, they can still become lethal, maybe moreso after they’ve been victimized.
Lexie was helping me and some of the other cooks. She’s here for stabbing her abusive husband in the neck and promises that, if she ever comes back to prison, “it’ll be for something serious” that time.
With Lexie, it was four of us opening cans. They’re number 10 cans, which means they can hold as much 100 ounces in them. They’re big, like 8 inches high and 6 across. To open them we puncture the seal at the top repeatedly with an industrial, pressure-powered can opener – Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist. – until this round razor just drops into the can’s contents.
Then we slide those razor-y tops out and collect them in a garbage bag and chuck them. Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist.Toss. We leave hundreds of weapons in the garbage for anyone to grab and use like Indian chakrams. Slit throats. Sever limbs. They’re sharp and big enough to do damage, especially if you bent them in half so the smooth edge is against your hand. I’ve considered their potential. I have means.
“Have the police ever let someone go for murder?” Lexie asked me.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I replied. I’d like to say that I can have an intellectual conversation with anyone on any topic but Lexie’s questions worried me because she was so conversationally cavalier about violence. I think I know her potential.
“Like, have the police ever known that somebody did a murder and they didn’t even arrest them?”
“I’ve never heard of that being a public story,” I admitted.
“So it can happen, it’s just not in the news?”
“I would assume if police gave someone a pass for murder and that became known, then the person wouldn’t get the pass anymore,” I explained.
“Have the cops ever messed up murder investigations?”
“Of course. I mean, look at Jeffrey Dahmer” I answered her.
“That serial killer who ate his victims. One of his victims, a southeast Asian kid, naked, streaking down the street to get free of him, bleeding from his anus from being raped and didn’t make sense because Dahmer had drilled – get this – drilled a hole in his head and was pouring chemicals in…” I explained to the beat of Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist. Slap. THUNK. Twist.Toss.
“What kind of chemicals?”
“I don’t know. That’s not the point. The kid couldn’t make a coherent sentence because he had a brain injury and already didn’t know much English, so the poor thing couldn’t even ask for help and the cops let Dahmer bring him back to his apartment to kill him. Said it was a ‘lover’s quarrel’ and let a naked, bleeding kid be brought back to his own death. Can you believe that?” I posed to her.
“He was from another country so they let him go?”
“No, because he had a physical and chemical assault to his brain by the guy who was about to kill him, he couldn’t say, you know, ‘help me’ to someone who could’ve helped him. The cops didn’t catch on, so, yeah, they screw up murder investigations.”
That story always rises in my mind in here, how that kid was muted by his own victimization and difference in the community. I empathize with that kid and his inability to say something that would land in the mind of the authorities who were charged with protecting him, his lack of power to manipulate his surroundings to reach his own aims. I know his mind was in a frantic search for potential. There has to be a way out, there has to be…. He didn’t have the means when someone else had motive and opportunity.
“So how did he pour the chemicals in?” Lexie was intrigued.
“This bitch, stabs a dude in the head to get here, wants to know ‘What chemicals?’ and ‘How’d he pour the shit?’… Fuck outta here!” Faith shouted as she slung a bag of can tops, essentially homemade Chinese stars that anyone could take out of the trash and slash someone with – lots of potential – over her shoulder and walked away disgustedly.
“Do you know what chemicals he probably used?” Lexie pressed on. I shrugged.
“I don’t really know. Windex, maybe?”
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM OCTOBER 24 – 30, 2016
Jury nullification is alive and well. On Thursday, the seven anti-government activists who occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were acquitted of crimes they clearly committed. Everyone’s mad because they’re Caucasian and they think race was the reason for the acquittal. It’s not. The jury believed that the prosecution didn’t meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for the crime of conspiracy – the glue of the entire case – which requires that you know exactly what the defendant was thinking. Who can really know this? The jury was right and cleared the defendants, which makes the fact that defense counsel flipped out so badly that he had to be tasered by court marshals even more bizarre.
The State of Washington’s Department of Corrections banned a book, a novel, written by one of the Evergreen State’s own inmates, Arthur Longworth. While publishing a book from behind bars is rare, banning books written by inmates is common. It happened to me, if only for a while. These cases are silly because prison censors think they’re preventing the ideas in these books from spreading throughout the general population when they ban them. The truth is that the ideas started inside so they’ve already spread; we wrote the stinking things. They should just let in the inmate-written books. The censors are too late in these cases.
During the criminal investigation into former congressman and New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s online interaction with an underage girl, the FBI tripped over emails allegedly related to Hillary Clinton’s use of email that they were unable to find during their year-long investigation into…emails related to Hillary Clinton’s use of email. My takeaway from this October surprise? The FBI is bad at the “I” in its name.
How was dinner? Sometimes the C/O’s ask when you stroll back to your housing unit after a meal, a little incredulous that anyone actually ate what was served.
“Okay. I always want chili in 90 degree heat. I only went because tomorrow’s my birthday and the meals are worse.”
“Tomorrow’s your birthday, Bozelko? Doin’ anything fun? Havin’ a party?” she joked. That’s always a knee-slapper to them.
I always wanted to throw a blowout for my fortieth birthday, even though I never thought I would actually turn forty. I figured I would be due for something.
I gave up a Sweet Sixteen soiree when I was a kid – didn’t even want it -because I was going to be at a summer program in Ann Arbor and I didn’t see how it was necessary.
“Are you sure you don’t want a party? I think your friends would like a party. We can do it at the Graduate Club or the Quinnipiac Club and it will be nice…decorations? We can get a DJ…”
“I don’t think I need one,” I demurred. All I wanted to do for my sixteenth birthday was go to “debate camp” – the Michigan National Debate Institute. I wasn’t the consummate nerd when I was fifteen, but I was close. I just liked what I liked back then and wasn’t vulnerable to peer pressure at all. Looking back, I’m a little surprised at how adult I was about the party. So mature that it scared my mother a little. I overheard her asking my father:
“What teenager doesn’t want a party?” Translated: Why doesn’t my brat want what all brats are supposed to want?
“Kath, what’re we gonna do? Argue with her when she doesn’t want to spend thousands on a party? Let her go to Michigan. I hope she feels this way when you plan her wedding,” my father told her.
Except there’s never been a wedding. Flagged that one, too. I still don’t know if I ever actually wanted one.
I just always figured I would have a fortieth bash because I didn’t have the other two. Now, because of my stupid decisions, rage and denial, I would be 0 for 3 on parties: no Sweet Sixteen, no wedding, no Over-the-Hill shindig for my fortieth. Even if I planned one, I couldn’t even invite myself because I’m stuck here.
I climbed up on my bunk and lay, frozen still, so that the 5-watt fan could chill the sweat all over me; rooms without air conditioning and open windows aren’t fun in 90-degree weather. For a woman to turn forty in prison is about as pathetic as it gets but, always an overachiever, not only was I reaching my fifth decade in the clink but I was going to debut wilted from the weather and motionless.
“Winks, I need to ask you a question,” Cherry asked me at my door. Cherry is the Common Area Worker with a severe case of Co.W.S. – Common Area Worker Syndrome (the afflicted forget that they’re inmates). She wasn’t even supposed to be out of her room because it was count time.
“What?” I didn’t even turn from the wall to her.
“I need to talk to you about a modification.”
“Cherry, it’s Saturday night, it’s beastly hot and I really don’t feel well.”
“I need your help now.”
“You know the court isn’t even open until Monday morning, right? Nothing is happening now.”
I wanted to add: and you’re here for murder, so no one’s reducing your 45-year sentence, but the way I was sweltering took away all my fight. Cherry’s life story has always been sad to me. I’m sworn to secrecy about it but I’m pretty sure that poverty, abuse, addiction and mentally ill parents conspired to make sure that Cherry knew York CI intimately before she met her maker.
All of this undeserved loss in her life has made Cherry an officious pain in the ass, commandeering very cleaning supply in the unit, because suffering people will do anything for a little bit of power.
“I need to have it in the mail on Monday because Wednesday’s a holiday and no mail is gonna be delivered,” she pleaded. This, of course, was complete horseshit because Cherry knew, after 18 years here, that nothing she mailed was going to wind its way out for a week nor was it going to be granted.
My cellmate Olga, an Original Gangster if there ever was one, has a normal body and hands the size of clipboards from fighting. Olga doesn’t tolerate Cherry.
“Can you just go help her because I don’t want her at the door all night and you know she won’t let this go,” she asked. “It’s too hot for me to listen to her shit. Blood pressure goes up and I can’t cool down.”
In the interest of domestic relations, I lowered myself from my bunk and put on another shirt so I could leave my cell properly dressed. As I walked downstairs to Cherry’s lair – which is a broom closet – I could hear the whirr of probably ten different hairdryers in other cells.
“Who the fuck is cooking and running their hairdryers in this heat?” I asked.
“I dunno, but all I need you to do is – here, come in here,” she motioned me fully into the closet. “I need you to explain why 45 years is expressive because of, what’s that word you use?”
“You mean excessive?”
“Yeah, excessive because of miritation, irrigation, something like that. That word you use.”
“We’ve already been through this… ” I started to say but I could see Olga’s huge hands at the end of her 63-year old arms, swinging into Cherry’s face. I thought I would just write a cursory letter for Cherry to keep her away from our door to appease her and shut her up, so I agreed, accepted her copy of the form (which she got from me anyway) and walked back up to my cell to write it, hand it back to her and age for the rest of the night in my box.
Olga saw me come into the cell with the form.
“She roped you in again? Here, I’m gonna cover the window so no one bothers you while you do that. Finish it and send that bitch packin’ so I don’t have to deal with her,” Olga said as she attached paper towels to the door with a sticker from a deodorant.
“We can go seg for that…” I warned Olga but she had already set up the drape and went out to watch TV.
I sat down to make stuff up for Cherry and sweat trickled down the inside of my arm.
Olga poked her head into our own cell.
“Chan, other people have questions for you, too, so come out when you can,” she said.
Olga’s off the beam. She’s mad that Cherry is at the door begging for help but she’s arranging new requests out there, I thought.
I swung open the door with my speech all ready:
DO NOT tell me you need help with letters to judges so you can go see your kids. DO NOT tell me the gun wasn’t loaded or you didn’t know you were stabbing someone, okay? I am unable to overturn righteous convictions for stupid stuff you did. I am tired. I am hot. I am forty. LEAVE ME ALONE.
But I never got to deliver it because I walked out to the rec[reation] area and found a party, a huge, unexpected one. A banner made from 20 pieces of contraband copy paper. Women on the tier had made personal pizzas for everyone – 24 in total – by smashing sour cream and onion chips with cheese and hot water and spreading the mix between two tortillas to make a crust. Rice and beans. Ramen noodles made into spaghetti. Chicken salad wraps. Tuna casserole. Individual cakes made of honey buns mushed up with brownies and cappuccino to make a bread pudding, frosted with Fluff.
My mother would have fallen into a wilted heap herself if this had ever been served at the parties she wanted to have for me, but these dishes were prison’s go-all-out gourmet. Trixie even made a game of prison Truth or Dare, which proved later to be downright dangerous.
If the man-hours, respect and gratitude invested into the prep for this party were converted to cash, I could have afforded to fête myself and 100 people to top-shelf booze, a raw bar and a three-course dinner. They had to start days ago and not one person wasn’t involved with the planning. All for me for my fortieth.
“You did this for me?” I was still taking it in.
“You do a lot for us,” Soledad said as she mixed Nestea for everyone.
I looked through the glass wall of the tier, down at Cherry in the common-area. She waved at me to let me know she was in on it, too. If she weren’t such a pain in the ass normally, I never would’ve bought her performance. I hated myself for being annoyed by her… ever.
I couldn’t even react, mostly because the heat deflated me, but also because I was so touched by getting a surprise party for my fortieth. I may not like the way my wishes are delivered, but even through all of these trials, I still get what I want.
All pictures are of real cakes that someone thought would be appropriate for the party theme of mass incarceration.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JUNE 27 – JULY 3, 2016
Pick a constitutional amendment, any amendment…
SIXTH AMENDMENT: Adnan Syed gets another trial on murder charges. The focus of the Serial podcast had his conviction vacated on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his defense attorney failed to cross-examine a cell phone tower expert witness presented by the State of Maryland. Everyone’s celebrating this but me, and not because I don’t want a new trial for Syed. Read the decision here: the court held that an attorney’s failing to contact an alibi witness (in this case, Asia McClain – whose story is credible and would provide an absolute alibi for Syed) would be “unreasonable” but not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel. I went through this myself in a habeas corpus proceeding. Think about what it means: if you’re charged with a crime and you have a witness who can provide an alibi for you, it’s okay if your attorney NEVER contacts that person, never mind produce testimony from him. That’s constitutionally adequate representation to some courts. That’s nuts.
FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT: A divided Iowa Supreme Court upheld the state’s law banning ex-offenders from voting last Thursday. All felonies are “infamous crimes” under the state constitution, the majority ruled. Justice reform advocates are up in arms that people with felony records won’t get to vote. But consider this: at least 80,000 people in Iowa have criminal records. Only 98 of them have completed applications to have their voting rights restored in the last five years and 92 of those applications were granted. I doubt it matters if they have the right to vote or not. People with records who’ve lost the right to vote in Iowa don’t care about their place in democracy.
EIGHTH AMENDMENT: Dog the Bounty Hunter’s wife, Beth Chapman, was elected this winter to serve as the president of the lobbying organization called Professional Bail Agents of the United States. She’s preparing for their annual conference next month and is likely to give bail reform efforts in coming legislative sessions a real challenge, as if they didn’t have enough already. But doesn’t her family’s own reality show prove that cash bond doesn’t assure that people come to court? She and her brood chase people who posted bail with her company and then skipped. I don’t get it.
At every cultural crossroad, whenever I refuse to go down behavioral One Way streets against the traffic, I face road rage – being called a snob – regardless of how polite I am and how far I swerve to avoid collision. My first attack happened during my first week in the dorms when I learned how women stole food from the kitchen during my first week in the dorms.
“Yo, Princeton, you want fried chicken?”
“Where’d you get fried chicken?” I asked.
“Here,” she said and pulled a KFC-style breast from her underwear. She pulled something off of it – lint? a hair? – and held it out to me.
“No, thank you for offering. I’m…I’m okay.”
“Yeah.” I nodded with a horizontal smile.
“I’m sure you are,” I conceded.
“Smells like fish, tastes like chicken…” she offered as an advertisement and laughed. “You Common Fare?”
“Common Fare, like vegetarian,” she explained.
“No. I just…”
“Just what? Don’t want to eat nothin’ I give you?”
“No, it’s not that…”
“Then what?” she challenged me.
“I just…don’t eat from other people’s underwear.”
“You gonna starve if you think you above eatin’ from somebody panties. That’s how it gets here to the dorms, yo. Miss High Mighty.”
Ever since then, every one of my No, thank you’s invited a Who da fuck you think you are? that has separated me from everyone else.
It wasn’t just the fact that people were eating out of their undergarments; they were stealing. I’m not so judgmental and moralistic that I can’t understand why hungry women pilfer food out of the kitchen. What I can never understand is why the inmates insist on conforming to the labels placed on us: deceptive, dishonest, craven. Unless you like those descriptions and think they’re accurate, you shouldn’t act that way. It’s why I never use my Hanes as a takeout container, in addition to not wanting to floss with my own pubes. I won’t conform to the negative norms I’ve been associated with.
Consequently, other women see any refusal on my part to join into inmate bullshit as a rejection of them and a statement that I am superior. They don’t understand that different doesn’t mean better, that staying out of something doesn’t necessarily put it down. They can understand acceptance only when it’s enmeshment. There can be no spaces between them and other people. When those spaces do exist, inmates shove resentment and name-calling inside until you give up and fuse with them. I think the fact that I don’t call this phenomenon by its usual name – peer pressure – probably means that they’re partially right about my standoffishness; I don’t see them as peers.
The separation between me and the other inmates practically became an official divorce when I was forced to be Line Captain in the kitchen, semi-in charge of other kitchen workers. I don’t have authority like staff but I’m allowed to direct other workers. Slightly.
“Um… change those, please?” I called to another kitchen worker who, wearing her serving gloves, walked into the bathroom and came out with the gloves still on. It was gross regardless, but I knew that she hadn’t used the toilet to do anything other than rest her boots on the seat while she figured out how to sneak out holiday fixin’s.
“Wow, you’re like, really straight,” she said as she peeled them off. She meant it as an insult, like I wasn’t down with the proletariat.
“No, it’s that you can’t wear gloves you wore in the restroom to serve food to people. It’s unsanitary.”
But Mr. Torsano, one of the supervisors, overheard us and barricaded the warmer angrily.
“I’ll be damned if this is gonna become panty meat!” He glared at the glove girl.
“It’s a holiday tradition,” Torsano told me about the stealing as all of the workers were being lined up by a female officer before we could leave.
“So we’re getting strip searched?” I asked. I didn’t worry about getting caught – not doing anything wrong greatly reduces the risk of that – but I hated having a C/O shine a flashlight up my birth canal. He laughed.
“Of course you’re getting searched. It’s Thanksgiving,” he said in total seriousness, like that was an obvious explanation, the Bend-Squat-and-Cough as common on the fourth Thursday in November as saying “Grace.”
“Alright, ladies, why dontcha just pull out what you got now and save me the trouble of having to look at your dirty asses?” shouted a female C/O with severe rosacea.
Yeah, pull out so I don’t have to pull it off.
Two women actually pulled sandwich baggies out from underneath their waistbands.
“Can I not, like, get a ticket ‘cuz I was honest?”
“Honest? You were fuckin’ stealing!” Rosacea shouted as she walked to the bathroom door and held it open with one foot with her legs stretched wide. “Next!”
First One went into the bathroom. Rustle of shed clothing.
“Whup…whup…whup. What do we have here?” Rosacea asked as she reached into the bathroom. Balancing it between her thumb and her forefinger, she brought into our view a bag of sliced turkey and stuffing, the stuffing molded into a strange, curved “Y” where the bag had been pressed between First One’s ass cheeks.
First One walked out.
Next One went into the bathroom. Swish of shed clothing.
“Whup…whup…whup. What do we have here?” Rosacea asked as she reached into the bathroom. Cupping it in her palms, she brought into our view a bag of cranberry sauce and stuffing, the sauce and stuffing molded into a maxi pad-shaped rectangle with a raised vein along the top of it where the bag had been pressed against Next One’s vagina.
Next One walked out.
Third One – who had worn her gloves into and out of the same room earlier – shuffled into the bathroom. Whoosh of shed clothing.
“Whup…whup…whup. Wait…Bend, squat and cough. Cough again. What the…?” Rosacea walked into the bathroom. Gingerly pinching it, she brought into our view a cigar-shaped tube because the stuffing had been stuffed, with fingers protected by the gloves. When she came out, Third One wasn’t even embarrassed that a C/O just pulled prison giblets out of her.
Fourth One – me – strode into the bathroom. Before shed clothes could sound, I said:
“I don’t have anything.”
“Not taking your word for it. Off,” Rosacea barked.
I took dropped my pants first since the nether regions were the prime parking space for holiday roast beast.
I took off my shirt. Mucous-looking poultry gravy streaked across my right boob. I stood in my bra, dropped drawers and boots.
“Boots and pants off all the way. Bra, too. You know the routine.”
I bent. I squatted. I coughed. Totally nude, I rotated around to show Rosacea I had nothing. She nodded to let me know I could re-dress.
“What’s the matter, Bozelko? Food not good enough in here for ya?”
“No, you go in and get the green beans/cheese/pudding,” they always say. Other inmates who’ve worked with me fear entering the refrigerators or freezers. The Brady Bunch episode where Greg and Bobby lock themselves in Sam’s meat locker might have scared me as a child but I saw that they got out within 30 minutes, so walking into one of the room-sized chambers of cool never bothered me. In the summer, heading in for a retrieval brought relief.
On a mayonnaise mission, the door closed behind me and I heard a thump. Thumps, bumps and crashes are common in a prison kitchen. When I pushed on the door with two gallons of mayo cradled in my arms, it barely budged. I pushed even harder but didn’t break through to more agreeable air. The supervisor had locked me in.
I hardly panicked but I did wonder how long it would take until someone realized I was missing. They’ll look for me in here, right? I devised scenarios whereby everyone might leave the kitchen in an emergency. Only two events empty a prison kitchen of all people: quitting time or a fire. It was early morning but… the ovens. I knocked and knocked against the noise of a busy industrial kitchen but no one heard. Am I getting scared?
I know fear of refrigeration restriction is not an official phobia because my thesaurus contains a list of them and, while knives (aichmophobia), lice (pediculophobia) and missiles (ballistophobia) have their own codified neuroses, freezers don’t appear on the list. Fear of cold (psychrophobia) and confinement (claustrophobia) cuddle next to each other on the phobia index; the others’ fear of being locked in a refrigerator constituted a combination of both. I assumed that anyone in sentenced to prison time would have conquered claustrophobia a few weeks in and started her work on agoraphobia. Perhaps not. Am I developing both of them now, too?
I have never been a phobia fanatic; I limit myself to one: fear of heights (acrophobia) probably because I’m so short. It set in when I was fifteen years old and vacationing with my parents and younger sisters in Rome. We scaled the steps to the walkway around the Sistine Chapel, the place that lets tourists see Michelangelo’s ceiling work up close. Clammy and quavering, I decided that being up that high was for the birds. I like to keep my head at around six feet off the ground which means I can still climb ladders without Sweaty, Queasy and Clammy jumping me.
They find me, though, when I go to court. I have a phobia of lawyers and judges now, cops too because, to me, they are swords, not shields> Maybe I do have aichmophobia because my heart races at the prospect of appearing before the swords. Maybe it is my acrophobia acting up in court; the judges’ egos are so overinflated and attorneys so high on themselves (and cocaine for a few of them) I feel wobbly looking down at myself from their perspective. I suppose these would be called adjudiphobia or counselphobia but they’re not phobias, probably because my fear is far from irrational. Fear has to be irrational to be a phobia.
A handful of guards are so quick to rage at an inmate that a hair trigger would slow them down. They berate and demean women, usually feast on an inmate’s physical disability or scars. It scares me when I walk down the walkway that I might have to watch how they treat weaker prisoners or how they chortle and chuckle at me. But I don’t think I have a bona fide phobia, just a conscience.
The door muffled the sound of fumbled keys and scraping metal. Then it opened to a stubby supervisor whose facial expression was half amusement, half mortal fear.
“Oh my God!” screamed one inmate.
“How did you…?” asked another.
“Ask to go to mental health and fall on the floor if [the supervisor] won’t send you!” ranted a third.
“I’m fine,” I shrugged. I was. I continued my work until the supervisor called me over to apologize for locking me in for 45 minutes, or so I assumed.
“I wanna show you something,” he explained as he led me back to my former tomb. “There’s this knob here.” He pointed to a tiny steel rectangle protruding from the wall. “If you get locked in, you just turn it and it unlocks the door.” He showed me how the bar of the door closure slides to open the portal even as a lock – one so mighty it would scare Houdini, David Blaine and Criss Angel even if they were working conspiratorially – remained tightly closed. “Just in case you get locked in again.”
“Well, why don’t you just put up a little sign that says ‘If you get locked in, turn this knob that way’ so everyone will know how to get out if they get locked in?” I asked him.
“Can’t do that. Then no one will be afraid to go into the refrigerator,” he explained, like fear is a requirement in here. Maybe it is.
Because women reportedly diffuse escalating situations better than men do and are involved in fewer shootings, thought leaders are suggesting that police departments are better off recruiting more women than men of color.
Forget in-like-a-lion, out-like-a-lamb. In prison, every March comes in with fish fryin’ and goes out without ham.
It’s always Lent during March and the dietary restriction of “NO MEAT” on Ash Wednesday and Lent’s Fridays switches up the menu. During these forty days, Catholic inmates become meticulous about what enters their mouths even if they never monitor what comes out.
Before Ash Wednesday, each Catholic inmate completes a form to declare that she needs “common fare” meals on Ash Wednesday. “Common fare” is just vegetarian. I’ve asked about the origin of the phrase but no one knows what it is. The best guess is that “common fare” is fare for commoners; i.e. people who cannot afford meat, so no meat in common fare. On Ash Wednesday, chicken salad gets swapped out for egg salad if Catholic inmates fill out the form and send it back to Deacon Dolan.
Deacon Dolan is as pro-practicality as he is pro-prisoners’ rights, positions that often clatter against each other. He dutifully collects the slips and turns them over to Food Services but even the Catholic chaplain thinks this procedure is unnecessary and the replacement protein needless. “Look,” he says, “if there’s meat on your tray on Ash Wednesday, just don’t eat it.”
I stopped eating the chicken salad a long time ago so the food-religion mashup doesn’t really affect me but working in food service I have watched supervisors plan the Frosted Flakes distribution and the kosher meals weeks, even months, in advance because one fuck-up can be a constitutional violation. As inmates unpacked the special shipment of matzoh and butter (where is that in the Torah?) for Passover, a high holiday I will miss because I’m out in a few weeks.
“You know, this is horseshit. I won’t be here another Passover so I’m saying something. I saw one of the Jewish inmates give her wine to a little Catholic lady who’s an alcoholic.”
“You snitchin’, B?” laughed Fowler.
“No. I’m just saying that this is not about religious practice, it’s about seeing what they can squeeze out of the system.”
“Stop, it’s their right,” Bengals warned me but I knew he agreed with me.
“It’s not their right to induce a relapse. The lady is convicted of murder.”
“Even the ones who murder, Chandra, get to celebrate Passover.”
“No. The little Catholic lady is here for murder. A murder she committed when she was drunk in a relapse,” I announced with my arms wide to show how right I was.
“So what are you saying?” Bengals was laughing at me because he knew I was spot on.
“I’m saying that grape juice is fine for women who kill people when they’re drunk.”
“You’ve spent some time thinking about this, I see,” Bengals observed.
“Of course I have,” I conceded. “And what’s the deal with the Frosted Flakes for Ramadan? What, Allah doesn’t like his children eating the plain cornflakes the rest of us eat so they get some with unhealthy sugar on them? Can’t face east to pray without a white confection in your stomach?”
“Bozelko, go load a kettle. You’re making me want to convert,” Green Bay waved me away.
“It’s horseshit, Green Bay,” I informed him.
“Who’re you tellin’? I’ve said that for 26 years,” he said. “Now load the goddamned kettle.”
Of course, litigation alleging First Amendment violations always follows food in prison. It was one of the reasons why Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1996. Inmates were filing 250 lawsuits a day, many times about these food-based religious practices, and they thought something had to be done, so they enacted a law that basically makes it impossible for an inmate even to file a federal civil rights claim. What are the chances of winning one of the suits if it can even get filed? Don’t make me laugh. I have cornflakes in my mouth.
I can name about 50 inmates who have written to outside agencies seeking assistance with a number of serious prison problems: lack of medical care, harassment, erroneous classification, and each received a form letter explaining that the agencies – ones allegedly devoted to helping prisoners – do not accept individual cases. I’ve seen it happen so many times that whenever an inmate says she will write to the ACLU, NOW, Amnesty International, I just tell her “Don’t even waste the envelope.”
The reason why they don’t take on inmate civil litigation is that it’s a losing game since the Prison Litigation Reform Act. If an inmate makes one mistake in exhausting his internal remedies (a requirement courtesy of the PLRA), then the case is as dead as the little Catholic lady’s victim. No lawyer will touch it no matter how much merit it has or how much the inmate needs assistance.
Over in one of the Connecticut’s men’s prisons, Corrigan-Radgowski, Inmate Howard Cosby can’t just not eat the meat. After sexually assaulting someone and receiving a nineteen-and-a-half year sentence for it, Cosby is now a practicing Buddhist committed to non-violence and cannot eat meat. When the kitchen services fish (lunch and dinner twice a week) Howard cannot eat it because fish have thoughts and feelings and are, therefore, meat.
Even though all of these advocacy groups deny that they accept individual cases, Howard Cosby seems like an individual case to me. Like his fish’s, Howard’s thoughts and feelings seem to matter more than female inmate’s whose civil rights undergo daily butchering. Aside from my question of who has interviewed fish to discern that they have thoughts and feelings, I would like to ask “What makes Howard so special?”
If Howard were a true Buddhist, a religion opposed to any conflict including litigation, he would already be practicing some humility, regardless of the menu’s offerings. But his insistence that his fish find replacement in something else gives off a strong aroma of arrogance. You’re not that special, Howard. Like Deacon Dolan said: just don’t eat the goddamned meat. Or fish. Or fish meat.
I am the head cook for most of the meals that are served statewide to prisoners. I wish they would call me as an expert witness in Cosby’s trial about what gets served to prisoners in Connecticut. My left hand on the bible, the book of roasted goats and bread on backs, I would attest to the fact that the fish in prison contains almost no fish, the fish patties contain barely a thought, maybe half a feeling; they are all crust, just like Howard Cosby.
Furthermore, I would continue to say that the only viable replacement for the fish is a veggie patty, which Cosby eats a couple of times each week anyway. Somehow I know, if he wins this case and he’s served veggie patties six to seven times a week, that he will complain that his common fare is too common, too routine and he has a constitutional right – no, a human right – to a diet that is less re-run and more refined. And some asshole advocacy group will take his new case while other prisoners hobble in pain because they can’t get their ACL’s repaired or are denied parole because of a clerical error on DOC’s part and miss their son’s graduation and no one helps them. And when Cosby’s attorneys win that case, they will learn that the only way for Howard to feast on a varied diet is to start eating meat again, like the cheeseburgers the Kosher inmates scarf down.
Substandard food is an essential ingredient to punishment. Undoubtedly prison diets should include more fresh vegetables and fruit, but they never will while the government devotes its resources to defending suits like CONS’ and Cosby’s. Prisoners try to re-write the recipe all the time, manipulating religion after sneering “I don’t eat that” at the meals, taking Deacon Dolan’s advice in the wrong amount. If they won’t eat it and they don’t eat it, then they shouldn’t eat.
It’s always the inmates who cannot afford much commissary that “just can’t eat” the standard issue meals and find some type of God. One three hundred pound homeless woman who lives in a cardboard box across from the Green in New Haven refuses to eat prison meals each time she’s been incarcerated during the last twenty years. She must have left a tin foil tiara back in the box because her princess performance is so perfected it must have been honed in a place where she can eat whatever thoughts and feelings she wants. She harasses everyone to buy her essential foodstuffs like “Whole Shabang” flavor chips (salt and vinegar plus barbeque flavors, together) and taco meat in a little metal bag because she “just can’t handle the chow hall food.” To get better food, “What religion I need to be?” she asked me.
I do not suggest that disadvantaged people deserve swill or to have their religious rights abridged but I doubt that her cardboard box has a cardboard stable out back to house a high-horse. If it did, PETA would take her case because of the fucking horse.
No inmate is too good or too pious to eat prison-prepared meals. Not me. Not the princess from the high-rise air conditioner crate, not Howard. All they need is to do like I do: avoid the food or plug their noses, choke it back and pray to God it doesn’t come back up. I did it at dinner tonight when they served a “veal patty.” Veal – in prison, no less -that not only contains no veal, but contains no meat. I guess the fish patty has more meat in it than the veal patty which is an absurd thought. Just hope I didn’t hurt the patty’s feelings.
Prison fare isn’t fair to anyone. People say it’s unidentifiable, but they’re wrong. I can identify all of it. It is mostly texturized vegetable protein (or ‘TVP’ to those in the know) either formed into soy-edified patties of various shapes and sizes or loose and sanguinous “slop,” which comes in different flavors and colors for each day of the week.
In prison, food is more than a pastime or a preoccupation; it is a passionate obsession for almost all of the inmates. I am not one of them. I do enjoy good food but I am not a picky eater. I have always seen food as nourishment, not a hobby, artistry or sport. Cereal for dinner or cold pizza for breakfast never left me dissatisfied.
This practical and measured approach to food distanced me from my immediate family for most of my life. They are foodies, live-to-eat people whose televisions are almost always tuned to the Food Network and who store Zagat’s guides to various regions next to their yellow pages. A conversation like the following is not unusual with my family:
“Hi Daddy. What’s new?”
“Well, Mommy had the butternut squash risotto at Scozzi’s tonight. She said it was pretty good, maybe had too much chicken stock in it. I had the osso bucco, which was delicious. The meat was very tender, almost fell off the bone. I had that sparkling water and Mom had a glass of wine; they have a seasonal thing going on there with wines from Connecticut. And we just stopped at a new cupcake place in West Haven on the way home. Just opened up. They have strawberry cupcakes. Mine wasn’t great.”
“O.K., well, good. That’s good. Glad you enjoyed it. Anything else going on?”
“No, why would there be?”
Obviously, food is paramount in my childhood home. So paramount that one night after my first arrest, my parents were convinced that a psychiatric evaluation would help me with my case. But rather than sitting their eldest daughter down and asking her to couch it with a shrink, my parents called 911, telling the dispatch operator that I wasn’t taking my psych medications.
They weren’t lying then; I was not taking psych medications because I had not been prescribed any. I learned exactly how this phony emergency transpired from an Emergency Room doctor after a fireman knocked down my door and drove me to Yale-New Haven Hospital. My parents weren’t there to tell me themselves. They had gone out to dinner at Lenny’s Indian Head in Branford after placing the 911 call. That night, their food-fix was more important than their first-born.
A similar isolation and resentment simmered in me when I met the culinary kookiness in prison. These women were more than die-hard foodies; they were die-for foodies. Abandoned by her husband at his drug dealer’s house as payment for some type of debt, one inmate had been beaten and raped days before she was arrested. She approached my cell door one day, her orbital socket fluorescent purple from bruising.
“I’m dying for something…. anything chocolate,” she whimpered at me.
It looked like she almost died from something else. “Is that all right?” I asked pointing to her eye.
“Oh, …yeah.” She touched her eye gingerly. “But I haven’t had, like, anything chocolate in, like, six months.”
“Well, if you got through six months without it, you can wait until you get your own bag,” scolded my roommate Sally’s voice from behind me. ‘A bag’ means different things to disenfranchised women. It can mean a baggie of heroin; it is often the luggage you pack when you move shiftlessly from place to place, sponsor’s apartment to stranger’s floor. On the inside, ‘a bag’ means a purchase from the prison commissary that sells hygiene items and junk food. Although strikingly pretty, Sally had a Body Mass Index of about 45. She liked bags of Now & Later candies. She liked a lot of them in the past six months.
One of probably hundreds of death ransoms presented to me by women who wanted a snack, this type of incident always pissed me off. It embarrassed me to see women behaving like this, so desperate and so desirous of such utter crap. Going out in search of food in such a debased way seemed so primitive, so carnal to me that I almost felt an evolutionary setback happening around me, putting homo sapiens back to times when the hypothalamus – the gland that controls one’s appetite – was so underdeveloped that it had to fire constantly to remind those cretins to keep eating in order to stay alive. They all couldn’t possibly be this hungry, I thought to myself, much like I thought at home.
I should have been more compassionate toward these women because the reasons for their behavior are multiple and sad. First, many women come to jail after prolonged “runs” – periods of occasional homelessness, probable substance abuse, definite chaotic behavior and absolute anorexia. They have, somewhat comfortably, not eaten a full or functional meal in months. Satiety is one of the few upsides of crack and heroin use and these women walk into prison after these runs with skinny, foal-like legs, drumstick arms and backs bumpy with ribs protruding.
Second, because drug use usually ceases in the relative safety of incarceration, another addiction often takes its place – an addiction to food. Many of the same behaviors associated with substance abuse rear themselves on the day that commissary bags fall into the inmates’ anxious clutches: stealing, secretive bingeing, lying, bargaining, prostituting and eschewing one’s usual responsibilities, even if those responsibilities are only to brush one’s teeth, wash one’s face and make one’s bed every day.
Lastly, as on the outside, food supplants boredom and feeds another addiction that has taken hold in many inmates’ lives: an addiction to excitement. Some people call this compulsion to look for drama in prison institutionalized behavior and I understand why. In a place where almost everything is rote, days get spiced by arguments and analysis about who’s eating what, with whom, how she got what she has and why she did/did not share her pile. The question of “What will I eat tonight?” could distract the most troubled inmate from her problems. Currency, banter, power plays and procrastination all spring from food in prison. It was so much like home I couldn’t stand it.
As expected, my mother was somewhat excited when she learned that I had been assigned to work in the prison kitchen with other inmates. “Are you learning something new about cooking at least?” she inquired hopefully. I burst her bubble when I told her that we only bake things off or boil bags of prepared food.
A prison kitchen is hardly a Mecca for culinary artists. It is a distribution center that the Department of Correction uses to meet its daily human rights obligation of feeding people who, at least for the lengths of their terms of confinement, are not going to enter a grocery store or restaurant. As you might guess, the impersonal and industrial tone of a prison kitchen does little to refine an inmate palate.
For example, “Chicken Sunday’s” offering, quartered chicken legs that swim and bob in grease, is a four-star favorite.
Another top pick meal, French toast, is bread sprayed with yellow and brown coatings to make it look like it was egg-battered and browned. These slices, served not with maple syrup but with “Pancake and Waffle Syrup” (the sticker on the bottle qualifies: “Assorted Syrups with Maple and Other Flavors”) draw big crowds, as do the ham “steaks” – chicken-based ham butchered one-quarter inch thick to reach “steak” status.
When the inmate kitchen workers have the opportunity to cook for themselves in the prison kitchen, rather than just finishing off some other kitchen’s work, cereals, breads, diced chicken and beef are elevated to gourmet status by dumping melted margarine, brown sugar and/or processed cheese food on them.
Fresh fruits, surprise pans of salad greens, or a real peach cobbler appear from time to time in the kitchen, proving that working in the main dining room of a prison had its perks. I would see the kitchen supervisors treat the more experienced workers to special selections – hand-cut French fries, béchamel sauce for whole-wheat pasta. Not really tempted by this more upscale food and totally disgusted by the prostrate acts of begging I had seen, I never asked to join in. Seeing these other workers receive a special benefit didn’t exactly anger me but I did vow, after witnessing a few others’ furtive feasts, that I would never take any of those benefits reserved for only a few inmates. Selective treatment like this seemed unfair to me, but this promise was no noble sacrifice. I would have been embarrassed to take food I did not even want, knowing that other inmates, some of whom were actually hungry, and others merely caught in the desperate game ofprison snacks and hungry for another type of satisfaction, could not partake.
One Sunday morning, as other inmate workers sat in the dining hall eating cake and oatmeal, I went back to the kitchen area for some paper towels. Ms. Badlee, the supervisor who affectionately forgets my name, asked me if I wanted some chicken. I expected the usual “Chicken Sunday” chicken and started to shake my head when my eyes followed her hand. She pointed to a big, artfully seasoned, perfectly glistening breast of chicken that had never seen a day inside an institutional freezer. Even from a distance I could tell that this breast had reached that ‘juicy but not greasy’ apex of poultry. Pure white meat waited underneath thin, crispy skin. Meat like this had not graced my spork in over two years. There was enough for only me and, according to my ethics, eating it was not fair, but, boy, was this some fare. I broke my contract with inmate egalitarianism and bit it.
“No, you gotta eat that shit up in the closet,” Ms. Badlee said, meaning the dry good storage closet just feet away from me. Ms. Badlee knew that my treat was unfair too, and she did not want the other inmate workers to see the chicken that they would not eat that day.
Hiding in a closet to eat something smacked too much of a bulimic binge, of the desperate and maladaptive behaviors associated with illicit ingestion. Even though every salt grain and pepper flake danced into position to highlight the pure chicken-y goodness of my snack, this was only chicken after all.
“In da clovet?” I asked incredulously, my mouth full.
“Yeah. I ain’t getting up to open no motherfuckin’ cooler” she replied, speaking of the only other viable hiding spot in the kitchen.
Desperate. Primitive. Primal. Carnal. I opened the closet door and stepped in.
I felt like Pee Wee Herman in a darkened theater: Just finish before they see you, I kept repeating in my mind. I didn’t close the door all the way so that it locked; that would have been a solid tip to any inmate that undetected food was afoot. Then, through the partial opening, came another worker’s voice.
“Because I need more brown sugar,” she defied one of the cooks who probably wanted to know why she was entering the closet. She opened the door halfway because she had paused, her stillness and stance a tacit question to the cook: “And what are you going to do about it?”
I weighed my options. I could put the chicken down – but where? – and offer to help my kitchen colleague retrieve the sugar, ushering her out so I could continue with my hidden pleasure. My presence in a darkened closet would trip serious silent alarms and other inmates would interrogate me ruthlessly for days as to what I ate and where I got it. So I jumped up on some uneven bags of Wheatena, quite skillfully I might add, one hand holding my chicken, the other placing light pressure on the door so it would not swing all the way back, my right butt cheek creased by a case of Sysco Imperial Sauerkraut. I held this painful position and never dropped the bird. My co-worker slipped out of the closet with her sugar and without seeing or smelling me.
They say it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that trips up perps, and I have quite a few friends and neighbors here in the prison who can attest to this canon of criminal enterprise. After I finished, I knew had to bury the bones. I could have abandoned them somewhere in the closet only to be found days later by some inmate nosing around the closet in an archeological expedition to find something to steal from the kitchen or a place to stash what had already been stolen. The same round of questions would pop up then and besides, it’s a totally institutionalized deed to leave detritus like that for someone else to clean up. Simply walking out with the bones hidden in my hand wouldn’t work either. How would I explain having to wash the grease off my hands? I spied a bottle of fruit punch concentrate. Grabbing a large plastic food cover (we call them ‘body bags’ here in the prison), I drizzled the sticky red liquid on to the plastic tarp and dragged my hands through the puddle.
“Who did this?” I demanded as I exited the closet, pinching the plastic bag between two fingers of my right hand and holding the sticky mess away from me. “You spilled juice and didn’t even clean it up? Who does that?” I shouted to no one. I looked over to Ms. Badlee’s desk to catch either a shared smile of complicity or a disappointed shake of her head. She was asleep.
‘Fine, I’ll take it outside,” I sighed and left for the dumpster, chicken bones hidden in my three clenched right fingers. I flung all of my evidence into the dumpster and held my soiled hands away from my even-more soiled shirt. Out! Out damn better-than-Sunday-Chicken grease covered with toxic juice syrup, I thought to myself at the small stainless steel sink. Lady Macbeth never scoured or scolded herself like I did because she was neverinstitutionalized. What the hell has become of me?