29 September 2014

Good Eats

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culinaryboner-thumb-250x240 (2)

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.

Dinner has been served
Dinner has been served

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?”

Call an ambulance, quick. Chandra's been arrested.
Call an ambulance, quick. Chandra’s been arrested.

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.

Sometimes Lenny gets more attention than Chandra does
Sometimes Lenny gets more attention than Chandra does

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.

Purchases limited to five bags per week
Purchases limited to five bags per week

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.

This is what the commissary fuss is about: the ability to make a papa (crushed potato chips mixed with squeeze cheese and hot water, smeared into a paste and filled with tuna or chicken)
This is what the commissary fuss and fights are about: the ability to make a papa (crushed potato chips mixed with squeeze cheese and hot water, smeared into a paste and filled with tuna or chicken)

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.

One in their collection
One in my parents’ collection

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.

Chicken Sunday at York was greasier
Chicken Sunday at York was greasier

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.

The yellow is not egg
French Toast: the yellow is not egg

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.

Steakhouse
Steakhouse

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.

Eating in prison is like rush week - until your initiation, your starve
Eating in prison is like rush week – until your initiation, your starve

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.

This was some fare...
This was some fare…

“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?”sauerkraut

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.

CO-DEFENDANT
CO-DEFENDANT

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.Out-damned-spot

‘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 never institutionalized. What the hell has become of me?

 

 

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22 September 2014

Covering the Spread

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hot sauce

 

I was reading the New York Times, a hand-me-down copy that arrives to its first reader about a week after publication because of mail-room processing. The section with their blurby stories contained a prison ditty: a warden and a guard at Sampson Correctional Institute in North Carolina forced inmates to simulate sex acts and to rub hot sauce on their own genitals. They’ve been suspended. The staff members, not the genitals.

Like any other prisoner who caught this news tidbit, I felt strongly about victimization of persons similarly situated so I decided to take action, proactive steps toward protecting myself. I bought only non-caustic condiments by bubbling in the circles next to ketchup and ranch dressing on my commissary form and avoided a Louisiana hot sauce purchase. I won’t let my supplies meet the guards’ demands.

I doubt that abuse’s presence in prisons would shock anyone on the outside if the prison guard stereotype has taken hold in their heads. The traditional cinematic depiction of a correction officer is male, a dick (untouched by Tabasco) discompassionate at best, outwardly cruel at worst. The stereotype didn’t come from nowhere; no prisoner leaves custody without a taste of abuse by guards, be it verbal, emotional, sexual or physical. The abuse may not be directed at one person but rather the whole prison population, but it’s still there.

My commissary order...
My commissary order…

From what I have witnessed, I conclude that the prison guard occupation attracts two types of people. First, the vocation calls the LSE crowd (low self-esteem), those who have been bullied and abused themselves. They have allowed their own victimization to contour their character and ambition. These qualities found expression in jobs were they could wield power over others whom they would perceive as weaker than they. When I watch these guards interact with prisoners, spewing utter disgust, incessant degradation and put-downs, filled with rage up to the razor wire, I want to ask them: “When you decided to become a guard you did know that you might come into occasional contact with a prisoner, no?” Some correction officers act like they were working on Wall Street and the warden plucked them off the trading floor to baby-sit women in prison when, in fact, theirs are positions they sought, that they covet, because they can mistreat the less powerful.

The other correction contingent comprises itself of true public servants. They choose to spend eight to sixteen hours every day sitting with the people whom no one in society wants around. They expose themselves to sundry hazards- namely us- because they believe that, regardless of what someone might have done, abuse is never part of a prison sentence.

Prisoners live out most of their days between these two extremes of supervision. Sometimes the two types of guards cancel out the others’ effects; sometimes they just temper each other so that any inhumanity or lack thereof loses its impact. But the worst type of abuse that spins out of the ying and yang of the prison guard corps is indifference. The indifference, though not explicit, is not subtle either. The staff here often make sure that inmates know that they don’t matter.

In the precipitory prelude to Blizzard Charlotte’s dumping twelve-plus of the wet, packed stuff on the state, a woman in the prison cafeteria began to seize. When a guard saw her convulsion start, he followed protocol and asked her “Ma’am, are you all right?” when he knew that she was not. Then he announced a “code white”- a medical emergency- on the prison compound’s radio waves. Nurses, lieutenants and other guards ran into the dining hall as they have been trained to do.

... with nothing hot ordered
… with nothing hot ordered

As medical personnel tended to the prisoner, one lieutenant- a female with the face of Karl Malden – blasted the guard right in front of the inmates as we ate breakfast. Public castigation of staff is a rare and rightfully so because it starts rumors and marks the guard as a soft target for false complaints, but the lieutenant still yelled at the guard that he should not have declared an emergency like that, not in a way that would make prison employees run in slippery weather to care for an inmate, ill or not.

“They can fall and she will survive a seizure!” the lieutenant shrieked at the guard, her implication clear to her inmate audience: You don’t matter. She would have allowed the inmate to seize the whole day long as long as none of the non-inmates remained safe. I wanted to remind her that it was possible – even obligatory – to keep everyone on the compound healthy. She didn’t really have to choose.

If harm had actually come to the prisoner from unintentionally slamming her head on the linoleum during her spell, I don’t doubt this lieutenant would have twisted the language in any incident reports to defend a guard’s inaction or blame delayed response on the snow. I guess there’s no harm in foul weather.

Learning that you do not matter is probably the most devastating abuse that a prisoner endures and it’s totally contrary to rehabilitation. A woman’s knowing that she has a positive value in others’ eyes enables good behavior; she trusts the environment that assigned her this importance and acts accordingly. She knows that she will lose her value through bad behavior but if she works to maintain others’ estimation of her, she will keep her position and increase her own value.

When women feel devalued wantonly, they distrust their environments and start believing that continued proper behavior will not protect them in the long run. The flip side to this distrust is that they convince themselves that proportional punishment will not follow bad deeds; somehow feeling devalued makes women think that they can get away with anything, so they bust rules, break the law and end up in prison at the mercy of guards undergoing the same phenomenon because they were somehow devalued when they were young.

Two days after the seizure in the chow hall, I learned my precise value to a group of guards. Charlotte had coated the prison buildings and the ground with a thick, glittery enamel in white.  A co-worker in food prep and I walked back to our respective housing units after our shift. Five guards packed snowballs and threw them at our backs when we passed, betting which guard could hit one of us ‘mates.

snowballs

 

“More points for the little one. She’s harder to hit,” one called out. I was the “little one.”

“The big one’s hard to hit. She’s not walking a straight line,” another guard yelled about my co-worker, who is not big.

“Do these people know that there are criminals up in this motherfucker?” she asked me, referring to the inmates in the prison and expressing her understandable desire for revenge. Her message was clear: We may not matter to you but we outnumber you and many of us have no consciences at all.

Icy ball after icy ball detonated on gritty pavement around us and we scrunched our necks down each time like the scaredy-cat shoulder move would protect us. We had no choice but to keep walking as they bombed us – it would be misconduct even to turn around. Yet not one snowball hit either of us and I doubted that these were intentional misses. They didn’t become guards because they were good athletes.

“I’d love to force them to rub hot sauce on their balls,” I said referencing the Times’ blurb I had read. I forgot that my co-worker had not been exposed to the news tidbit about the warden and guard in North Carolina.

“Wow. You’ve never even been in a fight, right? I didn’t know you were that gangsta,” she said, nodding her head, half-impressed and half-assessing just how crazy I was after the spontaneous hot sauce plan.

“Well,” I said, “I’m learning.”

crochet gangster
I like to write about what happens inside prisons and sh*t, too.

 

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15 September 2014

The Next Fire

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Lillian often drew pictures for the guards, the lieutenants. They were actually pretty gracious about accepting her colored-pencil renderings of houses, flowers and Willie the Wonder Pig because they knew she suffered from physical, mental and neurological disabilities.

I assumed that her constellation of conditions was the reason why they placed Lillian in a cell with me. Whatever animosity lingered between me and the staff did not matter; they knew that I would never exploit another inmate, particularly one with her abilities. When she moved in, she said she would be going to court soon – as she was still unsentenced – and hopefully go home that day, sentenced to time served, a total of one year.

“What exactly is your charge?” I inquired, typical intro cellmate crap.

“Arson One. I burned down a mill in Norwich,” she said, a little too brightly. She had lit aflame a historical landmark, an empty mill.

The Capeheart Mill as it burned
The Capeheart Mill as it burned

“Oh, okay,” I said. What else could I say?

On a Thursday morning she packed her property to go to court but left me a note and two of her drawings in case she never returned. One, a drawing of a correction officer dubbed “DIKHED,” was placed atop another with the cipherous title “My Next Fire,” which I can best describe as a contemporary landscape, an entire village being eaten by flames. The stick figure populace was doing various things: dying, falling out of windows of burning buildings, lying on the ground with broken necks, driving ambulances and hearses, digging graves, fleeing structures ready to collapse from fire.

“Oh, okay,” was all I could say about it. Until two days later when an overnight guard asked me about her as I left the building for breakfast.

“So ya miss your roommate, Bozelko?” He knew her from before York, when he worked security at a hospital where she was a patient.

I shrugged. Telling the truth would make me speak ill of other inmates to the correction officers which I don’t like to do because it fuels their fire.

“Can you believe that judge have her a year for the mill?” he huffed.

“Yes. Yeah, I can believe that.”

“What’s the bastard gonna say when she does it again?” he wondered out loud.

My Next Fire.

“B, can I show you something?” I asked him and read sudden anxiety on his face. I believe he thought when I asked to show him something it was some kind of sexual overture or, even worse, an attempt at friendship and camaraderie between two equals who were clearly not.

“No. Not like that,” I told him, swinging my hands in the universal You’re way off sign. “It’s something she left for me. I didn’t know if I should report it or not.”

“What the hell is it?”

“A picture of a fire.”

“Get it.”

I ran to my cell, grabbed the ‘DIKHED’ and ‘My Next Fire’ and ran downstairs. B scanned and paused. Picked up the phone receiver.

“I’m calling a lieutenant. Will you tell whoever comes over what happened?”

“Yeah, but…it’s all there. She went to court and left me the note and the drawings. That’s it.”

“OK. I’ll let you know if someone wants to talk to you.”

Apparently no one wanted to talk to me because I heard nothing until I saw B on the walkway a few weeks later.

“Whatever happened with that picture?”

“Fucking lieutenant. She wouldn’t do shit about it. She said because the picture wasn’t signed by her, by the “artist.” She even said ‘how do we know Bozelko didn’t draw it to set her up?’”

I laughed because that would be so like me, torching shit and then cartooning it.

“Yeah that’s what I said,” B agreed. “The handwriting and the people drawing match all the scribbles she hands out to staff but the LT wouldn’t do shit about it.” I knew the lieutenant he named. She’s a royal bitch and, if the next fire proved anything, a work-shy bitch, too.

“So she didn’t file a police report or anything?” I asked B who was muttering something about lazy cunts.

“No.”

“Then what’d she do with it?”

“Threw it away,” he announced.

“You’re kidding me.”

“Nope.”

“Oh, okay,” I told him. What else could I say?

I almost forgot about My Next Fire until my next encounter with B when his rotation schedule brought him back into my housing unit about six months later.

“Bozelko, you know your cellie’s back.”

“Of course she is,” I conceded. York’s recidivism rate close to 90%, so I hear that all the time. “Which one? Who exactly are we talking about?” He told me it was Lillian.

“My Next Fire?”

“Yep. Burned down the facility where she was living. It’s like a bunch of small buildings.”

A village.

“Was anyone hurt?” I asked, shocked, a little.

“No, but a bunch of the other residents living with her lost their housing. Almost a million in damages.” B informed me as he took the three o’clock headcount.

“And that lieutenant never told the police anything about the drawing, did she?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“No, but I did. I called a buddy of mine who’s a State Trooper and told him. They picked her up two days ago.”

Now Lillian sits here and will likely serve fifteen years. Like mine, her parents are elderly and they will probably pass before she leaves. People have little sympathy for her but feel for her parents. Their pain, like the fire, was totally preventable. If only the lieutenant made a report, maybe someone would have kept better watch on Lillian and she never would have found that lighter. Maybe Lillian would have been unable to force people into homelessness, would have been unable to burden arson investigators with more work, would have kept an insurance adjuster from cutting a big check. Maybe with a bit more supervision before her next fire -once the lieutenant had reported it – Lillian would be OK right now. Instead, she’s here. Again. And all of it could have been stopped because she telegraphed her next offense and everyone with the power to prevent was too unconcerned to do anything about it.

Again
Again

I rarely see Lillian but when I do, she has a drawing in hand, approaching a guard, thinking everything is going to be fine and she will be out soon. She won’t. I don’t know if anyone told her but she’s as destroyed as the village.

“Chandra! I wanna be your roommate again! I’m gonna talk to a lieutenant about it!” she shouted and waved to me as I passed her on the walkway returning from work.

“Oh, okay. We’ll see,” I assured her. I think I’ll be gone before the lieutenant can arrange it.

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