Ah, I remember the days when I could eat whatever I wanted: Denny’s Grand Slam for breakfast, a cold Subway pastrami sandwich for lunch, a juicy Carl’s hamburger with crispy fries for dinner. Delicious home-made Italian pizza for Monday night football. Mom’s beef stew for that special occasion.
You probably take the freedom to choose what you want to eat for granted. With a touch of the phone button, you can order Domino’s pizza, home delivered. A stroke of a keyboard, you can order groceries, home delivered. You can page a male or female escort to come to your home and prepare a meal. Hey, that’s a million-dollar idea!
As a prisoner, my meals are free. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) gets a daily budget of $2.25 to feed me three meals. What kind of quality of food do you think that can buy?
From watching too many Hollywood prison movies, I always thought convicts were fed just bread and water. When I first stepped foot into prison and read the chow hall menu, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!
Monday night dinner — Chicken Fried steak. Tuesday night — Chicken Alfredo. Wednesday night — Chicken Quarters. When the guard announced over the loudspeaker, “Gentlemen, it’s CHOW TIME!” I found myself salivating over the prospect of a tasty meal, but boy, was I in for a surprise.
In 1995, I was housed in the maximum security LEVEL IV New Folsom prison in Represa, Calif. The majority of convicts there were serving life, or life without parole, sentences. As a result of the facility housing the “dangerous convicts,” the structure of the building was designed with security in mind. One guard stood behind an enclosed glass cubicle punching buttons on a control board. Another guard in the cubicle constantly pointed a rifle out a port-hole toward any inmates who were let out. During chow release, only eight cells were opened at a time, so just 16 inmates could exit and walk into the dayroom area. As the cell door racked open, my cellmate and I exited and walked into the dayroom area to hang out until the door which led to the chow hall opened.
That night the meal was Chicken Fried Steak.
“Hey, Joker, why is that guard pointing a rifle at us?” I asked with naive curiosity of a first termer inmate.
“Hey, Holmes, that’s his job. Sometimes shit jumps off in the chow hall, so they are ready to fire a bullet to break up any incident.
“You serious? You ever seen them actually use the rifle?”“Yeah, Holmes, about two weeks ago a white boy shanked another white boy in the neck for a drug debt. He wouldn’t stop so the guard fired a bullet into his leg. The bullet richocheted and hit a paisa in the arm.” I felt frightened, yet I didn’t show it. Joker was a 25-year-old Chicano from San Gabriel Valley. He sported his best prison blues, pressed, with state boots that had a tough, glossy mirror shine to them. Most Chicanos dressed this way to chow, as an expression of pride in oneself.
“Hey, Holmes, when the door opens,” he warned, “wait for the others, let the mayates go first.” We waited for the other two Chicanos to come toward us. I learned that when you walk to chow, you stick with your own race. The reason is because when you sit down after you get your tray, it is “controlled movement,” and you must sit at the next available open table, where a seat is open.
As the chow hall door opened, we walked in a single file line, following the four black inmates the Chicanos call mayates. The chow hall was one cavernous rectangular structure with about 16 stainless steel tables which seat four people. On both sides of the chow hall there was a guard inside a glass cubicle pointing a rifle at us. Behind a cafeteria style glass barrier, a row of four convict kitchen workers moved each tray along, asking if we wanted a certain item on the menu that day.
Joker spoke to his Chicano homie kitchen worker: “Hey, Holmes, hook me up, eh, with some extra rice, forget the chicken.”
The worker, nicknamed Termite, took a fork and held up a chicken patty, saying, “Hey, Homie, come on, you know you want it.” And he laughed as if he’d just heard a good joke.
“You ain’t right, dog,” Joker answered. “Come on, Homie, give me some doubles on that rice.”
As we moved down the line, we picked up our trays and used a water dispenser to pour cold water into our state-issued plastic mugs, then followed the black inmates in front of us toward a table to sit down. Joker and I sat down at the next available table. One of the Chicanos who walked with us ended up sitting with the last black inmate in line, filling up that table. Our table had an empty seat and was soon filled by an elderly black inmate.
Hungry, my mouth watering, I grabbed a plastic state-issued fork and cut one piece off the chicken patty, tasting it. I couldn’t help but spit it out into my napkin.
“Fuck! That shit is nasty. What is it?” I asked in a disgusted tone of voice, feeling nauseous.
Joker was laughing. “It’s mystery meat. My homie says that shit comes in a box that says, ‘For institutional use only.’ He says that the stray cats that come around don’t even eat it. That’s why I always ask for extra rice.”
“Damn, why didn’t you tell me, you ain’t right!”
“Everyone is different, Homie — what’s one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
He was right. Seconds later, the elderly black convict, who had to be in his early 70s, asked, “Can I have it? I’ll eat it.”
I shoved my tray closer to his tray and he scooped up the patty with his fork. He sprinkled salt and pepper on it, and ate it as if it was a juicy, tender sirloin from a gourmet restaurant. He even turned to the table next to us and obtained other inmates’ patties.
There wasn’t much to the dinner: Mashed potatoes and gravy, a thin slice of cornbread, and Jello for dessert. I was still hungry.
We were rushed and ordered by the guards to finish this gourmet treat within 7 minutes. You’re not allowed to get up and leave on your own. A guard stands by each table and all four men must get up and dump their trays, and only eight inmates are allowed out of the chow hall at the same time.
When it was our turn, as we walked back to the dayroom, Joker nudged me. “Hey, Holmes, check this out. You don’t ever share your food with any mayate. That old man should have known better than to ask you. You could be checked for doing that.”
“What do you mean by checked?” I asked.
“There is a code behind these walls, prison politics. We always follow it and you always stick to your kind. You don’t drink, eat, smoke, don’t share anything with them. You could be beat up or stabbed for doing such a thing.”
Tuesday night meal: Chicken Alfredo.
I expected something like a dish from the Olive Garden in San Luis Obispo. Turned out to be watered-down noodles with chopped up mystery meat.
Wednesday night meal: Chicken Ala King.
Looked exactly like the night before.
Thursday night meal: Chicken Adobo. Friday night: Kung Poo Chicken. Saturday night: Chicken Wings. Sunday night: Chicken Quarters.
I once read that eating too much chicken causes impotence. I began to think that perhaps all this chicken was a substitute for saltpeter — to keep men from waking up with “morning wood.”
A decade later, in 2006, we are only getting chicken meals about three times a week I’ve worked my way down to Soledad Prison, a level II minimum security facility, due to being disciplinary free. No more guards with rifles pointed at me during chow. Less prison politics. I can eat at any table I choose, as long as it is the area designated free for Latinos. I can take my time and eat without being told when I have to get up and leave. Convicts no longer serve chow in front of you. They are all behind a steel barricade and shove out trays of food on a conveyor line. You pick it up out of the hole at the end of the line.
There’s a new mystery meat with different names.
Monday night — Corsican Sausage. Tuesday night — Salisbury patty. Wednesday night — Roast Turkey. Thursday night — Roast Beef.
Since you can’t ask a homie any more for extra rice or extra something else, I’ve been stuck eating the mystery meat. I’ve found that mixing it with the rice or potatoes, sprinkling a little pepper and salt, and pouring a little hot sauce on it adds some flavor.
After a decade of prison “conditioning,” I’ve found myself walking to chow when I’m not even hungry. Like in the movie, “Rain Man,” starring Dustin Hoffman as an autistic man, when it’s a certain time, I eat at that time because I’m institutionalized. I’ve also noticed that other inmates are institutionalized in their own ways.
“Alfredo, why are you taking that meat with you in that plastic baggie?”
“I’m going to mix it with a Top Ramen soup,” he replied with the pride a master chef takes in his work.
I turned to another inmate. “Ricardo, why do you buy all that extra state-issued meat from the kitchen worker after he gets off his shift?”
“I’m gonna make burritos with it, Homie.”
As I went to dump my tray contents into the trash, a white inmate, a veteran lifer, scoops up my meat and the meat off other trays. “Hey, Bruce, why do you eat that garbage off people’s trays?”
“Afer twenty five years in the cage, it all tastes the same. I never go to sleep hungry. I’ll put some of this meat between slices of bread from today’s lunch. I’ll tell you a story. When I was free, I was homeless. The best food you could find was in a Taco Bell trash bin around midnight.”
Over the years, due to budget constraints, the quality of food provided by the CDCR to inmates has gotten worse. We used to get three hot meals a day. Today, we get two hot meals and a sack lunch. The lunch contains a mystery meat which stinks; not even the cats and seagulls will eat it, and they normally eat anything.
To appease prisoners, they allow us to purchase food items at the prison canteen once a month and provide forms to order food items from outside-approved vendors in 30-pound boxes every three months.
We can even buy hot pots to use to cook. From a crafty inmate, you can even obtain a “hot plate” to fry food in.
Ordering food from vendors or at the prison canteen has become big business. If a prisoner has money, he certainly has a choice in what to eat every night. If a prisoner is poor, he has nothing coming. He must eat chow hall food.
Into my 13th year of imprisonment, I’ve noticed a major change in my life. My circle of friends in free society has dwindled. I’m usually broke, struggling to accumulate canteen items so I don’t have to go to chow. I earn only $15 a month from my prison job as a landscaper. I spend it all, every penny.
One thing is always certain in the lives of prisoners — when the bell rings for chow, a hot meal will always await us.
And it doesn’t matter what the menu says, whatever mystery meat it is, it all tastes the same — it’s processed in a prison somewhere in the state, made especially for our salivating taste buds.
Written by Tito David Valdez Jr. while doing time in California.