Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What foods do inmates eat in prison? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
Over the years I spent in Federal Prison, I learned that food was always a focal point of inmates concerns and contention. I had close to a year in city and county jails before being designated to prison. City and county jails are terrible and barely sustainable. Usually breakfast was cereal and milk. There is typically a restriction with respect to sugar because it is the main ingredient for making wine. I ate a lot of bologna and cheese sandwiches and beans, and little fresh fruit in jails.
Federal prison in MS was horrendous. Prior to arriving I had heard that the food would be bad, but I had no idea how bad it could be until I arrived. I took a one week job in the kitchen and saw firsthand what the saying “garbage in, garbage out” really meant.
Boxes of meat were labeled “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.” This is probably the only place where you will see that label; regardless, the food would end up on the serving line. Think about receiving the absolute worst cuts of meat, waste meat that looks so bad that it makes you nauseous to look at. Meat with veins and gristle is the norm. Fruit is close to expiration and the point where they would not be sold in a grocery.
In 2003 or 2004, things got so bad that it resulted in a peaceful riot and a two-week lockdown. The case was related to a warden who was understood to be diverting funds from food service to either his bonus or other places it was not supposed to go. Things were so bad in an already tough prison that inmates who were working in UNICOR organized and walked out.
This caused an immediate response by administration to lock down the prison. They put us in a two-week lockdown while our demands were negotiated. While we had little bargaining power, the administration made sure it was tough on us. They went through each unit and shook down all lockers, removing all food that had been bought off the commissary so that we could not eat out of our lockers. We were fed bologna sandwiches at each meal and restricted to no movement outside of our unit. Medical would come to units; all visitation was cancelled. After two weeks, the situation got the attention of DC and a negotiation was made to get UNICOR employees back to work and kitchen detail back in kitchen. The warden was replaced and we got a new warden, she was not much better, slightly better food for a moment at least.
There are a few ways that you can get around the poor quality of food. You can buy all your food off the commissary. This is expensive and most inmates can’t afford to do this. The benefit is you can eat somewhat healthy. You can purchase fresh fruit, some limited veggies and more hearty food.
If you have a religious excuse such as being Jewish, Muslim or other religion with dietary laws, you can qualify for common fare food. This is actually very healthy food and tastes good. It is ordered and comes frozen. Meals are heated and served along with fresh vegtables. It was interesting to see how prison populations grow with populations of Jewish inmates over the years. I thought it was awfully ironical to see members of Aryan Brotherhood and Neo Nazis who would sit at a table with common fare meals in front of them.
We would receive three meals a year which were actually decent. Christmas in Fed Prison meant a Cornish hen. As populations grew over the years, that was reduced to half a hen. We got one steak a year on New Year’s, but it was not edible. Imagine a steak so tough that it could not be chewed. On top of that we only had plastic knives to cut the meat so that meant it could not be cut We got ribs or BBQ on the 4th, with potato salad. On Easter, we would usually get fried chicken breast.
Every Wed in BOP was soy burger day. Thanksgiving we got a huge turkey leg. There was a common understanding that it was really an emu leg. I don’t know for sure, but it was so big it took up the entire tray. No exaggeration. It was greasy and nasty. Not really edible, but every year we got it.
Most fed prisons had salad bars with decent lettuce, carrots, chopped broccoli, and alfalfa and some others. This was actually the only place you could be served decent vegetables that were not on common fare. I use to pay an inmate on the kitchen detail a book of stamps a month to smuggle me out a plastic Coke bottle filled with white vinegar. I would then buy fresh garlic off the commissary and chop it up, add salt and pepper to make my own vinegar based dressing. It was not balsamic, but it was better than the fatty crap that came from the huge cans.
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