Food behind bars

Welcome to Prison Week at Irony or Mayo, where I'm celebrating my 12th anniversary of correctional librarianship with a look at my life in the clink.

If there's a topic of the prison conversation that civilians really tend to get interested in -- to say nothing of bridging my two professions -- it's the subject of food in prison. People want to know what the food is like, if I've eaten seg loaf, if prison wine'll be involved; it gets people talking.

A few months back, the institution where I work went into a planned lockdown. No big threat or escape attempt, just an institution-wide property check/contraband search. When these things happen, obviously, the library is shut down. And as with all my non-uniformed coworkers, I was retasked elsewhere in the facility.

I drew one of the housing units -- the one facing the big open field, if you're following along on Bing Maps (yes, Bing). That's actually not as big and open a field anymore, because the new food services building takes up about a quarter of it. And that's where I drew my assignment; I'd be working to assist housing unit staff with the breakfast and lunch service.

On most of the housing units, there's a little servery and seating area. Hot food is brought by inmate workers to each unit, and inmates from that unit work the servery to hand out meals. But when everyone's restricted to their cells, it falls to staff. So a social worker and I donned hair net and gloves, and in short order (heh), we had our routine down pat for the breakfast service.

That day's breakfast was biscuits and gravy, with big, flat biscuits that looked more like scones and a light sausage pepper gravy with bits of green and red bell pepper as well -- a little Southwesterny. The biscuits had a nice buttery flavor, kind of powdery, but generally satisfying. 

It's pretty funny to knock on the doors and see the guys' faces when they realize it's the librarian bringing them room service. A few would chat, but for the most part it wasn't too far from the mens' room "no sustained eye contact" rule. (Sorry ladies, if this one's lost on you.) 

After we picked up trays and trash, and had the opportunity to grab a bite ourselves, it was basically almost time to start lunch prep. This was my first time running a professional-style dishwasher/sanitizer, as well as those hanging high-pressure sink extensions.  Felt like a lowly prep cook, so now I can start working in restaurants, right? (No.)

It was chicken stir fry for lunch, and this was a less impressive meal. To begin, it was served over Spanish rice. Not, like, an unpardonable sin, but a choice that smacks of using up the last of something. The stir fry itself was pretty gloopy, too wet and not thickened at all, really. And on the unimaginative front, the broccoli-heavy stir fry was served alongside...a scoop of even more broccoli. Flavor was okay, but the chicken had some gristly bits. Not a prison meal I'd look forward to on the monthly menu.

The most disappointing part of these two meals, however, was how much of it went uneaten by the inmates. I feel like a lot of the refusal is attitude-based, and there's part of me that doesn't blame them. But they also have access to packaged and processed foods sold through the canteen system, and Cup Noodles and Honey Buns are the fast food of the realm.

I couldn't tell you how other states do it, or even how bigger institutions in Wisconsin do it, but at my facility, a lot of food is prepared in-house; in fact, a lot of it is grown in-house, as we have ample garden space inside and outside the fence. The operation is probably closer to the Jamie Oliver model than most elementary schools, and the food's not bad at all. If only the inmates were as willing to try it as I was when was on lockdown.