As evidenced by the smorgasbord of prison shows on television, inquiring minds want to know what prison (or jail) life is really like. While I wouldn’t claim to know the system at all levels throughout the various jurisdictions, I can certainly illuminate and enlighten when it comes to county (and specifically New York County) jail. In the coming posts, I’ll be doing just that…describing what life is really like on the inside. First up, prisoner cuisine.
A day in Tombs life begins at around 4:30 AM when the breakfast cart rolls in and anybody who wants to get up can chow down. We didn’t have clocks or watches (not allowed) during 9 PM to 5 AM lock-in, and so, I’d peer through the skinny translucent slat/window in my cell. And if I saw the light of day beginning to shine on the horizon, I knew 5 AM was nigh.
Breakfast is the worst meal in the joint. You might get a hard-boiled egg with no salt. Or other days could feature nasty grits or oatmeal. But the staple of the morning meal is cold cereal served in those little plastic boxes accompanied by a small container of either fat free or 1% milk. Thankfully, you could get two or even more of each. While the quality of jail food isn’t always the best, the quantity is surprisingly good. The Tombs also offers plain matzoh (yuk) or semi-stale whole wheat bread (all you want) for breakfast with grape jelly or pats of butter to smear on the side. I passed on that but learned quickly to grab multiple boxes of unfrosted shredded wheat when they were available – and extra milks and sugar packets (the shredded wheat has no sugar) which I would take back to my room and eat at my leisure. Breakfast also featured either bananas, oranges or apples. I was pleasantly surprised to see fresh fruit of a decent quality in the joint. Nobody’s gonna catch a case of scurvy.
If you’re not up and about by 5:30, breakfast is gone (though there could be a remnant or two in the form of a box of cereal or piece of fruit) and you have to wait until 11 AM when the lunch cart rolls in. Both lunch and dinner could be characterized as somewhat meat heavy. You might get turkey patties, or hot dogs, or meat pies, or fishcakes with tartar sauce depending on the day. Horrible warmed over/overcooked canned vegetables are offered on the side. And usually, there will be fresh shredded cabbage (or sometimes cooked) with no dressing. Just dry roughage which if you’re smart, you’ll combine with the meat in some way so you can take a decent crap. I was constantly mindful of getting enough fiber in my diet. And jail food actually enabled me to do that even if odd combinations were the order of the day. For that I was thankful. Beverage-wise, some sort of kool-aid was it unless you preferred water. Inmates loved that kool-aid crap. They’d fill one and two liter bottles with the liquid junk to take to their rooms. Mostly, I passed and drank water.
At 4 PM, the dinner cart arrived. Dinner and lunch were mostly interchangeable though the “evening” meal would be a bit heavier. Turkey stew, beef stew and dark meat baked chicken were the treats most inmates liked. The quality of the meat and preparation was surprisingly tasty by me. As with lunch, shitty canned vegetables and raw roughage came as sides. Whole wheat bread with butter (but not jelly) were always available for consumption in mass quantities at all meals – not just breakfast. Seconds were offered as well. If you like to stuff your face, you can at the Tombs. And I should mention that guys can sign up for kosher or halaal meals. These were smaller packets for those who chose but appeared to be of a higher quality than the regular food. Mixing and matching was not the order of the day as special cuisine came through marked with the inmate’s name who had ordered the custom grub.
Despite the surprisingly varied selection and quantity of what was offered, many inmates bought extra foodstuffs at the commissary. Chips, trail mix, slim jims, mackerel packets and especially, ramen noodles were most popular with the boys. There are no microwaves in the Tombs. But there is a hot water spigot (boiling hot). Guys would acquire plastic bags from somewhere. Then they’d stomp on the ramen to break up the packet…pour the noodles into the bag…fill the bag with hot water…and then shake for a minute or two. And voila…ramen noodles! Seemed weird to me but take my word for it, lots of the guys were down with the college cuisine.
So there it is…food in the joint. Having dined on multiple shelter meals in the past few years, what was provided posed no problem for me. Some of it I actually liked – and was offered so much that I’d have to be mindful not to overeat. Sometimes, I’d get extra and give it to a big fat guy I’d befriended. The first day back from The Tombs I really didn’t eat much. Having consumed so much turkey stew the night before, it was time to give my gut a rest.
Granted, I’m not a foodie and I’m sure some people in the “civilized” world would have found the food in jail horrific. But if I were to grade what the Tombs fed me, I’d give the food an A- for quantity and a C+ for quality. Just not that bad. There were phases of jail life I didn’t like. But the cuisine was not one of them. I could live on jail food on the outside indefinitely – and actually have for the past few years (in the form of shelter food). So I was prepared. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll address the demographic of inmates and corrections officers. That should be of interest.