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Florida Update From the Inside: Prison Dining: An Unenthusiastic Experience

David M. Reutter, Feb. 16, 2021.

Sitting down to eat a meal has various meanings and purposes. Grabbing something at a favorite fast-food outlet allows us a quick meal to satisfy a growling stomach or maybe to enjoy a greasy pleasure. Meals at home with family can strengthen relationships and celebrate culture. Good food nourishes our body and makes us feel good about life. The positive relationship with food is something that is denied to prisoners.

Prison schedules revolve around “chow time.” The most asked question in prison is, “What’s for chow?” That question is asked throughout the day and is heard before every meal except breakfast. That exception exists because, in Florida at least, the same breakfast menu is served every day of the week.

When it comes to lunch and dinner, the menu is a four-week cycle. Every meal is offered at least twice a month but most are offered every week, just on different days. At first glance, the menu appears to provide appetizing offerings to the prisoner population. The reality is starkly different.

Cheesy meat casserole brings visions of noodles and meat smothered in cheese. The reality is a ladle full of overcooked noodles with bits of meat and some half-prepared powered cheese. One would think that peanut butter and jelly is something one could look forward to. After all, how can you screw that up?

Easily, it turns out. To save on jelly, the peanut butter and jelly is placed in a mixer. “I couldn’t eat more than a bit,” said Nanyelis, a University of South Florida student who served as an intern for the Sumter Correctional Institution (SCI) Lifers Program. “The texture of the peanut butter was very pasty and chewy, not what you usually expect when eating peanut butter.”

Chili Mac appears on the menu three times a month. It is a “mix of macaroni and chili meat,” said Emily, a USF Lifers intern. “The food was tolerable, but the quality and taste was not something one would be enthusiastic to eat day in and day out.”

Food quality and taste are based in preparation. While prison officials buy the lowest-quality products in most cases to meet budgetary deficiencies, the outcome of the product placed on a tray and pushed through the food service window hinges upon how that meal is prepared.

Seasoning is one of the most expensive items in food preparation, so it is often one of the first casualties. Then too, because some prisoners have medical issues that require low-sodium intake, salt and butter are not used during cooking. Adding seasonings that add spice to a meal can result in a grievance from prisoners who dislike spicy food. Prisoners cannot even spice their meal up because prison rules prohibit bringing into the chow hall seasoning packs or condiments bought in the canteen.

Even the simplest thing to cook can turn into mush. Recently, SCI received a large load of broccoliand cauliflower. Fresh vegetables, yes. But when it appeared, the reality of prison cooking was evident. Those vegetables were placed in a pot and boiled to a pulp. These once nutritious vegetables not only became unpalatable, but all the taste and nutrients had been boiled out as well.

Repetition is probably one of the most dispiriting aspects of a prison menu. Beans are a constant. More constant is that you may be served black beans for months on end before it changes to pinto beans for the next six months.

Those who eat Kosher meals endure the most repetition. Every morning they receive a paper bag with a one-ounce bowl of cereal, two slices of bread, a packet of peanut butter, two jelly packs, two sugar packets, a “breakfast drink” packet, and a packet of decaffeinated coffee.

Lunch and dinner bags contain one of two cold offerings. One meal offers two slices of bread, a sandwich bag full of chopped cabbage, a Styrofoam cup of beans, and a banana. The next meal provides eight saltine crackers, a sandwich bag full of chopped carrots or cucumbers, a Styrofoam cup of beans, and either a packet of tuna, mackerel, or smoked sardines. Everything in these bags is served cold.

In recent years, the food service offerings in Florida have taken a turn for the better. The awfulness of the regular meal offerings pushed many prisoners to Kosher meals, which cost $4.50 or more per day as opposed to about $1.84 per day for the regular meal line.

Before the change, mystery meat was a staple. Meat patties became known as “fart patties.” The meat in other mixtures was labeled “fart meat.” The “meat” was really a high soy mixture with some turkey mixed in. It caused a nauseating gas, and prisoners with other eating options took them.

Now the menu offers 100% beef patties each week, breaded fish patties, and soy meat mixtures have been removed from the recipes. While the ingredients have taken a turn for the better and many prisoners have abandoned the Kosher line to get a regular tray, the preparation still makes these meals less than desirable. But a prisoner has to eat, and eating out of the canteen is both expensive and unhealthy. So, eating what is offered in the chow hall is often the only or best option.

The atmosphere inside the chow hall makes one unenthusiastic about the venture. Chow halls are traditionally one of the most dangerous places in prison because of the amount of people, movement, and preoccupation with eating. Then, there is the constant admonitions from guards to “tighten up and get out.” Prison rules allow 15 minutes to eat, but the reality is you have a minimum of five minutes and 10 max. Even if you can move to another row of tables, the constant yelling by guards is aggravating.

Prisons are the epitome of the “greasy spoon” experience. In recent years, some bureaucrats came up with an idea to save money. Every chow hall had a tray washer machine to ensure food trays and spoons were washed, rinsed and sanitized in hot, clean water.

But these machines get used to wash a thousand or more trays three times daily, so this heavy use causes breakdowns that eventually require replacement.

That is an expensive proposition. Instead of making that expenditure, it was decided to wash items by hand in new trash barrels. While officials swear health department regulations are followed, the reality is that guards are lazy and prisoners want to be done with the job. Getting a greasy spoon and tray is the norm. Finding some grits from breakfast under your noodles happens regularly.

In prison, meals are about survival. All else is a luxury lost upon the sentence being imposed. The choices are to eat what is offered or go to the canteen. Either way, prisoners endure and try to make the most of it.

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