So often I feel like starting posts on this blog with the words, “The latest depravity to emerge in U.S. prisons is (drum roll please). . .” Well, this week that sentence can be finished with the fact that thirty-six prisons in Texas are now saving money by not serving lunch on Saturdays and Sundays. They are instead serving something they call brunch, which gets served between 5 and 7 AM, and not providing another meal until dinner, which is made available starting at 4 PM. I received this tidbit of news from the Grits for Breakfast Blog, which along with the Texas Observer and The Angolite, is among my favorite sources for criminal justice-related news. The New York Times also covered this story.
I have long been deeply disturbed by the quality of food served in Texas prisons and have written a bit about Vita Pro (a food substitute unfit for human consumption that was served in Texas prisons for years) in an earlier post on this blog. Unfortunately, what’s wrong about how we feed folks in prison could fill several books. One of the ironies of serving time in most prisons in the South is that prisoners grow an extraordinary amount of food and seldom get to eat what they cultivate. Many of the largest prisons in the South, including the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and Parchman Prison in Mississippi, stand on the sites of former plantations and have maintained their essential functions since the antebellum period. All Texas prisons (and many in other southern states) are colloquially called farms, and the prisoners who live inside them cultivate crops and raise livestock. The food products generated by the labor of prisoners are usually sold to other public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, with the remaindered, unmarketable yet edible products being served in the prison chow halls. For instance, the tops of broccoli plants, that one might buy in a grocery store, are sold to school districts to serve to children, and the large, tough stems from the bottom of the plant are chopped up and served to prisoners. In Texas this is one of the only green vegetables prisoners receive. I think about this every time I eat broccoli.
The prison where my father resides is surrounded by fields of red earth in neatly plowed rows. The first time my mother and I went to visit my father in prison when I was fifteen, I saw a group of horses grazing in a pen at the prison’s edge and remarked to my mother that it was a relief to see that the men got to ride horses sometimes. I knew that having a connection with animals would be a comfort to my father and many other incarcerated men. My mother had to tell me that the horses were only for the guards to ride as they patrol the prisoners working in the fields in “hoe squads”–the worst and most grueling labor assignment in the prison. The arrangement evokes slavery, indentured servitude, and sharecropping all at once. The sweat of the laborers feeds those of us who can afford not to toil. Even the horses are among the master’s tools; no petting allowed.
Prisoners with money in their inmate accounts can buy food from the prison commissary–the company store, if you will–but everything there is processed and prepackaged. They cannot buy fresh foods of any kind, certainly not those grown on the prison grounds. Junk food abounds in prison, as do diabetes and other diet-related health problems. The food in the chow halls in Texas involves a lot of pinto beans and white sandwich bread, from what I am told, and not much flavor. Breakfast is usually served before dawn, and many prisoners refuse to rise at 3 AM to get to the chow hall for that first meal. This ungodly hour for a meal time seems to me to be a strategy for keeping the number of diners at that first meal of the day to a minimum (another cost-saving strategy) or yet another way to punish people further, to throw off the natural rhythms of the day, to keep prisoners unsettled and disrupted as much as possible.
Another anecdote on the subject of food in prisons. One year at Christmas a guard gave my father a banana. Guards are not allowed to give anything from the outside world to prisoners, ever, and this one could certainly have lost his job for this act of kindness. I do not know what compelled the guard to give up the banana from the lunch he’d brought from home, but it was the first fruit that my father had eaten in many years. My mother and I both wept in the visiting room when my father recounted this simple yet monumental act of kindness, and though I do not know the guard in question, I am ever grateful for his generosity. This incident helps me to remember not to disregard the humanity of those who work in prisons.
Today–Sunday–I am plagued by not knowing (yet in my heart already knowing) whether my father is being offered lunch today. Is his prison one of those no longer serving lunch on the weekends? Almost certainly it is, but I cannot ask him on a day when the mail does not go out. If he calls me, we can talk about it, but I have no way to initiate that conversation myself today. Even when I can reach him, I cannot fix this. Instead I dream of the lunches we will make together when he comes home, though I dare not speculate about the date when this might occur.