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Eat Like an Alcatraz Prisoner

Eat Like an Alcatraz Prisoner

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A San Francisco restaurant lets diners eat like the prisoners who stayed at Alcatraz

Eat like a prisoner of Alcatraz.

ABC News reports that San Francisco’s infamous prison Alcatraz will be celebrated this August at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco’s exhibit Alcatraz: Life on the Rock. Part of the celebration will let guests eat like the prisoners.

This year marks the 50th year since Alcatraz closed. But, back in the day prisoners were offered a surprising menu. Eclipse Restaurant will be creating a limited-time menu to commemorate the food that prisoners often wrote home about.

The restaurant claims that it’s “widely known that Alcatraz had the reputation for dishing up the best prison food in the United States."

According to MSN News that the first warden of the prison believed that good food meant less violence, which is why prisoners ate so well. They were allowed to return for seconds, even thirds and fourth if they were hungry enough.

The menu at Eclipse will be a modern-day version of what would be served if the prison were still operational. It includes a starter, entrée, a side dish, and dessert. To add to the experience, guests will be served their dinner on a metal tray.

The Alcatraz-inspired menu will be available from August 8 to September 2, but, the larger exhibit will be on display until October 25.

What Life In Alcatraz Was Really Like

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, aka the Rock, has gone down in history as the most formidable prison of all time. Even when it was open, newspaper carried stories of how hardcore it was, and everyone knew only the worst criminals were sent there. It was supposed to be escape-proof, so ending up there meant abandoning all hope of leaving before you served your time. Since it closed, plenty of books and movies have contributed to its fearsome reputation.

But while it certainly wasn't a nice vacation in San Francisco, Alcatraz might not have been as bad as the legend suggests. The prison population was tiny — Alcatraz was never filled to capacity, and the most prisoners it ever held was 302. It was meant for short stints of a few years to straighten prisoners out that had been a problem in other facilities, and people were usually only there for about eight years. And while they were there, amazingly, they could have a bit of fun. Here's what life on Alcatraz was really like.

Prisoner’s Beans.

On this day in 1934, the first civilian prisoners arrived at Alcatraz. The prison had previously been purely for military miscreants, but in this year the island was converted into a Federal hold-all for the most difficult and dangerous inmates of other prisons around the country. It was a maximum security, minimum privilege jail and it was said that no-one got sent to Alcatraz - each had to earn the privilege by his behaviour.

Warden Johnson was no softie. Punishment, not rehabilitation, was the philosophy – but there were a couple of advantages to life there, over life in other penal institutions. There were individual cells, and a decent library – and the diet was the best in the Federal system, for the very practical reason that bad food was a common trigger for prison revolt.

A Prisoner got three meals a day, served cafeteria style, and second helpings were allowed so long as the prisoner finished all the food he took. The range of food was good, for the place and time, with luxuries such as salads and fresh fruit being on the menu.

Sadly, I have not been able to find an actual Alcatraz menu from the 1930’s, but to give you a general idea of prison fare of the time, here is one from the Dallas County Jail, on June 29, 1934.

The format of the menu makes it unclear whether the supper dish was ‘chilie, plus a side of beans’, or just ‘chile, including beans’. I suspect the latter, but am treading carefully here, being aware that in Texas, opinions on chile (and the inclusion of beans, or not) run very high.

There is one school of thought that says that ‘chile’ (the spicy meat dish, not the chilli pepper) was ‘invented’ in the Texas prison system in the mid-nineteenth century, as a way of making cheap, tough, meat go further and taste better. I don’t know about that, but I like the story.

From a 1930’s Texas newspaper, a very simple recipe for chili suitable for both bean-adders, and no-beaners:

Chili Recipe.
The Gebhardt Chili Powder Company, of San Antonio, Teas, offers a very simple recipe to make chili at home. Here is all you have to do.
2 lbs of beef.
2 Tablespoons of Gebhardt’s Chili Powder
3 Tablespoons of Flour.
4 Tablespoons of Shortening.
2 Teaspoons of salt.
1 ½ Quart hot water.
One can of Gebhardt’s Spiced Beans (if desired).
Chop or cut the meat into small chunks. Sear well in shortening. Add Gebhardt’s Chili Powder, salt, and water. Simmer until tender. Add flour to thicken the gravy a few minutes before serving. Serve hot.
This recipe may disappoint you unless you use Gebhardt’s Chili Powder. Gebhardt’s Chili Powder is a complete flavoring, containing the necessary spices, etc, in combination with a blend of imported and domestic chili peppers to give you the perfect Mexican flavor of chili.
The Gebhardt Chili Powder Company has been a Texas institution for 41 years.
The Panola Watchman,[ Carthage, Texas] January 6, 1938

Quotation for the Day.
The only thing certain about the origins of chili is that it did not originate in Mexico.
Charles Ramsdell


Chili in the grand Texas tradition never includes beans, but the formatting of the Dallas jail menu suggests the dish was "chilli beans" (and so "veal stew" and "Irish potatoes", as differentiated from sweet potatoes.) In the south central Texas tradition, "chili beans" are pinto beans stewed with onion, some kind of meat and spices like the Gebhardt chili powder.

Note also the jail menu calls the evening meal "supper". That would suggest the noon meal was the heavier. The day's big meal is usually called "dinner", whether served at noon or night.

Gebhardt's is still the most dependable of the made chili powders. My mother used it all her life (New Mexico, 1936, was when she started cooking) and I swear by it. Of course, in modern times it's very much the fashion to prepare your own combination of herbs and spices for chili-ed foods, rather like making your own curry powder, but for quick meals that taste authentic, Gebhardt's is the thing to use.

Thanks Pete! I think I assumed that Gebhardt's Chili Powder was no longer available - I am delighted that it is.
Kind regards

Thanks Wafna. I always learn so much from informative comments like yours. So, no meat for supper? I guess that makes sense, after Veal Stew for the midday meal.

I've often wondered how institutions maintain diets that aid in normal body functions. this menu helps clear that up. with large numbers of inmates, dietary problems could be enormous, I would imagine. thanks for your efforts and sharing. come visit when you can.

Chili goes back long before the 1900's, and perhaps the Texas prison system. For all I know, they just shot criminals back then. John Thorne has written a fantastic essay about the origins and variations of chili.

Chili, the dish, goes back at least to the nineteenth century.

O. Henry's story, "The Enchanted Kiss," described the chili queens of San Antonio -- street vendors that more than rivaled today's street food purveyors (the chili made by one of them contained a special ingredient that conferred eternal life to those who ate it).

I won't spoil the surprise by revealing that ingredient.

Another thing: Gebhardt's does still make chili powder, but its formulation has changed over the years. Half a century ago, the powder was much darker, mostly ancho chilies, with a deep wonderful fragrance. It came in a narrow, angular bottle -- and we always had Texas relatives send it to us, because it was unavailable in NY (it still is pretty uncommon outside of TX).

Daily Activity Schedule

06:30 AM: Morning whistle. Prisoners arise, make beds, place all articles in prescribed order on shelf, clean wash basin and toilet bowl, wipe off bars, sweep cell floor, fold table and seat against the wall, wash themselves and dress.

06:45 AM: Detail guards assigned for mess hall duty they take their positions so as to watch the prisoners coming out of the cells and prepare to march into the mess hall with them. The guards supervise the serving and the seating of their details give the signal to start eating, and the signal to rise after eating.

06:50 AM: Second morning whistle the prisoners stand by the door facing out and remain there until the whistle signal, during which time the lieutenants and the cell house guards of both shifts make the count. When the count is found to be correct, the lieutenant orders the cells unlocked.

06:55 AM: Whistle signal given by Deputy Warden or Lieutenant all inmates step out of their cells and stand facing the mess hall. Upon the second whistle, all inmates on each tier close up in a single file upon the head man.

07:00 AM: Third whistle signal lower right tier of block three (C-Block), and lower left ear of block two (B-Block), move forward into the mess hall, each line is followed in turn by the second and third tiers, then by the lower tier on the opposite side of their block, followed by the second third tiers from the same side. The block three line moves into the mess hall, keeping to the left of the center of the mess block two goes forward at the same time, keeping to the right. Both lines proceed to the serving table the right line served from the right and occupies the tables on the right the left line to the left, etc. As each man is served, he will sit direct with his hands at his sides until the whistle is given for the first detail to begin eating. Twenty minutes allowed for eating. When they are finished eating, the prisoners placed their knives, forks, and spoons on their trays the knife at the left, the fork in the center, and the spoon on the right side of the tray. They then sit with their hands down at their sides. After all of the men have finished eating, a guard walks to each table to see that all utensils are in their proper place. He then returns to his assigned position.

07:20 AM: Upon signal from the Deputy Warden, the first detail in each line stands and proceeds to the rear entrance door of the cell house to the recreation yard. Inside detail, or those not assigned any detail, proceed to their work or cells.

07:25 AM: Guards and their details move out in the following order through the gates:

  1. ) Laundry
  2. ) Tailor Shop
  3. ) Cobblers Shop
  4. ) Model Shop
  5. ) All other shops
  6. ) Gardening, and labor details

The guards go ahead through the rear gates and stand opposite the rear gate guard. There they count prisoners passing through the gate in single file and clear the count with the rear gate guard. The detail stops at the front of the steps on the lower level road. The guard faces them to the right and proceeds to the shops, keeping himself in the rear of his detail. Upon arrival in the front of the shops, the detail holds and faces the shop entrance.

07:30 AM: Shop foreman counts his detail as the line enters the shop and immediately phones the count to the lieutenant of the watch. He also signs the count slip and turns it over to lieutenant making his first round.

07:30 AM: Rear gate guard drafts detailed count slip, phones it to the lieutenant of the watch, signs it, and proceeds with it to the lieutenant’s office.

09:30 AM: Rest period during which the men are allowed to smoke in places permitted, but are not allowed to crowd together.

09:38 AM: Foreman or the guard gives whistle signal all of the men on each floor of shops assemble at a given point and are counted, and return immediately to work. This assembly is quickly done, the count is written on a slip of paper, signed by the foreman or guard, and then turned over to the lieutenant making his next round.

11:30 AM: Prisoners stop work and assemble in front of the shops. The count is taken by the foreman or the guard. The foreman phones in the count and signs the count slip, turning it over to the guard, who proceeds with the detail to the rear gate and checks his detail in with the rear gate guard.

11:35 AM: In the recreation yard, the mess hall line is immediately formed in the same order as in the morning. The details proceed in the same lines to the mess hall.

11:40 AM: Dinner routine is the same as for breakfast, except at the completion of dinner, when the details immediately proceed to cells.

12:00 PM: Noon lock-up cell count the detail guards remain in front of cells until the prisoners are locked up in the count made.

12:20 PM: Unlock and proceed the same as before going to breakfast. Except that the prisoners marched in a single file into the yard, number three (C) cellblock first. Shop details again form in front of their guards.

12:25 PM: Details are checked out of the rear gate the same as in the morning.

12:30 PM: Details enter the shops and are counted by the foreman and the guard. Procedures are the same as 07:30 AM.

02:30 PM: Rest period the procedure and count are the same as in the morning.

04:15 PM: Work stopped the procedure and count are the same as 11:30 AM.

04:20 PM: Prisoners into the gate, with count.

04:25 PM: Prisoners marched into the mess hall, with count.

04:45 PM: Prisoners returned to their cells.

05:00 PM: Standing count in the cells by both shifts of the lieutenants and the cell house guards.

08:00 PM: Count in the cells.

12:01 AM: count by lieutenants and the cell house men of both shifts.

03:00 AM: count in the cells.

05:00 AM: count in the cells.

A total of 13 official counts are made each 24 hours. In addition, shop foreman make six verification counts. Sunday and holiday routines require their own schedules, with time reserved for haircuts, showers, clothing changes, and recreation. As for shaving, the prisoners were required to remove their whiskers three times a week.

** See Alcatraz Rules & Regulations for inmate recreation schedules.

The clutch operated locking device that could be configured by officers to open groups or individual cells.

An officer prepares tables in the Alcatraz Mess Hall.

A typical cell at Alcatraz in March 1956. This is the cell of one of several prisoners permitted to pursue oil painting.

Hyatt Hotel Serves Alcatraz Prison Food

I felt like a prisoner last night at San Francisco's Hyatt Regency Hotel.

That's because the hotel's Eclipse Restaurant is now serving meals based on those that were served to Al Capone, the Birdman and other inmates at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

Before closing in 1963, Alcatraz was renowned for having the best food in the entire US prison system. Fresh ingredients were boated over frequently from San Francisco. Inmate cooks honed their craft, maximizing the meats, milk, butter, breadings and drippings that were midcentury staples while drawing upon deep ethnic roots, aiming to please the type of guys you wouldn't want to make mad. Ex-inmates still compare Alcatraz fare to that of fine family restaurants, speaking yearningly of spaghetti sauce that simmered all day.

Executive chef Victor Litkewycz drew upon vintage menus, memoirs and interviews with ex-inmates to create his three-course Alcatraz Menu, served through October 25 to coincide with an exhibition of rare artifacts and vivid reconstructions now installed in the Hyatt Regency's lobby. "Alcatraz: Life on the Rock" examines the island's incarnations as lighthouse, Civil War-era military prison, federal penitentiary, Native American rallying point, and present-day portion of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Actual vintage menus from AFP's kitchen reveal a startlingly tempting array of offerings including breaded rock cod, jambalaya, beef pot pie, stewed peaches, sage dressing, apricot pie, raspberry buns, buttered beets, and a split-pea-tomato soup known as Purée Mongole. Prison staff and administrators ate the same meals as prisoners.

Wine and cocktails began last night's meal. Obviously, alcoholic drinks were officially verboten on the Rock, but inmates secretly hoarded home brews.

"They fermented whatever they could get their hands on," National Park Service public affairs officer Alexandra Picavet told me. "Fruit, bread, potato peelings -- that's another reason why kitchen jobs were considered the best jobs" on the Rock.

Each of us was given a metal tray, metal cup and utensils just as AFP inmates used. Into the cups went mulligatawny soup, made dazzlingly fragrant with coriander, cumin, vegetables, fresh green apples and chicken:

Although inmates had to carry their trays and line up cafeteria-style, we got to sit there in our fancy chairs as polite uniformed servers circled our table bearing platters and tongs. Chef Victor told me that at any meal, inmates were permitted to eat as much food as could be piled onto their trays. And so could we.

Salads studded with walnuts, beets, cheese and pickled red onions set a wholesome farm-to-table tone that merged midcentury solidity with modern-day seasonality to create a mood as soothing as a summer lullaby. Later came tender-crisp green beans, crusty bread, braised short ribs, baked rock cod with Spanish sauce, summer-squash sautée, mashed potatoes, and hearty mac-and-cheese made glorious and golden with rigatoni, Asadero and Monterey Jack. The traditional long-cooked meat sauce graced Spaghetti a la Italienne:

Stuffed cabbage rolls -- lovingly wrapped, lavishly large parcels of rice, raisins and chunkily ground grass-fed beef -- amped up the comfort-food factor to a whopping 10.5.

But of course comfort food was crucial to men who lived behind bars on a fog-swept jut of stone surrounded by a shark-infested bay. Granted, Alcatraz's inmates -- the hardest of hardened criminals -- "earned" their captivity on the Rock:

"In those days, if you broke the law, you went to jail. If you broke the law in jail, you went to Alcatraz," Picavet said.

At private parties held on the island, no one is allowed to wear striped mock prison uniforms -- partly because striped uniforms were never worn by Alcatraz inmates and mainly because the National Park Service countenances no jokes about Alcatraz:

"We don't want anyone making light of what happened there," Picavet asserted. But can I quip that it might be worth robbing a bank if it awarded me constant access to Chef Victor's baked meatloaf, a festival of an entrée crafted with beef, pork, veal, flaxseeds, oats, bran and caramelized onions, wrapped in bacon and slathered in molasses, tomato sauce and brown sugar? Can I? Because, if so, stick 'em up:

Studying vintage Alcatraz menus while designing the meal, "I was trying to get into the heads of those who were cooking at this prison," Chef Victor said. "What was available to them? Nothing exotic, not a wide range of ingredients. So it became a matter of letting the ingredients speak for themselves."

"At first, I thought: Oh my gosh -- how am I going to replicate this stuff? I felt some real pressure. For example, I wondered whether I would actually want to make or eat the boiled beef ribs" that appeared on the actual menus. "So I braised mine instead."

He took other liberties -- for example, using croissants instead of leftover white loaves for his banana bread pudding, served in huge portions last night alongside delicate layer cake and graced with ivory-satin crème Anglaise.

Cooking and eating, Picavet pointed out, "gave the inmates something to do besides just sitting in their cells."

What Prisoners Ate at Alcatraz in 1946: A Vintage Prison Menu

Why would you want to escape from Alcatraz when you could eat Beef Pot Pie Anglaise for lunch on Tuesday, Baked Meat Croquettes on Wednesday, and Bacon Jambalaya on Saturday? On second thought, why wouldn’t you want to escape.

Above, we have the actual menu for the meals served at Alcatraz during one week in September, 1946. (View it in a slightly larger format here.) Alcatraz was, of course, a high security federal prison that operated off of the coast of San Francisco from 1933 until 1963. Some of America’s more notorious criminals spent time dining there — good fellows like Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, and James “Whitey” Bulger.

As you may know, Bulger is now back on trial in Boston. After being released from prison during the 1960s, he allegedly re-immersed himself in the world of organized crime, before eventually spending 16 years living as a fugitive, largely in California. While on the lam, he amazingly had the chutzpah to visit Alcatraz (now a tourist site) and pose for a picture where he donned a striped suit and stood behind mock prison bars. I have to wonder whether he had some Puree Mongole for old times’ sake?

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Comments (16)

Because “Beef Pot Pie Anglaise” was a euphamism for something so disgusting and devoid of protein and actual nutrition you really didn’t want to stomach it.

In prison, a good 1/3 of meals to a Civilian from the ouside, are what I call “Throw Away Meals”. In other words, they are so disgusting to you, you just walk to the trash can, dump the whole thing away in disgust (and hunger).

If you are one of the few fortunate ones with people on the outside that still care about you, you have a stash of store food you bought, which is mainly lots of ramen soup, a few canned soft drinks, a few bags of fritos, and maybe some peanuts. You mix the ramen with the fritos and try and make a meal out of it.

You could say also you have all the free cable tv you want to watch as well. This also is not true. There is one TV, it is mounted so high up you crane your neck to see it… to watch it you have to sit in the dayroom, a dangerous area exposed… and its always tuned to something horrid… like Fox News Propaganda or WWF wrestling.

Don’t believe everything you hear about prison. If it sounds rosy and sugar coated, it is. An illusion of words.

You’ve definitely been there Choppergirl. In jail, I never used my entire ramen packet and eventually accumulated a large collection of “seasonings”. I learned which ramen flavor would fix each of the lousy dishes they served. I also became the “flavor exchange guy” for whoever wanted to swap packets. Oddly, it all made me a better cook when I got back home.

I was an engineering guy. All I ever did was get real good at growing my own cancer/chemo medication. Waiting 180 days for for shock-probation seemed like forever.

Somehow I doubt either of you have been to prison.

Gee, prison is supposed to be punishment right? Hard to drum up an sympathy for anyone griping about it. Especially if those persons were not incarcerated at Alcatraz at the time when this menu was used. Plenty of law abiding citizens would deal with a lot for a guaranteed roof over their heads and something to eat on a regular basis even if it isn’t four star cuisine.

Goobersgirl, prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation, not punishment.

Red, Goobersgirl – Obviously neither of you have done time. Choppergirl nailed it when she mentioned the TV. You have to put up with idiots who constantly watch WWF wrestling, Jerry Springer, reality shows, and even worse – prison documentaries. Hell, I wanted to forget I was in there. And they always have the volume up loud.

For the record, I was in the Muhlenberg Co, Detention Center in Greenville KY (July-December 2012). The state sends Class-D felons to local jails for the duration. I was sent from Louisville Metropolitan Corrections where the food is horrendously worse. I bet Choppergirl knows what a “zabo” is. (look it up in an Urban Dictionary).

More proof – I was the only guy in that jail with an engineering degree. I was bored, but they did let me use a calculator – so I did what I could. From the center of the east wall of the MCDC in Greenville, look North 69°41󈧔’East, 11.45 miles. You can see the center of the 3 power plant stacks that the TVA built after they razed Paradise, KY as in “where Paradise lay” (see John Prine).

James, you’re living in a dream world. There are only certain places in this world where prison is rehab. The Netherlands, for example. The US system is a Penal system. Penal, by definition, means punishment.

In my youth, I made the mistake of thinking no court would convict me of something I didn’t do, and ended up in what amounted to county jail in Ponce, Puerto Rico, my hometown.
Needless to say, incarceration is NOT about rehabilitation-recidivism rates testify to that being BS. In fact, many inmates repeatedly committed petty crimes for a roof over their heads and three square meals daily.
For a time, one particular cook we had did all he could to make our meals palatable, if not downright tasty, but he lasted all of nine months and gruel ruled again, in the form of rice and beans for lunch and dinner-with occasional pieces of chicken or pork from the prison farm and cream of wheat for breakfast. That’s every day. Every day. Families did what they could to help smuggle in spices and the like. Enterprising inmates smuggled in better vegetables from time to time, but mostly, it was dreary and disheartening.
I made peace with almost everyone. It’s impossible to get over extreme ignorance, though, and it’s a miracle I got out alive.
That said, I think everyone should be required to spend a year in jail-as a form of raising our social consciences. I suspect fewer people would treat all inmates with disdain and probably more people would strive to stay out.

Thank God you made it back home, right? Unfortunately, here in the U.S., incarcerationis all about two major corporations making big bucks off of a lot of people they allow to rot and starve. Here’s hoping someone wakes up to the fact that it’s time to stop needless wars and incarceration and concentrate on giving people the education and power to become the creatures God intended them to be.

If everyone had to do at least a year. The powers that be would make them into a country club.

Huh. Same type of menu-items they used to feed us in the military I was always amused when they’d list condiments as one of the things served for that particular meal.

iv’e been to prison 40 times

What i do know is all the monies given to prisons for food is stolen by whoever takes in the money and the prisoners get half of what they are really supposed to get. Like they are supposed to get 2 hot dogs and 2 rolls or 2 slices of bread but instead they get only one..and so on. So the prisoners are always hungry. Some prisons actually have good cooks and some don’t same as restaurants. They are lucky when they get an Italian

Prison Food and Commissary Services: A Recipe for Disaster

Food plays an integral role in our lives. It not only provides the nutrition necessary to sustain our existence, it feeds the sense of community we all crave. Social bonds are made as we break bread with those who sit and dine with us at the meal table. It may sound trite, but food feeds not just the body but also the soul.

The role of food is more pronounced for prisoners than for those who are not incarcerated. A primary reason for that difference is the fact that prison and jail schedules revolve around meal times. Another is that prisoners are limited to eating the fare provided in the dining hall (commonly called the chow hall or mess hall), or what they can buy from the commissary they lack the food choices that most people take for granted.

The answer to the question &ldquowhat&rsquos for chow?&rdquo is often determinative of whether a prisoner goes to the dining hall or eats out of his or her own pantry. The latter occurs only if the prisoner has money to buy food items from the commissary or can hustle up something to eat. The poorest prisoners are often content with a &ldquobutt naked&rdquo ramen noodle soup.

For the uninformed, a butt naked soup contains nothing more than the soup noodles and seasoning pack. Ramen soups are a staple food among prisoners (as well as poor college students), and even serve as a type of currency in prisons and jails.

More elaborate meals can be made using ramen, by mixing it with various other ingredients. What these dishes are called varies with location in some facilities they&rsquore known as swoles. In Florida they&rsquore called goulash or goulahs.

When not making a goulah, the only other option is to go to the chow hall. As in any institutional setting, there is a serving line that kicks out a tray containing food of dubious quality and sometimes unidentifiable origin. Many years ago, Florida prisons set up barriers to prevent prisoners working in the kitchen from seeing who they served, ending preferential treatment as meals were given out.

When commissary food is prepared as a group meal for a prisoner and his friends, such &ldquospreads&rdquo can be very elaborate. As one prisoner put it, &ldquoIt&rsquos all about taste contrast.&rdquo Spreads have been the subject of such books as Prison Ramen, Commissary Kitchen, Cooking in the Big House, The Convict Cookbook, Jailhouse Cookbook: The Prisoner&rsquos Recipe Bible, From the Big House to Your House: Cooking in Prison and The Prison Gourmet. Most often the recipes only include items sold in the prison commissary, but other ingredients are often available from kitchen workers who sell onions, peppers, spices, meat or even sandwiches or pastries they make in the institutional kitchen.

While a single goulah is tailored to the maker&rsquos taste and eaten alone, a spread meets the varied tastes of the group and is part of a communal gathering. Spreads may be made at any time, but are more prevalent around the holidays.

Corrections officials realize that food is a major part of prison and jail operations it can be used as an incentive for good behavior, to maintain control and to generate profit. Some have the attitude of Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Paul Penzone, who said at the &ldquovery bottom&rdquo of his list of concerns was &ldquowhether or not detainees are happy with the taste of the food they receive.&rdquo

Other officials view food differently. &ldquoNutritious and delicious &ndash it sounds like a catchphrase &ndash but at the end of the day, we don&rsquot want to give inmates any reason to have unrest,&rdquo stated Daniel Martuscello, deputy commissioner for administrative services for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Services. &ldquoIf we&rsquore not giving them something that&rsquos palatable and acceptable to them, it can lead to other problems inside the institution.&rdquo

A World View of Prison Food

Meals served to prisoners have varied significantly by era and location. In the northeastern part of the United States, for example, prisoners were once served what was considered a poor man&rsquos food: lobster.

&ldquoUp until sometime in the 1800s . lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized,&rdquo David Foster Wallace wrote in a 2004 Gourmet essay.

&ldquoEven in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats. One reason for their low status was how plentiful lobsters were in old New England.&rdquo

Also, a 1946 menu from the federal prison on Alcatraz Island listed a number of tasty dishes, including roast pork shoulder, beef pot pie Anglaise, baked meat croquettes with Bechamel sauce, potato chowder, fried eggs and spinach with bacon.

Among the world&rsquos prisons, Norway has a reputation for the most humane facilities. At the Bastoy Prison in the Horton municipality, prisoners are served fish balls with white sauce and prawns, chicken con carne and salmon.

In Japan, meals include fried fish, miso soup, rice with barley, daikon radish and noodle salad, while prisoners in India are served pulihora, a tamarind rice dish, for breakfast. Lunch consists of lentil stew with rice and curry. Dinner is tamarind juice soup and rice goat or chicken curry is served on Sundays. Prisoners in Denmark can prepare their own meals.

Prison food can be much worse in countries where prisoners are treated poorly and their well-being is not seen as a priority.

Andre Barabanov served four years in Russia&rsquos penal system following an anti-Putin protest in 2012. &ldquoThey didn&rsquot give us porridge in the prison canteen, but an incomprehensible grey mass,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI had stomach problems and I felt as if they were trying to kill me.&rdquo

In Thailand, visitors can deliver food to prisoners those who are not so lucky must eat the prison fare. &ldquoBy seven o&rsquoclock a bell would ring and prisoners would line up in the mess hall where plates of steamed rice husks had been sitting on the benches for half an hour,&rdquo wrote Harry Nicolaides, an Australian who served six months in a Bangkok prison for defaming the Thai monarchy. &ldquoThough hungry, I resisted the temptation to try the murky soups, having seen cats vomit after being fed the scraps.&rdquo

China, according to U.S. citizen Stuart B. Foster, has a brutal prison system. While serving eight months in a Chinese prison, Foster was forced to assemble Christmas lights all day except during two 10-minute breaks for lunch and dinner. If the prisoners&rsquo work production did not meet quotas, their rations were halved.

&ldquoEach meal we were fed rice, turnips, and a little pork fat, which tasted terrible but was enough to sustain life,&rdquo Foster wrote in a 2014 online article written for PLN. &ldquoA cut in food rations was devastating, and I saw a few prisoners start to look skeletal.&rdquo

The worst conditions for prisoners with respect to food are in Africa. In 2008, the United Nations reported that at least 26 prisoners had died due to malnutrition in the city of Mbuji Mayl in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The following year, according to news reports, more than half the 1,300 prisoners at the Chikurubi prison in Zimbabwe died as a result of starvation or disease.

In the United States, the Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to adhere to evolving standards of decency, which means prison conditions are based upon the constantly improving conditions of society in general. Fiscal realities, however, are always at the forefront &ndash particularly when it comes to prison and jail food services.

Food Service Privatization

Correctional facilities are always looking for ways to cut costs. One of the most popular trends in recent decades has been privatization &ndash of prison operations, medical and mental health care, transportation, commissaries and food services. In the latter regard, Aramark Correctional Services and Florida-based Trinity Services Group are the two largest players in the privatized prison and jail food industry. Other companies include Summit (which has acquired correctional food service firms CBM Managed Services and ABL Management), Food Services of America (owned by Services Group of America) and GD Correctional Services, LLC.

Because these companies are mainly concerned about generating profit by lowering costs, both the quality and quantity of food served to prisoners tend to suffer.

&ldquoInmates shared countless grievances about serving sizes as well as the quality, taste, or healthiness of the food,&rdquo said University of Arizona School of Sociology doctoral candidate Michael Gibson-Light, who interviewed around 60 prisoners and employees at a men&rsquos facility. &ldquoIt was common for some to compare their meals to those that they received during previous prison stays, sometimes years or decades prior, which they claimed contained more and better food.&rdquo

Over my 30 years of incarceration,* I have watched this phenomenon play out in Florida&rsquos prison system. The meals have never been great as with most institutional food, it is bland and looks unappealing. Yet by adding a bit of seasoning to most chow hall meals, I could leave satisfied.

&ldquoThe reality of it is we do institutional cooking, and that&rsquos bland cooking,&rdquo said Willie Smith, food service administrator for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. &ldquoWe don&rsquot season. We don&rsquot cook it like momma used to cook it.&rdquo

Regardless, holidays and specialty meals are a big draw. &ldquoThanksgiving, Christmas, hot dogs, anything Fourth of July related,&rdquo said Smith. &ldquoWe have what we call the Big Mac deal. If they come in and for some reason the hamburgers are gone, that&rsquos when they get upset. When those popular meals appear, we feed everyone.&rdquo

The most satisfying meal I&rsquove had in prison was my first Fourth of July. We were served a small slab of ribs, potato salad, baked beans, salad and a quarter of a watermelon. Some regular meals, such as creamed beef for breakfast, cheeseburgers or fried chicken, were highly anticipated meals that drew most prisoners to the chow hall.

In 2001, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) decided to privatize its food services in hopes of saving money. As word spread, prisoners uninformed about the perils of privatization espoused hopes for better food.

The first meal served by Aramark Correctional Services at my prison was appealing to the eyes, generous in portions and appetizing in taste. From that point on, though, things spiraled downhill as profit became the motivating factor instead of food quality, quantity or nutrition.

&ldquoWe control the menu, we control what ingredients are used, we enforce the calorie amount that has to be present in every meal,&rdquo noted Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) spokesman Chris Gautz.

As previously reported in PLN, the MDOC privatized its food services, first with Aramark and then with Trinity Services Group, with unappetizing results. Following repeated problems with unsanitary practices &ndash including maggots found in food serving areas &ndash as well as issues involving food shortages and substitutions, misconduct by private food service staff and protests by prisoners, Michigan officials finally decided to bring kitchen operations back in-house. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.52 Jan. 2018, p. 46 Feb. 2017, p.48 Dec. 2015, p.1].

Similar problems have occurred in other jurisdictions where prison and jail food services have been privatized, including in Florida and Ohio. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.14 Dec. 2006, p.10 March 2003, p.15].

When Aramark was the food service vendor in Florida, it often shorted meals with small portions and missing ingredients. On one occasion when I was assigned as a kitchen worker, an Aramark employee berated me for draining water off the vegetables after they were cooked.

&ldquoWater is part of the serving,&rdquo the employee said. That would result in prisoners who were unfortunate enough to be served from the bottom of the pan receiving just a few green beans in a scoop of water.

&ldquoPrisons are very delicate environments and things like food become incredibly important to people who are incarcerated. It&rsquos a safety issue for other prisoners and corrections officers,&rdquo noted Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio. &ldquoWhat we&rsquore seeing with Aramark and around food privatization is that it injects chaos into the situation.&rdquo

Aramark&rsquos poor food quality and small portions reportedly sparked a 2009 riot at a Kentucky prison that left eight prisoners and eight guards injured. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.10 Oct. 2009, p.36]. According to a subsequent report by Kentucky&rsquos Auditor of Public Accounts, &ldquocertain items on the menu were watered down or . items were routinely missing or cut out of recipes.&rdquo Further, &ldquoThe auditors noted numerous instances in which spices were left out of recipes, and even more serious instances in which flour, beef base, and bulk food ingredients called for in the recipe were dramatically reduced or omitted.&rdquo

Florida abandoned prison food privatization in 2009, and Michigan announced it would do likewise in February 2018. Other jurisdictions have also chosen to keep food services in-house, concluding that the savings, if any, are simply not worth it.

The 2009 Kentucky riot at the Northpoint Training Center, in which six buildings were destroyed, resulted in $18 million in repair costs. A September 10, 2016 riot at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan &ndash partly due to the poor quality of food served by Aramark &ndash cost the state $888,320, according to a prison spokesman.

Learning from Privatization

When Aramark ended its contract with Florida in January 2009 and food services reverted to the FDOC, prison officials adopted the company&rsquos cost-cutting practices. Rather than making its kitchen workers corrections officers as it had done previously, the FDOC hired people at minimum wage as non-benefit employees. Under Aramark, the daily cost to feed prisoners was around $2.31 each per day. The FDOC cut that amount to $1.71 per day.

It accomplished that not only by hiring lower-paid workers, but also by serving lower-quality meat and soy products.

Aramark had removed fryers from prison kitchens, eliminating fried food and the cost of grease. It also converted all beef products to turkey. Thus, sloppy Joe was really &ldquosloppy Tom.&rdquo

In its eagerness to cut costs, the FDOC went even further. It made virtually every meal soy-based. All of the patties were soy, as were most other &ldquomeats.&rdquo The only real meat was the weekly chicken quarter. The soy patties have fancy names like Southwestern patty, but to prisoners they are known as &ldquofart patties&rdquo due to the severe flatulence they cause. The worst cases of gas came from what prisoners called &ldquoKibbles and Bits,&rdquo so named because they were small chunks of textured soy protein that resembled dog food.

Additional cost-cutting came in the form of eliminating virtually all fresh fruit from the menu. The irony is that Florida is one of the nation&rsquos largest producers of fruit, with the state itself owning thousands of acres of citrus orchards.

On several occasions, the inferior food led prisoners at the Cross City Correctional Institution to boycott the chow hall. Those incidents compelled prison officials to improve the meals, and they eventually abandoned the Kibbles and Bits due to the boycotts and because prisoners were regularly choosing the alternative meal option: beans. Plus, as many prisoners were suffering intestinal ailments after soy became the main course in most prison meals, increased medical costs may have been a contributing factor.

There are some things that private food service companies can do that most corrections agencies can&rsquot, or won&rsquot, though.

Aramark&rsquos iCare and offer specialty food items that family members can purchase for prisoners at certain facilities. They can order pizzas, burgers, Philly steaks, hotdogs, onion rings, hot wings and more &ndash but must pay exorbitant prices. A Double Angus Cheeseburger with A1 sauce is $15.49 through iCare, and an eight-inch cheese pizza is $12.39. At, which services the Norfolk County Jail in Virginia, a hamburger, two slices of pizza or a Philly steak, with drink included, costs $9.00 each plus a $2.00 processing fee. The food is ordered online and delivered to prisoners on a scheduled date.

The Cook County jail in Chicago has a similar program in which prisoners can order pizzas for $5 to $7 each, and have them delivered to their cells. According to May 2017 news reports, the pizzas are made by prisoner workers enrolled in a culinary program taught by Chef Bruno Abate, who is a member of Recipe for Change &ndash a non-profit that works with prisoners at the jail and gives them an &ldquointroduction to healthy food, good nutrition and the art of quality cooking.&rdquo The most popular jail pizza is one topped with sausage.

The Kosher Effect

Thanks to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), many jails and prisons have been forced to provide prisoners with religious dietary options, including halal meals (for Muslims) and kosher meals (for Jewish prisoners and sometimes Muslims, too). Corrections officials have done so unwillingly in some cases.

When the U.S. Department of Justice dragged Florida into federal court to force it to provide Jewish prisoners with kosher meals, the FDOC mounted a vigorous challenge. Costs, state prison officials argued, would be over $3 a day per prisoner &ndash or about $12.1 million a year. The district court, however, calculated the cost at $3 million, which was a fraction of the FDOC&rsquos $2.2 billion total budget. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.59 May 2014, p.14].

The California Institution for Men in Chino has seen a huge shift from having to serve kosher meals after a federal court decreed they must be made available. The food budget for such meals jumped from $52,000 in 2016 to $143,000 in 2017.

&ldquoThe state [overall] has spent an additional $2 million to $3 million feeding kosher,&rdquo declared Willie Harris, the food manager at the facility. To cut down on that, prison officials remove prisoners from the kosher meal program if they consume non-kosher food. Harris found that &ldquo80 percent of the inmates that were on that kosher list have purchased some type of pork product from the canteen.&rdquo

However, prison officials often ignore the fact that prisoners purchase food items from the commissary to barter or trade with other prisoners, not to eat themselves.

While many prisoners request kosher meals due to their sincere religious beliefs, others seek them out because they are considered more nutritious, better tasting or at least different from the standard, monotonous prison fare.

Since kosher meals cost more, within the past year Florida officials have tried to entice prisoners to abandon the kosher diet program by upgrading the master menu. The current menu now includes roast beef, chicken nuggets, breakfast burritos, real beef patties and even ice cream bars. The effect was exactly what the FDOC had hoped: Many prisoners receiving kosher meals returned to the master menu. It seems that prison officials figured out if they spend a bit more on the regular menu, they could spend a lot less on kosher food.

Litigation, mainly under RLUIPA, has spurred corrections officials to provide kosher dietary options, including in Nevada, which settled a class-action suit in August 2012, and in Texas, Indiana and Idaho. Maryland agreed to serve kosher meals in 2009 after a meeting between the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and representatives from the Jewish community. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.56 April 2018, pp.40,48 Sept. 2009, p.44]. And in October 2017, Michigan prisoners sought class-action status in a federal lawsuit to require prison officials to provide kosher meals. See: Ackerman v. Washington, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 4:13-cv-14137-LVP-MKM.

Most recently, on July 5, 2018, a federal district court in South Dakota held a former prisoner&rsquos suit could proceed on claims that he was denied kosher food. While James Irving Dale was incarcerated between 2002 and 2017, he claimed that the prison&rsquos private food contractor, CBM Correctional Food Services, served meals containing rice cooked with pork flavoring and byproducts, that the kitchen was not certified by a rabbi and that kitchen workers indicated they had contaminated his food with utensils used to cut pork.

The district court wrote that &ldquoIt is settled law in the Eighth Circuit that a kosher diet must be provided in a prison setting,&rdquo and, &ldquoViewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court concludes that there were numerous instances in which Kashrut [Jewish dietary] practices were not followed in the preparation and serving of food that Mr. Dale would have eaten.&rdquo

Although Dale has been released from prison, rendering his claims for injunctive relief moot, he also sought monetary damages, which allowed his lawsuit to proceed. The case has been set for trial on September 18, 2018. See: Dale v. Dooley, U.S.D.C. (D. SD), Case No. 4:14-cv-04003-LLP.

Not all prisons and jails offer a halal or kosher option, but rather provide vegetarian alternatives or serve &ldquocommon fare&rdquo meals that meet the dietary requirements of a number of religions.

The Commissary Alternative

In some jurisdictions, the company that supplies prison food services has a disincentive to serve meals that draw prisoners to the chow hall. That&rsquos because the vendor not only provides meals but also manages the commissary or canteen store. When the same firm controls both operations, it&rsquos like hitting the prison contract lottery.

Such is the case with Trinity Services Group, owned by TKC Holdings &ndash a company that also owns Keefe Group, which operates prison and jail commissaries. TKC, in turn, is indirectly controlled by H.I.G. Capital, LLC, a private equity firm.

&ldquoThere&rsquos almost no incentive to serve good food,&rdquo noted Ronald Zullo, an associate research scientist at the University of Michigan&rsquos Economic Growth Institute, upon learning that Trinity managed both food and commissary services in Michigan state prisons until earlier this year. &ldquoIf you deter people from the chow hall and have them buy food [from the commissary], that would, from Trinity&rsquos perspective, be the most profitable.&rdquo

Other private companies that provide both food and commissary services include Aramark, TIGG&rsquos Canteen Services, Summit and Tiger Correctional Services. Several other firms, such as Kimble&rsquos Commissary Services and McDaniel Supply Company, only provide commissary services &ndash mainly at local jails.

The meals served in prisons and jails are sometimes so unpalatable that prisoners avoid going to the chow hall altogether, instead relying on commissary purchases.

&ldquoI don&rsquot eat that prison food,&rdquo said one South Carolina prisoner. &ldquoThe guys on what they call lock up, they&rsquore the ones who mostly fall victim to that. Me, personally, I would have to be rock bottom with no chance at all to eat that.&rdquo

South Carolina canteen manager Eddie Huddle said prisoners who can afford to do so opt out of the chow hall meals and purchase their food from the commissary. &ldquoI can&rsquot tell you what percentage but I can tell you there&rsquos a lot of [that],&rdquo he observed.

Commissaries are big business. One example can be found in the FDOC&rsquos contract with Trinity in exchange for the privilege of providing commissary operations, the company pays the state $1.165 per day for each of its nearly 100,000 prisoners &ndash or over $36 million annually.

Accordingly to a 2014 contract proposal posted on West Virginia&rsquos website, Keefe Commissary Network and its affiliate, Access Securepak, reported gross sales of over $375 million for care package, commissary and technology programs in 2012, with net profit of $41 million &ndash or a 10.9 percent profit margin.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) conducted a survey of state prison systems in 2013, and of the 34 that responded, 12 had privatized some or all of their commissary operations. Twenty-eight states reported combined annual commissary revenue of $517 million with net profit of over $57 million.

When Trinity&rsquos parent company, H.I.G. Capital, announced it was acquiring Keefe Group in May 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative &ndash a non-profit criminal justice research and advocacy organization &ndash estimated based on the ASCA data that Trinity could reap annual revenues totaling $875 million after buying Keefe.

The Company Store

Exercising the option to mainly eat commissary food is expensive. Commissary prices are typically higher than what people pay outside of prison for the same items some facilities have policies that limit the mark-up amounts, while others don&rsquot. Corrections officials justify the prices by noting they are similar to those at convenience stores &ndash which often charge more due to the &ldquoconvenience&rdquo factor, which is lacking in prisons and jails where prisoners have no other options. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.25].

Higher commissary prices are compounded by low prison wages. The Prison Policy Initiative released a report in April 2017 that examined how much prisoners earn in each state prison system, both in regular institutional jobs and prison industry programs. For regular jobs, the average wage ranged from .14 to .63 per hour. Thus, high commissary prices consume a large amount of prisoners&rsquo income. In some states, including Alabama, Texas and Georgia, prisoners receive no pay for their work.

To supplement their paltry wages, prisoners often receive money from family members and friends, which is put on their prison or jail trust accounts.

&ldquoWe&rsquore not rich,&rdquo said Lisa Moore, who has sent thousands of dollars to her son in a Mississippi prison to buy commissary items. &ldquoWe work hard, but I see so many people who don&rsquot have anything to take to their loved ones.&rdquo She added, &ldquoI work an extra job, just to take care of it.&rdquo

The most popular item in prison and jail commissaries, ramen noodle soup, is often sold at inflated prices. Trinity charges Florida prisoners .70 for a standard 3-ounce package of ramen. Union Supply Group, a California prison package service, sells the same soup to Tennessee prisoners for .45 each. By contrast, ramen packages are available in most grocery stores at a cost ranging from .10 to .25.

Honey buns are another very popular item. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.24]. An iced honey bun you can buy at the corner store for .70 is sold in Florida prison commissaries for $1.59, while a two-pack of AA batteries that discount stores sell for $1.80 costs $3.02 in the commissary.

This is reminiscent of a scene in The Grapes of Wrath, the 1939 Pulitzer-winning novel by John Steinbeck, when a family travels to California during the Great Depression to look for work. When they obtain a job picking peaches, the mother goes to the company store &ndash owned and operated by the farming operation &ndash to buy food for their dinner. She finds everything is overpriced but there are no other options if they want to eat. Thus, they have to use their meager wages to purchase food from the company store at inflated prices.

Such is the nature of prison and jail commissaries.

&ldquoYou&rsquove got a very high cost of doing business,&rdquo countered Jim Theiss, CEO of the Centric Group LLC, Keefe&rsquos former parent company. &ldquoI can assure you, we believe in providing value.&rdquo

That value depends largely on location. Through Access Securepak, Trinity sells food packages for prisoners. The Florida Fall/Winter 2016 catalog listed eight packs of cheese on cheese crackers for $3.90. That same item was sold to Georgia prisoners for $3.25 in the Fall 2016 catalog. A five-ounce Vienna sausage package was offered to Florida prisoners for $2.40, while Georgia prisoners could purchase that item for $2.00. Union Supply Group engages in such disparate pricing, too for example, it offered a four-ounce bag of Folgers Instant Coffee to both Florida and Tennessee prisoners in the winter of 2016. The former had to pay $4.95 per bag, while the latter were charged only $2.55.

Inflated commissary and package prices are directly connected to the kickbacks that corrections agencies receive in exchange for awarding companies monopoly contracts. For food packages, the FDOC receives 20 percent of Trinity&rsquos gross sales, while Union Supply Group kicks back 15 percent of its gross sales.

Prison Policy Initiative Report

The Prison Policy Initiative released a detailed report on commissaries in May 2018, noting that they &ldquopresent yet another opportunity for prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families, often enriching private companies in the process.&rdquo

The report examined data from Illinois and Washington, where the state DOCs operate prison commissaries, and from Massachusetts, where Keefe is the prison system&rsquos private commissary vendor.

According to the study, prisoners in Illinois and Massachusetts spent an average of $1,121 and $1,207 per year on commissary purchases, respectively, while those in Washington spent an average of $513 annually. The disparity for Washington may be partly due to a state law, RCW 72.09.480, that makes any money sent to prisoners&rsquo trust accounts subject to 25 percent deductions for victims&rsquo compensation and cost-of-incarceration, plus another 10 percent for mandatory savings, 20 percent for outstanding legal financial obligations and 20 percent for any child support orders. As a result of these deductions, less money is available to Washington state prisoners for commissary purchases.

In a call with PLN, Prison Policy Initiative executive director Peter Wagner also mentioned that Washington prisoners appear to receive a significant amount of commissary items through quarterly packages ordered by family members from Union Supply Group. The packages, which are not counted in commissary sales data, may be favored by prisoners&rsquo families as a way to avoid the DOC&rsquos trust account deductions.

An analysis of commissary sales in the three states examined in the report found that prepared and snack foods made up the bulk of purchases, followed by beverages and hygiene products. The study noted the emphasis on foodstuffs was not surprising, since &ldquoprison and jail cafeterias are notorious for serving small portions of unappealing food.&rdquo

It also questioned whether prisoners should be forced to buy commissary items due to inadequate meals served in the chow hall and insufficient hygiene products provided by prison officials. &ldquoIf people in prison are resorting to the commissary to buy essential goods, like food and hygiene products, does it really make sense to charge a day&rsquos prison wages (or more) for one of these goods? Should states knowingly force the families of incarcerated people to pay for essential goods their loved ones can&rsquot afford, often racking up exorbitant money transfer fees in the process?&rdquo

Total commissary revenue in the three states included $11.7 million in Massachusetts (for the one-year period ending in June 2016), $48.4 million in Illinois (for one year ending in September 2017) and $8.69 million in Washington (for one year ending in October 2017).

With respect to pricing of prison commissary items, the Prison Policy Initiative wrote that &ldquoOne rather surprising finding is that prices for some common items were lower than prices found at traditional free-world retailers. Other commissary prices were higher, but only by a little bit.&rdquo

Then again, the report had a limited data sample from just three state prison systems and no local jails, and apparently didn&rsquot do much in the way of comparison shopping with respect to free-world costs. For example, the study cited local retail prices for ramen soup ranging from .40 to .89 each, though ramen typically sells for much less at grocery stores.

In regard to public operation of prison commissaries versus privatization, the Prison Policy Initiative found that &ldquoeven in state-operated commissary systems, private commissary contractors are positioned to profit, blurring the line between state and private control.&rdquo

&ldquoOf the three states we examined, only Massachusetts has a contractor-operated commissary system. It also has the highest per-person average commissary spending. It is tempting to conclude that the profit motive of commissary contractors leads to higher mark-ups and thus higher per capita spending, but we would need a larger sample size to test this hypothesis,&rdquo the report said.

It also noted that in Illinois&rsquo DOC-operated commissary system, items sold to prisoners were purchased from private vendors &ndash the largest being Keefe, &ldquowhich accounted for 30% of the commissary&rsquos spending.&rdquo Thus, the report observed, &ldquoit appears that Keefe is positioned to make money even in states that have not privatized the operation of their prison commissaries.&rdquo

&ldquoIn the long term, when incarcerated people can&rsquot afford goods and services vital to their well-being, society pays the price. In the short term, however, these costs are falling on families, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately come from communities of color,&rdquo the Prison Policy Initiative study concluded. &ldquoIf the cost of food and soap is too much for states to bear, they should find ways to reduce the number of people in prison, rather than nickel-and-diming incarcerated people and their families.&rdquo

Protesting Price Gouging

Challenges to high prison and jail commissary prices are rarely successful, but that does not stop prisoners and their advocates from trying.

In New Jersey, a prisoner at the Monmouth County Jail, Donell Freeman, 41, filed suit over price gouging at the facility&rsquos commissary, which is run by Keefe Commissary Network. Freeman claimed the high cost of commissary items violated anti-trust laws and constituted cruel and unusual punishment due to the &ldquodiscriminating prices.&rdquo The county receives a 45 percent commission from Keefe on commissary sales, plus there is a 10 percent fee that goes to a crime victims fund. In 2016, the county received over $350,000 in commission payments. One package of ramen soup costs $1.10 at the jail.

Freeman&rsquos lawsuit was dismissed in May 2017, just one month after it was filed, for failure to comply with in forma pauperis requirements. Ironically, he had been jailed for robbing an A&P grocery store. See: Freeman v. Monmouth County Correctional Institution Commissary, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 3:17-cv-02713-BRM-TJB.

In March 2010, a California federal district court dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by eight prisoners who alleged the state prison system unfairly raised commissary prices to make up for revenue lost in an earlier suit.

In 2003, several California prisoners had sued prison officials because they were not receiving the interest earned on their trust accounts instead, the interest was deposited into the Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF). As a result of that case, prisoner funds were no longer placed into interest-bearing accounts. See: Schneider v. Cal. Dept. of Corr., 345 F.3d 716 (9th Cir. 2003).

Because the IWF relied in part on funds generated by interest earned on the trust accounts, it lost revenue. In order to make up that shortfall, prisoners argued that commissary prices were unfairly and unlawfully increased.

The class-action suit claimed the sudden price increases violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment and constituted &ldquoprice gouging&rdquo under California law.

The district court dismissed the case, noting that prisoners are not forced to buy anything from prison commissaries, and thus no takings clause violation occurred.

And in dismissing the prisoners&rsquo price gouging claim, the court found that 1) there is no constitutional right to purchase anything from the commissary other than the necessities of life, 2) prisoners were aware of the prices and authorized the expenditure of funds from their accounts when they made commissary purchases, and 3) there was no evidence that the prices were unfair or unlawful. The dismissal of the case was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on July 13, 2011. See: Godoy v. Horel, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:09-cv-04793-PJH.

Beyond litigation, prisoners and their advocates have also protested high commissary prices through boycotts and demonstrations.

In early July 2017, a group of women incarcerated at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville collectively boycotted commissary purchases. The organized action began after the Arizona Department of Corrections hiked prices on various commissary items provided by Keefe Commissary Network, ranging from tampons and shoelaces to granola bars and soap.

The prisoners released a statement expressing their frustration over the increased prices. &ldquoWe get one roll of toilet paper per week and 12 pads a month. Everything else comes out of our pockets, including [non-cafeteria] food. We make between .10-.45 an hour. 20 percent of our wages go to restitution and we get charged $2 a month for electricity,&rdquo they wrote. &ldquoWith so little, we already struggle to make ends meet &ndash often being left to choose between buying a bar of soap, which is now $1.50, or making a phone call home at .20 a minute. Now we&rsquore expected to pay 70 percent more for staple items, like peanut butter.&rdquo During the boycott, prisoners bought only a single .06 toothbrush.

The Arizona Department of Corrections receives a 16 percent commission kickback from Keefe, which generated $6.3 million in 2016. A prison spokesman noted that only 268 commissary items out of 1,000 had increased in price, while another 222 decreased.

On January 16, 2018, prisoners&rsquo rights supporters protested outside several Florida prisons and the FDOC&rsquos central office in Tallahassee, in part due to price-gouging in prison canteens.

&ldquoCan someone talk to us about why tampons cost $18?&rdquo one demonstrator asked.

The protest action, which resulted in at least one arrest, coincided with a planned non-violent &ldquolaydown&rdquo by prisoners that included refusal to work and a boycott of canteen purchases as a form of non-participation. The laydown was supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a project of Industrial Workers of the World.

The previous month, Operation PUSH &ndash an effort by Florida prisoners and their advocates to end prison slave labor and exploitive commissary prices, and to fully reestablish parole &ndash posted a statement that read, in part, &ldquo[O]ne case of soup on the street cost $4. It costs us $17 on the inside. This is highway robbery without a gun. It&rsquos not just us that they&rsquore taking from. It&rsquos our families who struggle to make ends meet and send us money &ndash they are the real victims that the state of Florida is taking advantage of.&rdquo

The Culture of Prison Cuisine

When it comes to prison meals, the bottom line is that they are one of the most anticipated events in correctional facilities because there is little else to look forward to &ndash and because prison schedules are designed to accommodate thrice-daily meal times (or twice a day on weekends at some facilities). While chow hall dishes sometimes have appealing names, such as Turkey Tetrazzini or Western Chili, the reality is that most prison food is bland, under- or over-cooked and unappetizing. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.1].

As a result, prisoners create elaborate recipes to make their own tasty meals. The best combine both commissary items and food from the chow hall. Onions, tomatoes, peppers and seasonings are popular items sold by kitchen workers.

&ldquoIn most cases, if you&rsquore lucky enough to know somebody that works in the kitchen, they can bring you back some raw onions, maybe some chives, some jalapenos, fresh vegetables,&rdquo said former prisoner Gustavo &ldquoGoose&rdquo Alvarez, who co-authored Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. &ldquoAnd then there&rsquos times when you don&rsquot have much but tap water, a bag of Cheetos &ndash Flamin&rsquo Hot Cheetos at that &ndash and a couple of soups. And you know what? You make a little tamale.&rdquo

Prisoners also frequently take food from the chow hall back to their cells, in violation of prison rules. &ldquoYou&rsquoll sneak back bits of beef stroganoff and wash it off, mix it in with your ramen and create a different dish,&rdquo Alvarez stated.

While some prisons and jails have microwaves available in housing areas, others do not. Most facilities provide access to hot water, though, so prisoners can make soup and coffee, and warm other food items.

&ldquoYou put your noodles in this [bowl], add hot water, put the lid on, and then take it to your bunk and cover it with bedding and a pillow to hold in the heat,&rdquo an ex-prisoner wrote on &ldquoThis method is usually pretty effective, and after 10 minutes or so you have your ramen.&rdquo

Bread is a commodity not always sold or available in commissaries, so prisoners make &ldquosoup sandwiches.&rdquo This involves opening one end of a ramen noodle pack and filling it with hot water for about a minute. Once the water is drained off, the block of ramen, which is partly cooked but still firm, is split into two flat pieces and filled with mackerel, tuna, pork rinds or chips and condiments as desired.

Larger &ldquospreads&rdquo may contain ramen or chips as a base plus pickles, eggs, summer sausage, Slim Jims or virtually anything to add taste. Improvised tamales, burritos, pizzas and even cakes are possible. For example, a jail-house recipe for &ldquosweet and sour pork&rdquo includes pork rinds, cherry Kool-Aid mix, V8 or tomato juice, ketchup, sugar and (where available) soy sauce.

Prisoners are not just innovative when it comes to concocting recipes from food available in the commissary and chow hall they also can be entrepreneurial. When Seth Sundberg was serving time in California, he avoided eating meat in the chow hall that was delivered to the kitchen in boxes stamped &ldquonot for human consumption,&rdquo and developed a granola bar using oatmeal, honey, trail mix and peanut butter.

Finding that other prisoners were willing to buy them, upon his release he started a company to make organic, gluten-free energy bars under the name Prison Bars. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.17]. His business has since expanded, and is now branded as Inside-Out Bars (, offering such flavors as cranberry almond and peanut butter choco chip.

Eating in prison has a larger purpose than simply being a means of nourishment or even having something appetizing to take the edge off the drudgery of life behind bars.

&ldquoCooking meals in prison isn&rsquot really about taste,&rdquo explained performance artist Karla Davis, who conducts demonstrations on how to prepare prison food. &ldquoIt&rsquos a reminder of humanity, community, and the person you were on the outside.&rdquo

Sitting down to a spread can be a sharing experience that helps prisoners remember there is power in bringing people together. While at the California Institution for Men in August 2009, Alvarez experienced race riots. &ldquoThere were inmates being stabbed, people getting beaten, buildings going up in flames. People were carrying around swords made out of broken windows,&rdquo he recalled.

Then, he saw something that caused him to change his life and way of thinking. He saw some older gang members calm down younger prisoners and begin feeding soup to freezing prisoners who were not being let back into the housing units by guards.

Alvarez told others in his unit, &ldquoGather up whatever food you have, and let&rsquos feed these guys.&rdquo It was then he realized, &ldquoI was having a meal with my so-called enemies, but after speaking with them, it was obvious that they were my brothers.&rdquo

The carceral experience can be traumatic, both physically and emotionally, and food can make an enormous difference.

&ldquoI was making chicken soup &ndash it took me back to that ordeal [during the riot],&rdquo said Alvarez. &ldquoI felt how I felt at the time &ndash I was on my own, becoming a man, but in prison. It was an eerie feeling &ndash that little warm soup brought me some comfort. There is still something I can have and feel at home, even though I&rsquom not.&rdquo

Sources: Daily Republic,, Seattle Times, Statesman Journal, The Republic, Clarion-Ledger, Baltimore Sun,,, Munchies, The Atlantic,,,, Detroit Free Press, Colorado Springs Independent,,,, The Marshall Project,,,,, Phoenix New Times,,,, Chicago Tribune

* The author is incarcerated in a Florida state prison.

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9. Prison Latte

While coffee is a drink that can be easily accessed in the prison, it’s pretty monotonous. Caffeinated drinks are only available through the cafeteria or from instant coffee packets. If you want to get a fancy cup of coffee, this is what you’ll likely be able to whip up inside the prison.

Note: Maple syrup packets are sometimes available from the breakfast tray.

A small carton of milk
3 tbsp of instant coffee
1 (or more) maple syrup packet

1. Run the small milk carton in hot water (via tap or via boiling) until the milk is steamy.
2. Pour the milk in a separate container.
3. Add the instant coffee and maple syrup packet.
4. Stir thoroughly and enjoy.

Early American Crime

With so much information on the Web about Alcatraz, I feel little need to write about my recent visit to this historical prison. But given my latest articles on prison food, I can not pass up posting some of the pictures I took of the kitchen. Prisoner meals were governed by “Alcatraz Regulation #33: DINING [&hellip]

Eat Like an Early Convict: Prison Food Recipes

As a follow-up to my last post on “A Foodie Look at Early Prison Food,” I decided to find out more about food served in early American prisons. During my research, I came across a description of the meals served to convicts in New York’s Newgate Prison in a 1799 Report of the Inspectors of [&hellip]

In the Media: A Foodie Look at Early Prison Food

Curious about what early prison food was like? This 3:43 minute video from Zagat’s “Bizarre Bites: Prison Food Taste Tests” takes viewers on a brief tour of American prison food from the 1830’s to the present day. The clip takes place at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and includes some great shots of prison [&hellip]

Now Available: Early American Criminals

My new book, Early American Criminals: An American Newgate Calendar, Chronicling the Lives of the Most Notorious Criminal Offenders from Colonial America and the New Republic, has been published and is now available for purchase! (Paperback and Kindle e-book) Barnes and Noble (Paperback and Nook e-book) Smashwords (All e-book formats) (United Kingdom) [&hellip]

Special Announcement: Forthcoming Book, Early American Criminals

It has been a long time since I have posted on this website, but that is because I have been hard at work writing my next book. Now, I am thrilled to announce the forthcoming publication of Early American Criminals: An American Newgate Calendar, Chronicling the Lives of the Most Notorious Criminal Offenders from Colonial [&hellip]

Alcatraz's Menu From 1946 Sounds Delicious (and Super Fancy for Prison Food)

These days, you're lucky to get a Tampon McMuffin or a "burrito" made from toilet water and a ramen packet in prison (a statement we make after watching lots of movies and TV about prison).

One (hilariously haughty) three-star Yelp review for San Quentin proves that it's not five-star dining: "The potatoes had lumps in them and the edges got cold pretty fast, so I felt I had to rush through eating them or they wouldn't stay warm for very long. It didn't OCCUR to them that maybe I wanted to take my time? Why don't they serve them just a LITTLE hotter, then there would be no problem. As for the lumps I guess they were pieces of potato, but still, lumps are weird no matter what."

But this doesn't always seem to have been the case. Inside Scoop SF has resurfaced a menu from Alcatraz, showing what would be served up in the cafeteria from Sept. 2 to 8, 1946.

Baked croquettes?! Watermelon? Do you even know what purée mongole is?! We didn't! But it sounds fancy as hell (it's a creamed split pea-tomato soup, for the record).

Watch the video: Ταξίδι στις φυλακές του ALCATRAZ - Το νησί της απομόνωσης - Φυλακή Αλκατράζ - Alcatraz - Αλκατράζ (July 2022).


  1. Nam

    It's a delusion.

  2. Eumaeus

    The sentence has been deleted

  3. Lewi

    Cool diz))

  4. Marvin

    You are wrong. We will consider.

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