Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


Click here to read more about this prison chicken & garden project in OH.
In her debut book about adventures in urban farming and home cooking, Bake the Bread, Buy the Butter, Jennifer Reese explores the feasibility of preparing a variety of everyday foods from scratch.  It's a fun book because in describing how she cooks, she describes her daily dilemmas, her family and all the other odds and ends which make a life.  While I might not be up for skinning my own hazelnuts to make Nutella at home, the book made me realize that I really don't need to be buying hummus in the store if I can just get my hands on a blender and some tahini. And, with some lumber and wire, I might even be able to get eggs from my own backyard...

Indeed, Jennifer's chapter about raising chickens in her suburban home was intriguing.  Even after she fully disclosed the costs of keeping the animals and the heartache that comes when the coop is breached, I am still thinking it sounds like a good idea.  I don't especially like to eat eggs, but I am enticed by the prospect of holding a warm shell in my hand and watching the creatures peck around the back yard.  Jennifer writes:

"The truth is, my family and I keep chickens now because we think they're 
beautiful and funny and we like to watch them scratching around.  
They make me smile, they make me think, and they come when I call.  
They are my chickens and I am their person."

Keeping chickens in prisons and jails, seems like a good idea that many jurisdictions have already taken up.  The big prison farm states, like Texas and California, have probably kept poultry for decades. But there are smaller operations as well, like the jail in Ohio that is described in the photo and news article above.

Among the women who I interviewed about food in the CT prison, eggs - served hard boiled at breakfast - were a very popular item.  In part because hard-boiled eggs are a "whole food" that one can identify.  In a world where food is often served in slop form - broken down, mixed up and mysterious - foods in their natural form are less suspect and appreciated.  Hard-boiled eggs are also a hit because they are relatively easy to smuggle out of the cafeteria.  The women at Niantic have about 10 minutes to eat at meal time and a 12 hour period between dinner and breakfast, so it is not uncommon for inmates to try to remove food from the cafeteria to eat later, at their own pace, even though this practice is prohibited.  Participant #3 recalls:

You know, they [correctional officers] would ask you, be talking, they would stop me and ask me, “Do you have anything on you?”  I used to laugh at them.  Like, what?  You don’t have time enough to eat, you have to steal to get your--  Give me a break.  They actually think I’m gonna be honest and say, “Yes,  I have two eggs that somebody gave me right here.” [Puts her hands on her breasts, as the eggs had been tucked away in her bra.] Come on, you know what I mean, please.  I mean, I’m starving, you’re not feeding me right.  No, I don’t have anything.  And they’ll give you that look like, “Do you have anything?”  I used to have to keep my face straight cause I wanted to laugh at them, you know what I mean.  You know, I’m like, “No, I don’t have anything.”  

While chickens would provide a ready supply of a popular food item, eggs alone could not justify the installation of a chicken coop at the CT's York Correctional Institute (YCI) since, as Jennifer describes, it's cheaper to buy mass produced eggs than raise chickens.  The real "mojo" of a prison chicken coop would be the opportunity for inmates to get outside, take care of something and participate in the production of their own food.

Dog and cats already live behind prison walls.   Prison stories abound about cats on the inside.  Puppy programs exist in many prisons, including YCI, allowing inmates to train service dogs for people with disabilities.  At the prison where I volunteer in Spain, dogs are brought in to visit with mentally ill prisoners.

Chickens may not provide the same level of companionship as these more traditional pets, but they are less expensive and easier to maintain.  They are not averse to being locked up in small spaces.  While Chicken Little may not exactly be a stand-in for Lassie, if what Jennifer writes is true, chickens can offer inmates the opportunity to smile, think and be something's "person." That seems like a good deal to me.