Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

I-91, Exit 9

Home Sweet Home
While my home is in New Haven, CT, I am living in Spain this year.  It's great to be here - the places, the people, the food, the mid-afternoon siesta.  A real treat.  But as all of you who have ever been to summer camp will attest, having all the fun in the world doesn't mean that you forget home. You think about home.  Romanticize about home.  Want to be home.

The other night, my 9 year old son and I were watching Modern Family on the Internet and an ad for Target came on.  We both looked at each other, wide-eyed and dreamy.  Wouldn't it be fun to go to I-91 Exit 9 in fabulous North Haven, CT? Wander around Target, pick up a Skinny Grande Latte at Starbucks, maybe catch a movie at the Rave Cinema? The Avenue Q soundtrack playing in the minivan.

Sigh.  It's human nature to yearn for home when we're not there.

This is especially true when we are being held somewhere we don't want to be, against our will.  Like, for example, prison.  Prisoners think about going home and being at home, a lot.  In his autobiography, A Place to Stand, the poet Jimmy Santiago Baca describes how he used his ability to mentally transport himself to his hometown to survive incarceration, including long weeks in solitary confinement.  He would bring himself into a trance-like state, drawing out every detail of his youth from his memory until he could almost feel the New Mexico sun bearing down on him.

Food can be a big part of this yearning for home.  Several of the formerly incarcerated women who I interviewed about prison food included their experiences with imaginary food.  The food they hoped to eat when they got home.   Here is a narrative from Participant #22:

Oh my God!  I think everybody says what they’re going to cook when they going home.  I just said I’m going to make steak... That’s like my favorite food...  I used to fantasize about my mom cooking.  That’s one of the things, the topic, that’s a conversation that went on all day long in jail.  Like, “Oh my God.  I would kill for French fries.”  Or “I would kill to make, for lasagna.”  “I would kill for a real salad!”  You know. But you try not to think about it ‘cause it’s not gonna happen.  And I guess it’s more torture fantasizing about it, when you know it’s not going down.  

These narratives always end the same way.  After dreaming about certain foods for months on end, when the women get out, the food dream is never realized.  Barely housed, looking for a job, trying to reconnect with family, it's hardly the time for celebratory dinners.  The food dream either gets forgotten, or forced, without a pleasant outcome.  Participant #22 continues:

And you what the thing is?  You say all this stuff – when I get home I’m going to make this, I’m gonna cook this - and when you get home you don’t even cook the stuff because you’re just so, how could I say that word, overwhelmed to be out of jail.  So, like you’re – let me tell you, your body. You have to be careful when you come out of jail and you start eating the regular food again.  Because, now, your stomach is transforming back to a different kind of food.   And so then you’re going to go through the constipation thing again.  You might even throw up sometime because it’s… you haven’t had a lot of pizza in your stomach in a long time.  So, now you’re going back to the greasy food or whatever type food you like, whether you’re a vegetarian – but you’re going back to the pasta, the heavy sauces, stuff that your stomach is not used to having.  So you got to be careful.  So, this big meal that you’re planning on having when you get home, you’re stomach can’t even take it.  You’re mentally might can take it, but physically you can’t. 

The reality of Exit 9 is that Javier and I rarely wander aimlessly around Target sipping lattes.  Usually we slug in there after a long day of school and work, me rushing, Javier two steps behind me, to buy poster board, tampons or whatever item is desperately needed, last minute, in the 15 minute break between his drum lesson and picking up his sister from choir.  The seats at the Rave Cinema have bed bugs and you could feed a family in Haiti for a month for what it costs to buy a couple tickets. The Avenue Q soundtrack is wonderful, so it's not a complete distortion, but you get the idea.  There's the dream and there's the reality, and they don't always overlap.