Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

You may ask yourself, how did she get here?

Go Gabe!
And You May Find Yourself Living In A Shotgun Shack,
And You May Find Yourself In Another Part Of The World,
And You May Find Yourself Behind The Wheel Of A Large Automobile,
And You May Find Yourself In A Beautiful House, With A Beautiful Wife,
And You May Ask Yourself - Well...How Did I Get Here?

                               --- Talking Heads, Once in A Lifetime, 1984



I imagine that many of you out there lose sleep some nights wondering, how did Amy come up with this whole food-prison idea?  Well, that's a good question.  As with everything else, there's a story...

Between 2005-2007, I worked at the Yale School of Public Health coordinating a federally funded study called SHARRPP about the impact of the criminal justice system on HIV risk.  Your tax dollars at work!  (Don't tell Newt.)  The study was designed and run by my boss at the time, and mentor extraordinaire, Dr. Kim Blankenship.  In her infinite wisdom, she assigned me the task of interviewing our 48 study participants every six months for a year for a total of 3 interviews per person.  Each interview was about 2 hours.  That's a lot of stories.

We asked the participants questions about various aspect of their lives, with a focus on their criminal justice experiences and drug use and sexual behavior.  At the end of each interview, I would ask participants if there was anything else they would like to share.  In response to this open-ended question, several people talked about food.  I thought these stories were fascinating.  That's how I got here.

Here, I share one story that really stands out in my mind.  This narrative was told by a 27 year old, male, Puerto Rican participant.  He was a heroin injection drug user who had been to prison 4 times.  He shared the following thoughts at the very end of his first interview.  Read along, my comments in red....

MS06

I: We talked about a lot—is there anything I forgot?  Something I didn’t ask about that you feel like—the way that going to jail has affected you—something we haven’t talked about?

P: I don’t know. I just—to be honest with you, I don’t want to go back to jail because that’s the mess and, um, if you didn’t have money to eat, you would be suffering because no one can…it’s not like here you go, a cup of soup. 

Food is crucial in prison.  If you are unable to gain access to it, you suffer. 

In the next paragraph, he describes the commissary order form.  It is a "bubble form", like the ones used in standardized tests.  One of the many ways in which the transition from public school to prison is seamless.  If you can complete the test correctly, you'll get cheese.

You know, they give you a slip, right, a slip. It’s like a—like a slip. It’s like a test you know, you get—It’s like a—they give you like—that’s a slip. Just like that, right?  Ok, whatever, and then to go at the beginning like, just to put it like this, something like that (acts out writing)….it gave the food, whatever food…And here it say, put your name and then underneath, they got like a circle, right?  With all the letters, right, in here.  So, you put the cheese, you get cheese, whatever, right?  And like above it, until you get that, and the page on the back. Say you want Hershey’s, soups, um, whatever, whatever.
So, you got until $50 and you got cosmetics too, also. Like, you know…

I: Well, what about the stuff they give you for free. I mean, don’t—you don’t get any food for free?

P: Hell! Yeah, the food they give you when you go to, um, breakfast or lunch or dinner. After 4 o’clock when you get the dinner, you can’t…after 4 o’clock you didn’t get nothing until 6 the next day. So, four to six was the—how many hours is that?  Ten. Yeah. Four to six. Ten. So, let me tell you, in jail, you had—you didn’t do anything else. So, if you’re going to be just like that…you’re going to get hungry. You’re getting starving and I know, I say because, it’s just the way it is.

Prison schedules are designed to meet the needs of staff and administration, not inmates.  Talk about hunger and starving evokes emotion and represents an extreme form of powerlessness.  When someone denies you food - whether that be the Institution or other inmates - this is a signal that they do not care about you.

…Puerto Rican was two of them. I was scared….They were eating and they, they know that I have nothing, nothing. And then, “You buddy, yo buddy, here’s soup.” Nothing. And it really hurt me because I was starving, I mean. And then I happen to see that. You know, they don’t really care about others

Faced with limited resources, collaboration is essential for survival.  Social networks are developed with caution, but developed.  All human beings are social creatures, after all. 

You had to have your own thing in jail. In order for you to survive. You know, you’re going to find someone who’s going to help, but there’s a lot of grimy people in jail.

But I would—just thank God and thank my mom or my friend or my stepfather send me money. I was able, able, able to get $50 every week for the whole nine months that I was in jail…

Friends and family on the outside are often asked - or volunteer - to send money to prisoners.  This support can represent a significant burden for these folks who probably have limited resources.  Here, MS06 suggests that his family sent him $50 a week for 9 months, for a total of $1,800.  Money which ultimately represents profits for the private corporations that operate prison commissaries.

To not receives this support, is perceived by MS06 as a message that the family is mad at the inmate.  Not receiving money from the outside, may also put the prisoner in a vulnerable position, forced to accept favors from others.

I had two white boys who were real close, I mean, I know those kids. I love them and I knew they didn’t—because their parents, they were so mad at him, they…They wouldn’t send the money. And every time that I eat, they were eating with me.

I: So, you shared with them?

Below, MS06 describes how food is used to produce friendship and intimacy - just as it does "on the outside."

P: Oh, yeah. All the time because they was—even, I didn’t let nobody sit in my bed and I say, yo, every time you want to share with me , both of you, go in my bed. You can sit in my bed. Only you can’t—you can’t lay in my bed. Those two white boys… and the Puerto Ricans were kind of mad at me because of that. So, anyone, they didn’t give you nothing…Oh, you know what happened. One day, I don’t know what happened with men or whatever, they couldn’t go to the store for like three weeks and after that, I started getting my food…So, now, I got my stuff and they had nothing. So, I was like I was with two white boys, white people.

Next, he describes the value of coffee in prison.  Stories about coffee trades and smuggling abound.  The manner in which the substance is packaged and exchanged by inmates mirrors the drug trade on the street.  Prison food systems often reinforce the idea that life is one big hustle - game the system, trick other people, lie, steal, sneak.

So, we was getting coffee. You got coffee in jail, coffee’s like gold. I was—coffee, they had coffee too. We was eating coffee cake or honey bun and then at night, I make it both for us and one of the two those (unable to hear )Puerto Rican when I was tight. They weren’t helping me out. It was them. I was just eating right in front of them. So, basically they see me, that I eat with them, the same thing they did to me, I was doing to them. So, they feel—how did it feel. How do they feel when you ain’t got nothing and you’re eating right in front of them. You know what, you know what I learned, the—when you have something, you got to learn how to share because just think about today. Today, today, today, but you don’t know what’s going to happen down at the end. And you might—you might need going to need something from me.

The sentiment that MS06 shares at the end - that you have to share - is a story told by many of the women my study.  In contrast to the stories that suggest prisoner are bad people - quick to steal and betray for a Ramen noodle soup - there are many stories about sharing and benevolence between inmates.  Some, like this one, allow the inmate to construct their identity as "good" and "generous," moving away from the "bad guy" identity created by the criminal justice system.

There you have it!  How it all began.  I think in the movie, MS06 should be played by Johnnie Depp, but we'll see how casting goes...