Tasting the Worst

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By Dave Baker

On paper, dining in the American prison has come a long way. Common portrayals of inmates shuffling down chow lines to have slop and gruel heaped on to their trays seem archaic. In 2011, the Connecticut Department of Corrections served over 20,750,000 meals at a minimal cost to the taxpayer of roughly $2.30 for three square a day. Meals for all 18,500 Connecticut inmates are prepared at a single kitchen housed in the York Correctional Institution, an all-women’s facility, and in addition to accommodating specific dietary and religious restrictions, the D.O.C also supports the state economy by purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables. Sounds wholesome enough. But taste is inextricably tied to memory. It elicits visceral reactions, and when former inmates rehash their worst experiences in lock up, food is never far from the top.

Andrew Barton refused to eat the food at first. “I didn’t eat for the first three days,” Barton explained. A former inmate at Cheshire and Enfield Correctional Institutions, Barton quickly recognized his options: eat or starve. “One of the older guys told me, ‘Listen, man you gotta eat. I know it sucks.’ It took me awhile, but you get used to it.” Barton adjusted to his new diet over the course of a grueling first month. “The food was hell on my stomach. I couldn’t keep anything down at first, so I eased into it.” Cheshire C.I’s cafeteria followed a steady rotation of meals easy enough to prepare for over 1,400 inmates.

Breakfast included oatmeal or cereal, and powdered eggs. Lunch presented a little more variety; bologna sandwiches and hotdogs were mainstays, with chicken patties or cheeseburgers offered two days a week – something to look forward to. Rice and pasta were heavily featured at dinner along with popcorn chicken, and beef was served on occasion. “They called it beef, but you knew exactly what you were getting. They weren’t fooling anyone,” Barton said. Many former inmates say settling into a routine is a major part of coping with life on the inside. For Barton, stomaching the food was as much an endurance test as it was a routine.

Barton found prison food tolerable, at best. It was hardly home cooking, but Connecticut’s D.O.C appears to be a cut above other state penitentiaries when it comes to food. In 2008, The Huffington Post reported on a class action suit brought against the state of Vermont by inmates claiming that nutraloaf – a mixture of whole wheat bread, nondairy cheese, raw carrots, spinach, seedless raisins, beans, vegetable oil, tomato paste, powdered milk and dehydrated potato flakes – was more punishment than sustenance. In fact, Vermont prison officials agreed. Vermont Corrections Commissioner Rob Hofmann told the Post’s Wilson Ring that nutraloaf was often served to alleviate violent and destructive behaviors. “It usually has the desired outcome,” Hofmann said.

Prisons using food as punishment has been carefully monitored in the United States for decades. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state of Arkansas serving its inmates “grue,” a high-protein oatmeal concoction, citing that “[“grue”] might be tolerable for a few days and intolerably cruel for weeks or months.” Inmates from around the nation occasionally lobby the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union to address the ever-present food issue, but it rarely comes up in litigation.

I wanted a taste of this. I wanted to shock my taste buds, bite into authentic D.O.C fare and take in the same food Connecticut’s inmates choke down every day. The only catch: limited access. Overcoming the mountain of paperwork to get into a penitentiary can be as difficult as trying to escape one. Get permission from this person, talk to that person. Fill out paperwork. What’s your purpose in this facility? No, I’m sorry we can’t discuss that. It’s only a $2.30 meal. They couldn’t spare something for a curious party?

Politicians, pundits, and average people describe the offender population in a myriad of ways. A key phrase that continually gets lost in the scrum, however, is resourceful. Enter The Convict’s Cookbook. A collection of cellblock-inspired meals by neuropsychiatrist and former Florida Department of Corrections consultant Dr. K. Sham, The Cookbook contains numerous recipes inmates can make with limited ingredients and appliances. A reoccurring favorite is mofongo.

Traditionally, mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish made with beef or pork cracklings, bits of bacon, and vegetables encased in a fried plantain. No commissary offers plantains or fresh vegetables, so inmates get creative. Under the guidance of fellow RELEASE staffer and former corrections officer Keith Dauch, we made a sampling of this prison staple. We made our own mofongo.

Dauch worked for the Connecticut D.O.C for ten years, serving primarily in the Hartford Correctional Center. For the inmates there, preparing mofongo was a nightly culinary project. “The second we hit lights, the guys would start pooling their commissary [items] and make this stuff,” Dauch explained. The recipe called for three clear garbage bags, one bag of generic potato chips, three packages of chicken flavored Raman noodles, a stick of pepperoni, and a can of squeezable cheese.

Most inmates boil water using a stinger, a contraband item that can potentially short-out entire cellblocks or function as a weapon, according to Connecticut D.O.C policy. We boiled water on a kitchen stove, sidestepping any potential for blowing a fuse or electrocuting ourselves, otherwise we stayed true to the process. We smashed up the Raman noodles and potato chips on the floor. We poured the crushed bits of Utz into a garbage bag along with a cup of water. Next, we mashed the crumbs into a salty paste consistent with ground beef well past its expiration date. We spread the paste over the counter like pizza dough, and sliced up pepperoni with an expired driver’s license – inmates use their I.D. cards as cutlery. We substituted canned cheese with Kraft shredded cheddar and added it into a third bag with boiled Raman noodles and chunks of pepperoni, mixing all of it together by hand. We smeared Raman-pepperoni-cheese filling over the soggy, potato chip dough and folded over like an omelet. The old license cut through it with ease. The moment of truth: it was time to taste it.

Any hopes of salvaging our dish with some extra cheese flat-lined after my first bite. This wholesale food medley, this thing, blitzkrieged my senses; I barely got down a mouthful. Brackish, bland, and miserable, mofongo epitomized a shame meal, but what did I honestly expect from something made in a garbage bag? The verdict was in. Mofongo was disgusting. I rinsed out the salt and plastic aftertaste a few dozen times.

“These guys ate this every night?” I asked Dauch.

“Every night.”

Mofongo’s key ingredient isn’t Raman noodles or processed meat. It’s sodium. According to the Mayo Clinic, The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advised limiting one’s sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg a day. Three packages of Raman noodles already placed mofongo’s sodium count at 5,106 mg – one package alone accounts for 71 percent of the daily value. Add an additional 570 mg from Utz potato chips, 1,653 mg in a stick of pepperoni, 180 mg from Kraft shredded cheddar, and mofongo checks in at 7,509 mg of sodium, well over three times the recommended amount. All told, one bag of mofongo contains 2,617 calories, 1,333 from fat. Given these statistics, it’s safe to assume that even a portion of this inmate delicacy is horrifyingly unhealthy.

Sodium does perform an essential role in maintaining a balance of fluids in the body, but its adverse affects pile up: high blood pressure, increased risks of heart failure, stroke, liver and kidney disease, all of these can result from ingesting excess sodium. In recent years, researchers also discovered links between sodium imbalances and mental health problems like bipolar disorder, dementia, and a litany of mood disorders, leaving inmates with salt-heavy diets incredibly vulnerable.

From public schools to prisons, institutionalization and good food rarely go hand-in-hand. Generating enough funds to support the sheer number of incarcerated citizens in the United States is task enough, so it makes sense for flavor and quality to plummet down the list of priorities. Try as we might, we will never fully understand life on the inside. Only the men and women who have done time can grasp the nuances and comprehend the ebb and flow of living behind stonewalls and barbed wire fences. But for a few seconds, I could say I had a taste of it; that I tasted the worst.

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