Thursday, June 19, 2008

My First (and Hopefully Last) Meal in Prison

by Erin

Hey folks! I know it's been a while since we got a new post up but I promise, some good ones are in the pipeline! It's been very busy for me with work and schoolwork, and with Xani moving into the new house (no nickname yet...any suggestions??), so please be patient. And now: my first meal in prison!

As some of you may know, for my summer job I am a legal intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is an agency within the Department of Justice. It's been a good experience thus far and I have learned so much, not only about corrections law and its many facets, but also about the federal prison system in general and how all the agencies work (or are supposed to work) together to make everything come together. As legal interns for the government, they can't pay us much, but they make up for it by taking us on pretty f-ing awesome field trips. (Remember when I went shooting with ATF last summer??)

Handguns first; no biggie!

...and then we shot automatic weapons!

So today was one of these field trips, and we spent the day at a prison! This facility is a medium-security facility located in New Jersey, so it was a bit of a road trip to get up there from DC and Baltimore. We spent the day touring the many facilities of the institution (e.g., education, SHU (Special Housing Unit, or "the hole" for you old-timey prison-movie-lovers), medical, the library, the housing units, and the commissary).

But the most important (and relevant to the blog) stop was the CHOW HALL. Chow Hall was one of the first places we visited on the tour, so when we walked in, everybody stared at us, and we stared back. It was an experience, to say the least. Now, because the inmates are at a medium level of security, they are free to roam around the compound (unless of course they have work or school or it's lockdown). So, chow hall was just like any other cafeteria except it was all men, and they were all wearing the same outfit (gasp!).

We knew we'd be having lunch at the prison, so we were fully prepared to get in line and grab a tray. But, they instead had us go into a separate dining hall for staff members to have our lunch. I should mention that inmates run the entire cafeteria (cooking, cleaning up, serving, etc.), with supervision from staff members. (Interestingly, we learned that inmates run most of the things within the facility, including teaching some of the classes that are offered.)

So, what was for lunch? It so happened that I was first in line so when the guy asked what I wanted, I just said, "everything." I ended up with a piece of fried chicken (a quarter - leg and thigh), mashed potatoes, gravy, and collard greens. There was also a salad bar with several kinds of salad (I just had greens with some vinaigrette). We also had a choice of lemonade or iced tea; I chose lemonade, which was cool and refreshing after walking around in the sun for a bit. The guys who served us were incredibly sweet.

The verdict? The fried chicken was pretty good! Very good crispy skin (of course) and tender meat underneath. That was totally the highlight of the plate. The mashed potatoes were straight out of my high school cafeteria (go Golden Bears!), and the collard greens were...green. And bland. As we were having a lovely lunch together, discussing Top Chef, the blog, Anthony Bourdain, buffalo wings, etc., an inmate came around with a selection of desserts! Although the inmate who was serving them didn't know exactly what he was offering us, he tried to help and said "good choice" after everyone selected theirs. So cute. We ended up getting a banana poundcake of sorts, some delicious and chewy oatmeal raisin cookies, and some yellow cake with chocolate icing. The cookies were the best, hands down. I chose the banana cake but only had a few bites since I was pretty full by that point. So what was the tab? Two bucks. All that for two dollars! (Note that staff have to pay two dollars; inmates eat three meals a day for free.)

Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed into the prison (that's contraband, and bringing contraband into a prison is a FELONY), so no pics of the food. But, you've seen fried chicken before, right?

Anyway, I just wanted to share what I thought was a pretty unique experience. Hopefully I will only be back at a penal institution on my own terms!

Happy jailbird eats,

EP

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