Behind Bars, 2 Reasons For Thanksgiving

Angie, an inmate in the cube next to mine, would come back to North Dorm at 6:30 every evening in her hounds tooth checkered pants and white scrub shirt—a prison’s kitchen uniform—stinking of onions and Pine Sol.

She posted a sign on her TV, the prison kind of TV:  clear plastic, showing all electrical innards and exposing any contraband the sneaky prisoner tries to hide in it. The sign read: “Do the women run this bitch or what?”

I learned the answer as my time went on here at York CI.  Yes, we do.  The women run this bitch.

At least when it comes to prison food, female inmates are Connecticut’s correctional culinary center.  In the tradition of true chauvinism, the Department of Correction keeps its women in the kitchen.  Instead of barefoot and pregnant, we have our feet clad in black rubber Wellington boots, and most of us are pregnant with “York babies”—bloated bellies, localized fat deposits from overeating that resemble pregnancies so much that many women find themselves fielding the question. “When are you due?”  We prepare most of the food consumed by the state’s entire prison population.  It all happens here.

Foodstuffs like bread, eggs, milk, margarine, sausages, fruit and the patty panoply (chicken, beef, Jamaican beef, veal, haddock and vegetarian) arrive directly from the distributor.  But the women are the ones who put the buns in the ovens for the men, figuratively speaking; we make all of the beans, gravies, soups, sauces and stews.

Actually, I make those things working in the Department of Correction’s Food Preparation Unit, or “Food Prep.” They call me a cook, but that label gives me too much credit.  I’m really a “loader.”  For $1.75 a day, I toss large quantities (up to 50 lbs.) of spices, starch, crushed tomatoes, diced vegetables, beans, meat and TVP (texturized vegetable protein, a type of synthetic meat, chunks of soy that increase the protein proportion of inmates’ daily caloric intake without having to shell out for chicken, beef or turkey) into 200-gallon stainless steel kettles. Other inmates, the “pumpers,” drain the kettles with an industrial pump, siphoning meals like chicken cacciatore, chicken a la king, “southwest beef and cheese” (think chili with cottage cheese and powdered cheese sauce mixed in), Southern chowder (clam chowder with TVP stepping in for the clams), minestrone soup, zucchini and tomato casserole and barbeque beans with two-gallon plastic bags that we distribute to the men’s prisons for them to heat and eat.  The male prisoners never cook their own cacciatore, king, casserole or cheese sauce; the Food Prep women do all of that for all of the Department of Correction.

I told you: We run this bitch.

Before it became York Correctional Institution, even before it was the Connecticut Correctional Institution at Niantic, the state once called this prison the State Farm for Women because the inmates raised chickens, pigs, groomed horses.  We fed extra food to the pigs and called our own food, particularly the stew-like creations pumped out of kettles, “slop.”

I followed the other inmates’ lead once and called it slop, even saying that the cacciatore was “my favorite slop.”  A supervisor in food prep threatened, “I will fire your ass!” if I called the product of his work, his career, “slop,” so I stopped.

Only ten supervisors oversee the Food Preparation Unit and its warehouse.  The Department of Correction holds these nine men and one woman responsible for forcing out tens of thousands of meals every weekday.  They depend on inmate labor to accomplish this goal.  The inmate worker population turns over often.  Most of the staff members have worked here for more than 10 years—a few more than 20 years—and they astound me everyday when they control inmates who mash the veggie patties into phony dog poop, women who call out the gynecological announcements about blood stains in the workers’ bathroom, the prisoners who hide from heat on summer mornings by standing in the vegetable cooler, and the ladies who think that the seasonings have poisoned them.

Managing this mess is not an option; they must cook the food so that inmates can eat.  These supervisors are as essential employees as you can find.

No one really knows who’s zoomin’ who when it comes to prison labor.  Sure, psychotic prisoners drive staff members up a wall, but most people employed by a prison would not keep their careers were it not for the prisoner proletariat; the inmates are the gerbils on the wheels of any correctional institution even if we are as crazy as shithouse rats.  We cook the food, clean every mess, wash all the clothes, shelve all the library books, rake the leaves, dispose of all biohazard, and wipe up the blood from every fight.  Correctional employment comes to employees courtesy of women who are in the process of being corrected.  It’s almost our fault that the DOC keeps pulling in new catches to justify exempting corrections from the state’s hiring freeze; we work hard to make it possible for the courts to send more women here by sewing and cooking and cleaning their new landing strips.  Indeed, without workers like me, men and women sent to prison would waste, starving for a warm meal of mock meat.

Essentially, the warm meals in prison never change.  A few meals remain the same (Tuesday lunch - beanies and weenies; Thursday lunch - chicken patty with baked potato; Saturday lunch, cheeseburger with corn; Sunday breakfast, cottage cheese, applesauce and oatmeal, to name a few). But otherwise the same meals rotate in a four-week cycle.

Only four days every year see special meals: The second Sunday of February, which dishes up the Black History Month lunch of racial stereotypes (fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese); the Fourth of July; Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  The Fourth and the Christmas meals barely deviate from the drudgery of the usual menu; the Fourth of July’s hot dog and hamburger borrow the dog from Tuesday’s lunch and the cheeseburger from Saturday to make its special meal. Christmas’ roast beef dinner is just the Cycle One Sunday lunch dumped on another day.

The one meal that is truly a treat, a real departure from the usual bill of fare, is the Thanksgiving Day meal.  Mostly in advance, and sometimes on that day, Food Prep runs Thanksgiving in prison.  The women who work in Food Prep with me as butchers must slice close to 10,000 pounds of turkey to feed all the inmates and the staff that work on Thanksgiving.  The vegetable workers dice celery and carrots for the stuffing, loaders and pumpers mix and pour the gravy.

Two years ago, one of the Food Prep supervisors came into work at 2 a.m. to roast all the turkey and leave it in heated storage until we could eat it at our usual lunchtime of 10 a.m.

At that assigned time, inmate workers in the dining hall fill our divided trays with turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, mashed turnips and a slice of pumpkin pie.  The offerings outnumber the openings on the tray, so a kitchen supervisor usually draws a serving schematic to direct the servers as to how to fit all of the food.

The Thanksgiving Day meal is not bad by anyone’s standards; by correctional standards; it’s downright sumptuous.  Without any exaggeration or sham sentimentality, I tell you that inmates give great thanks for this meal.

More than those four ounces of turkey and collection of side dishes, I value what the supervisors in Food Prep have done for me.  DP forgave me when I ran over his foot with 200 pounds of food as I learned to maneuver a “pallet jack.”  JR pulled me back to Food Prep when an impudent counselor tried to poach me for his own janitorial workforce.  PB helped to torpedo an incoming informal discipline report, and SS and MP often perform my duties so that I can leave work to write.  CR prepares special meals as unofficial bonuses for all of the workers, and he taught me about chiffonade, flash points, and how to read meat’s cooking rate by its crispiness.  EM protects me and the other workers like a mama bear and fends off guards who try to take out food; he risks extreme disapproval from the officers by defending the rights of some very unpopular women.  SE defended me when a ringmaster supervisor from the dining hall where I once worked wrote me a very unfair, very inaccurate work evaluation report and wrote me one of his own, a kind one.

I have worked in Food Prep for two years.  The extra food is a boon but not enough to sign me up for any job.  Food Prep’s real blessing is that I, for one of the few times in my life, interface with trusted authority figures.  All I have to do in Food Prep is to perform my duties, work hard, treat people with respect, and be honest.

For that, these supervisors reward me. They joke with me, appropriately, and I feel less like a quantity and more like a quality. Because I feel so humanized by my bosses, I now act protective towards them, snapping “Put it back!” to any inmate who I know has stolen cubed white chicken meat or dehydrated onions to bring back to her cell.

“You’re offending them ... You’re stealing from them after all they do for you?!” I ask them.

“They don’t know about this,” the inmates inevitably explain as they pack their pilfered packages into their panties.

“I know about it. PUT IT BACK!” I order them.  They call me a staff sympathizer; “always in staff’s face” is how they put it.  In Food Prep, I am.

One day as I waited to load Chicken Louisiana—a tomato-based chicken stew with Creole spices, peppers and celery—a supervisor from the dining hall moved bread and boxes of frozen corn from Food Prep to the main kitchen and asked me if I would help him haul everything in one trip.  As I obliged, he called to EM:  “I got your girl.  She’ll be right back.  Just helping me bring this stuff over.”

“Keep her!” EM kidded to the dining hall supervisor as I dragged the bread racks about 50 yards.

“Thanks for that,” I joked back when I walked back into Food Prep, carb-free.  “Haven’t I reminded you that I run this bitch?”

Chandra Bozelko is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Readers can write to her at:
Chandra Bozelko
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357

Previous prison diary entries:

In Prison, Sandy Packed A Different Punch
A Favor Turns Into An Investigation
Behind Bars, Colors Complicate Halloween
Earthworm vs. Inmate Evolution
The Power Of The Pen
The Sandusky-Komisarjevsky Connection: Today’s Victim Is Tomorrow’s Killer
Inmate’s Court Journey: Dump-Dumped & Probed
Love As Contraband
Why I Faked A Suicide Note
This Seat’s Not Taken

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posted by: Edward_H on November 22, 2012  12:40pm

” All I have to do in Food Prep is to perform my duties, work hard, treat people with respect, and be honest.”

Replace “Food Prep” with “life” and maybe you would not be where you are!