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Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Week of Prison Food -- June 25, 2011

The food served to inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections has become progressively worse, and the portions smaller. When I first arrived at Pontiac maximum-security penitentiary in 1995, the food was surprisingly good, especially compared to that at Cook County Jail where I spent two years prior to my trial. The food in prison was incredibly much better in the 1990s, however, as the State of Illinois has accumulated enormous debts, administrators have tried to squeeze the costs of housing 50,000 prisoners. Medical care, educational programs, detail salaries, mail service, clothing, and building maintenance are some of the areas with major budget cuts. In this journal entry, however, I will focus on the food we are given daily at Stateville.

Breakfast is served always in the middle of the night. About 3 a.m., trays are passed out to the inmates. Every Sunday we are given a biscuit and gravy, along with grits or oatmeal. At one time, the prison served scrambled eggs and two large fluffy buttermilk biscuits with real beef gravy. The gravy had onion and chopped green peppers in it, and it went well with the biscuits. We were also given a hearty portion of oatmeal with packages of sugar, butter, and jelly. However, now prisoners are given a tiny flat biscuit, thrown into some distasteful soy gravy drool. With this we are given about a half cup of grits. We are never given eggs, butter or jelly anymore, and packs of sugar were taken away a long time ago.

Because I have the lower bunk, I get up to get the trays. Usually I have difficulty sleeping and waken before the cart of food is brought by, however, sometimes the prison worker will wake me up. My cellmate despises Sunday's breakfast, and I do not wake him for his tray. Instead, I put his carton of milk and half carton of juice on the window bars for him to drink when he wants to. Then I look at the two trays and decide if anything is worth saving. I never eat my breakfast when it is served, but put it in a plastic container until I wake up later in the day.

The biscuits were covered in soy gravy, disliked by most inmates. I pulled them out of the congealed quicksand in an attempt to save them. Using my plastic spoon, I scraped them off and put them in a bowl. In this bowl I also put one portion of grits. Because it was cold, it came out in one clump. I would have taken my cellmate's serving as well, if it was oatmeal. I am not a big fan of grits, however. After putting the two trays on the door and my milk and juice on the window bars, I went back to bed. Before I fell asleep, I heard the prison worker going by with the cart asking if anyone wanted another tray. I do not think anyone took him up on his offer.

When I awoke several hours later, I ate breakfast while watching the morning news. The two tiny biscuits and meager portion of grits were not going to satisfy my appetite. I took out a jar of peanut butter and a jar I store bran cereal in. I also took a banana that was served to us a few days ago and sliced it into my bowl. I used these to put on my peanut butter-smeared biscuits and my cereal.

Lunch was passed out at about 10 a.m., and not long after I completed my workout. I was not hungry, however, and took out the breaded chicken-soy pattie from its tray and put it in my bowl, along with the serving of lettuce. The chicken-soy patties served at Stateville are usually as hard as hockey pucks. They are tough to eat and have gristle and chips of bone in them. At about noon, I put some store-bought packages of ketchup on the pattie to give it some flavor, and to make it easier to swallow. We were given a bun to put the pattie on, but I ate it separately because it was stale and would have only fallen apart if I made a sandwich. For dessert, we were given a little packaged cake that I put in my box for another time. As I ate my seasoned hockey puck, the phone was brought to my door. Sunday was Father's Day, and after I ate, I called home.

Sunday dinner consisted of 2 cuts of imitation bologna, 2 slices of bread, a portion of lettuce, 2 little packs of corn chips, and another packaged cake. My cellmate only wanted his corn chips and cake. I took off the bread and put it in a Ziploc bag. Then I crushed up my corn chips and put it in a bowl with some tuna fish I had purchased from commissary. I mixed this together with ketchup and made two sandwiches. I never eat the mystery meat cold cuts, and I left that on my tray to be picked up later by a worker. I usually give my cellmate my chips, and he was probably disappointed that I ate them. He asked me if I was going to heat up water later for a meal, and I told him I was. Later I boiled water for some Ramen Noodles. He ate his with only chili seasoning. I mixed the rest of my tuna into my noodles.

I do not eat Ramen Noodles often, but it is bought en mass by most prisoners. The noodles only cost a quarter, and men will often eat them as a substitute for prison food. The last time F House prisoners purchased commissary, I bought my cellmate 20 of them in exchange for a jar of peanut butter and 3 bags of instant brown rice. An inmate can only order 24 in one shop, and my cellmate wanted over 40. A portion of his box was dedicated to Ramen noodles, and I imagine many prisoners try to keep a supply of them.

On Monday, prisoners were served a turkey-soy pattie, 2 waffles, and the customary carton of juice and milk. Many times I will toss out the soy pattie, but this week I saved it in an empty rice bag. My cellmate ate his dry waffles in the middle of the night, but disposed of his pattie before going back to sleep. As always, I went back to sleep without eating but not before asking the inmate worker for a couple of extra milks. He usually knows to give me an extra milk, but had forgotten that night. I almost never bother the workers for extra food, but I will always get an extra milk or two out of them. Milk is only passed out at breakfast in the Roundhouse.

When the count lights came on Monday morning, I arose to make a cup of hot instant coffee. Prisoners are never given syrup with their pancakes or waffles, and thus I make my own. After spreading peanut butter over my waffles and a few slices of bread, I crushed cookie crumbs onto them before pouring my coffee over it all. I do not know when I began to do this, but it works very well, possibly even better than having maple syrup. Along with my waffles and bread, I ate some bran cereal. Breakfast is often my favorite meal of the day, although I usually have to improvise the meal, or use my own purchased foods.

Monday's lunch was sausage, bun, lettuce, and chocolate pudding. I discarded the sausage, and ate my breakfast soy-turkey pattie instead, along with some instant brown rice. My cellmate again ate a pack or two of Ramen noodles. Usually he eats a little better, but his loss on the NBA Championship game set him back a bit.

I had a plan for the chocolate pudding, and scooped this off my tray and into an empty milk carton. When meatballs were served for dinner, I made "Reese's Peanut Butter sandwiches." A Reese's peanut butter sandwich was just a peanut butter sandwich with chocolate pudding as a sugary spread. I ate about six of these while watching "The Bachelorette," and during commercials, I watched the Republican debates.

I almost never eat the meatballs served at Stateville. I joke to my cellmate that they taste like an entire groundhog was put through a wood chipper, and with the help of some soy emulsifier, made into meatballs. There are plenty of groundhogs on the prison grounds, and everyone knows the state wants to save money at our expense. These are the worst meatballs I have ever eaten. They are extremely tough and difficult to cut apart. If you bite into them, you are likely to see veins and weird configurations and colors. Once, the inside of one of my meatballs was green. They also have a lot of gristle and bone chips. I am surprised I have not broken a tooth eating them before. By the way, with the 4 meatballs in gravy, we were given 2 slices of bread, some chopped potatoes, and a dry packaged cake for desert.

Tuesday, prisoners were served 2 pieces of turkey bacon, a portion of oatmeal, and 2 slices of bread for breakfast. As always, I gave my turkey bacon to my cellmate. Most inmates love turkey bacon, and I was amused to see my cellmate when I awoke still having a piece of it in his hand as he slept. He had stayed up late watching TV, and apparently was so tired he fell asleep eating it in the middle of the night. I was surprised the cockroaches were not crawling all over him.

Instead of the turkey bacon, I ate my oatmeal with three peanut butter sandwiches. I cut slices off the cakes we were served the day before to put in my sandwiches and oatmeal. I also rinsed off some salted mixed nuts to put on them. The sandwiches were a little dry, but I ate them with plenty of skim milk.

The kitchen workers often reuse grease, and so when one fried meal is served, there is usually another after it. For lunch we had a fried triangle of breaded fish. Once again, I did not want it and offered it to my cellmate. When he said no, I gave the tray to my neighbor who was in control of the telephone. It was smart to be nice to the "phone man" every now and then, especially now, when I am using it much more often than I have in the past.

I asked my cellmate why he did not want the fried fish, and he said, "Because it is dripping in grease." I gave him the four bags of corn chips that were passed out after the trays, however, and this made him happy. For my part, I ate instant brown rice with chicken breast meat that was sold in a package from commissary. I continue to spend more and more money to feed myself with supplemental or substitute foods. Never before in my incarceration have I spent so much money to feed myself.

For dinner on Tuesday, inmates were served "Sloppy Soy" with a bun, more corn chips, a small portion of green beans, and a dry cake without frosting. Sloppy Soy is the name I have given the Sloppy Joes they serve here. It does not taste anything like a Sloppy Joe I remembered before my arrest, despite how much beef seasoning is put into the turkey-soy meal. Fortunately, it was mostly tomato paste, and I ate it like a dip with the corn chips.

The Sloppy Soy dip was not that much food, so for a snack later, I made myself oatmeal cinnamon raisin peanut butter sandwiches. The movie, "Equilibrium" was on the prison's DVD system, and I ate my sandwiches while watching it. The film was a dumb and unbelievable action flick where I think I saw over 5,000 people killed by automatic gunfire, swords, blunt objects, grenades, and other weapons without a drop of blood until the very end. Christian Bale starred in the movie that reminded me of the Matrix in some ways. While it was on, a strong storm passed by which I thought would leave me eating my sandwiches in the dark. The storm passed within 20 minutes, however, and I was able to complete watching the movie.

On Wednesday, prisoners were served turkey-soy patties again for breakfast, along with grits and 2 slices of bread. I was blessed with 2 patties that were stuck together. When I gave my cellmate his tray, he gave it back to me and asked me why I woke him up. I told him turkey-soy would make him a big and strong Amazon woman. Soy contains a trace amount of estrogen, and the quantity given prisoners probably increases their levels of the female hormone. It is regularly a topic or gripe of Stateville convicts. My cellmate was not amused, and rolled over to go back to sleep.

In the morning, I ate my turkey-soy pattie. I did not think I had too much to worry about, although I did not eat both of them. The processed turkey-soy does not taste good and cannot be good for a person's health. I made some bran cereal to eat with the grits, but discovered that my milk was sour. I dumped the cereal into the toilet, and figured I would just eat a lot of vending machine food later in the day. I was expecting a visit Wednesday.

When a tray of meatballs and chopped potatoes and carrots were served for lunch, I was glad I was to go on a visit. I did not have to make myself an alternative meal, or eat the processed groundhog. While waiting for my door to be opened and closed to notify me that I had a visit, I ate my carrots as well as my cellmate's. The food we are given often lacks sufficient vitamins and minerals. I will often take a multivitamin to make up for this, although I am uncertain if pills can be a substitute for nutritious food.

After 1 p.m. passed and I did not receive a visit, I knew no one was coming to see me. Visitation ends at 2:30 here, and no one is allowed to check in after 1:30. I searched through my box for something to eat. There was not much to choose from. Finally, I took a package of tuna fish and a chili Ramen noodle package. As I ate, I wondered if my parents had any health problems or worse, if my mother got into a car accident. As my parents age, I become concerned if they do not show up as expected.

Wednesday evening, recreation was run for us on 4 gallery in F House. I always like making a good meal before going out. I usually exercise the entire time and need the fuel and nutrition. Sausage, however, was served to my disappointment, along with a bun, lettuce, corn chips and an apple. I saved my apple and bun to spread peanut butter on as a snack after my workout, but otherwise only ate some lettuce before going to yard. I gave the chips to my cellmate.

Thursday morning, I usually eat a huge meal because I am on the yard for 5 hours. However, I had a health care pass and could not go out. This pass was to see Stateville's temporary medical director. Seeing the prison's medical director was very difficult, and I was not about to miss my appointment. All I ate that morning was a peanut butter sandwich and a small portion of oatmeal. On our food trays was also a sausage, but just like the day before, I threw it out. I hate sausage and would not mind going my entire life without every eating another, even if it was grilled Bratwurst or genuine Polish sausage.

I was at the Health Care Unit for 6 hours waiting to see the medical director. I was not the only one waiting, and after many people complained, the sergeant told us we could go back to our units if we wanted. If we chose to stay, he could not guarantee we would be seen, but he would give us all lunch trays. For lunch we were given fried chicken, and this quieted everyone. Fried chicken is the favorite meal of inmates here. True to his word, we were given trays. On them was a thigh and a leg, plus cabbage and mashed potatoes. As soon as I ate my food, I was called to see the doctor.

On my return to the Roundhouse, I asked the guard at the door if I could have a lunch tray. Trays are kept at the door for those returning from passes who were not present when lunch was passed out. The guard did not know I had been given a lunch at the hospital, but I do not think he would care. He told me, "Sure, take a tray and a snack." There was a box full of state cakes and a bundle of bananas. I took some bananas too.

I was glad to get the extra fried chicken tray because dinner was only cold cuts. I never eat the mystery meat, even when I was in Seg and was so thin that I could see a network of blue veins spiderweb across my entire body. With the two slices of imitation bologna was bread, lettuce, and 2 cookies. I ate the lettuce with my lunch tray, but put my bread and cookies in a zip lock bag.

On my return from the HCU, I read a book that was sent to me over a month ago. I did not care to read it because it was about a near death experience. I do not believe in the afterlife, but the person who sent me the book told me it was her favorite book and I wanted to see what she saw in it. I wish I had brought the book with me while waiting at the HCU for hours. However, I read the book until I completed it. It was then 8:00, and time for "Dual Survivor." While the men on the show dined on elk tongue and bone marrow, I ate a cinnamon raisin oatmeal peanut butter sandwich, just like the one I made a few nights ago.

Yesterday, I awoke especially early to get a haircut and did not have time to eat breakfast until I returned. At the barber school, I was scalped by some student who did not know how to cut hair. I wanted to immediately try to fix my hair, but I was too hungry. My favorite prison breakfast awaited me, and that was pancakes. Like the morning we were served waffles, I spread peanut butter over my flap jacks and 4 slices of bread. I then put cookie crumbs and nuts on top of the peanut butter before pouring hot coffee over all. I was especially hungry and also made a bowl of bran cereal to eat. The turkey bacon that was served with the meal, I had given to my cellmate in the middle of the night. This time he did not fall asleep holding it.

Lunch was also a good meal, in my opinion, although most other inmates did not agree. It was noodles and shredded chicken with a side portion of green beans. Any time it is not sausage, soy, or processed meat, I am content. A man returning from the law library offered me his tray if I gave him the two cookies that came with it. I agreed, and it was a good deal. I ate the meal I bartered for, instead of the greasy fried fish served for dinner. I would not be surprised if the fish we are given is not the bottom feeding Asian carp the State of Illinois is trying to eradicate from its rivers.

Today, inmates were given their favorite breakfast: donuts. Every Saturday, prisoners are served two donuts and two containers of cereal. The donuts used to come in different varieties and flavors, but now they are just plain. Regardless, prisoners treasure their donuts. I care less for them, however, and gave mine to my cellmate. Instead of donuts, I ate the generic cheerios with a couple of peanut butter-banana sandwiches.

Sloppy Soy was once again served for lunch, along with corn chips. I was not going to eat the soy meal again, and offered it to my cellmate. All he wanted was the chips, and so I saved the bun and cookies for some other time. Unfortunately, the same soy-turkey kibble was served for dinner. This time kitchen workers made it into taco filler. Dinner consisted of processed turkey-soy, two stale corn shells, lettuce, and a packaged state cake with no frosting. I ate this meal begrudgingly, along with some brown rice I made. I was very hungry after skipping lunch.

The last Batman film to be released is on a cable network tonight. While I write this journal entry, I am thinking of a snack to eat while watching it. I still have rice left over from earlier. I may make some burritos, however, I am hesitant to use my last package of chicken breast meat. Commissary was passed out Thursday, but only half of my order was filled. The prison store was out of all meat products. On my commissary form someone wrote "OUT" next to my list of chicken breast, shredded pork, tuna fish, and roast beef. Earlier today, two people asked me if I had any summer sausage. "No," I told them. "No one does." Usually I think of myself as the ant that is well prepared when winter arrives, but times are getting tougher, even for the most frugal and fiscally responsible prisoners. At least I have a lot of peanut butter to last me until next shop day.