You are reading a rare, detailed account of everyday life in Stateville Prison.

Click to read Paul's blog quoted on:
To contact Paul, please email: paulmodrowski@gmail.com
or write him at the address shown in the right column. He will get your message personally.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Prison Pizza -- June 28, 2013

In the beginning of the week, many prisoners were happy to learn pizza was scheduled to be served Wednesday evening. There was much enthusiasm for the meal because most food served here is bland, monotonous, or distasteful. The kitchen administrator orders massive quantities of processed turkey-soy which is then made into various meals, all tasting relatively the same. Recently, the kitchen ran out of soy product, but it has been no cause for celebration. A few other cheap foods have replaced it and there are plans to serve four main courses repeatedly for lunch and dinner until new supplies are brought in. Seeing pizza on the menu caused a number of inmates to imagine those served at restaurants with many toppings and a thick crust covered in a heavy layer of melted cheese. Others thought at the minimum it would be like popular store brands advertised on television. Although I knew these high expectations were false, they seemed to be exasperated when the prison went on lockdown temporarily and hungry men were not able to eat until after 8 p.m. The paltry little slice of pizza they were finally served was a great disappointment.

Every week or two my cellmate will bring back a menu from the kitchen. It is not descriptive and only lists the main course for lunch and dinner. Prisoners including myself are interested in what is going to be served because it may help them decide whether or not to attend the meal. My cellmate never bothers to write down breakfast due to the fact it is served in the cell at night and is generally the same from week to week. When I awake on Sunday mornings there will usually be a copy of the menu left on the counter that he has written on a napkin. Before lunch lines are run, I will rewrite the menu in abbreviated form to give to several people I acquaint with. I also keep a copy to conveniently look at during the week.

When I came out for lunch, I passed out the menus I had made. Although I was not very impressed about pizza, it immediately caught the attention of other inmates. Pizza is rarely served in the penitentiary and thought of as a big treat. A couple of months prior during Officer Appreciation Week, pizzas were made for the guards. I had not had any in a long time and asked one of them to bring me a couple of slices. He did but it was not very good. I should have known prisoner-made pizza was not going to be DiGiorno's. Since the pizza being made on Wednesday was not only going to be made by prisoners but served to prisoners, my expectations were even less.

A better meal I thought was the one currently being served. In the chow hall, prisoners were given a square of lasagna. It was highly unusual to be served the two meals in a given week. However, from the week prior I knew although the kitchen was running out of supplies, they had a huge amount of cheese. My cellmate had informed me there were hundreds of five-pound bags of shredded sharp and mozzarella cheese. On one night he worked, he brought back two stuffed sandwich bags of each type. To keep the cheese fresh I asked a cell house worker to bring me a bag of ice. Later in the evening, I had enough cheese to make 10 burritos. This was far too much food for my cellmate and me. Therefore I invited a 2nd shift cell house worker to dinner. He was at my cell bars at 7 p.m. sharp just as I was wrapping the burritos I had made for him. They were hot and had an abundance of cheese. In my opinion, they were overly cheesy but neither the cell house worker or my cellmate complained. The cheesier the better, in their perspective.

Considering cheese is so well liked by prisoners, I wondered at one time why it was not served more often. Cheese is rather cheap particularly the block, liquid, or sliced kind which I have learned is made out of soy. The administration could make inmates happy serving grilled cheese sandwiches every other day while saving a lot of money. When I broached the subject with my cellmate he explained the cheese may be inexpensive but the work was laborious. I asked him how something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich could be so labor intensive. He said it was much easier to cook food in large pots or fryers than grill several thousand sandwiches. Furthermore, although workers were only paid a salary averaging about 70 cents a day, the kitchen supervisors preferred quicker mass produced meals.

The lasagna was rather bland and not prepared very well. It was undercooked and missing a number of key ingredients and spices. For the most part, it was simply cheese layered on noodles with a little tomato sauce. When my cellmate returned from a visit, I asked him why it was made so poorly. Once again he told me the kitchen was depleted of most supplies. There were very few vegetables or spices left. Even the bags of ground turkey-soy which are kept in abundance were gone. The soy product is what kitchen workers make most prison meals out of. It is used as a substitute for ground beef in spaghetti, sloppy joes, goulash, turkey noodles, breakfast gravy, tacos and much more. The kitchen was also out of the turkey-soy patties which come premade and are served often.

Many prisoners despise the processed soy product they are fed almost daily. Some have even filed lawsuits citing the poor nutritional value, digestive problems it can cause for some people, and its propensity to increase estrogen levels if eaten in excess quantities. For the most part, though, men hate it because it tastes terrible despite how it may be seasoned when there is seasoning to use. My cellmate tells me it is even disgusting to boil because of the terrible smell it emits. However, he says without it prisoners are going to be served a very limited diet. For the next few weeks with the exception of pizza on Wednesday, the only meals to be served for lunch and dinner will be sausage, fish, chicken-soy patties, baked chicken, and a type of salami prisoners have various derogatory nicknames for. Breakfast which he makes on the midnight shift will also be limited to farina, rice cereal, bread, and waffles, although doughnuts, prisoners' favorite, will continue to be given out on Saturdays.

On Monday evening I left my cell to attend dinner. Baked chicken was being served along with collard greens, beans and rice. Chicken is another favorite of inmates at Stateville, although they prefer that the meat be fried. My cell house was the last to be fed and we did not go out until a little past 7 p.m. I was hoping to see what the news media was calling "the Super Moon". A super moon occurs when the satellite is at its perigee and coincides with a full moon creating the largest luminosity. This event actually occurred the night before but it was cloudy. Monday disappointingly was another overcast day and there was nothing for me to see except the usual prison buildings, fencing, razor wire, and 30' high wall.

In the chow hall, I sat with my cellmate, Hooch and his cellmate, along with Wally. Hooch was not a big fan of baked chicken and gave his meal away. He was, however, a big fan of the Chicago Blackhawks and was looking forward to game #6 of the Stanley Cup. My neighbors have been one of the few in the cell house to listen to all their playoff games on the radio when they have not been televised. Hooch mentioned how it would have been nice if pizza was served instead of baked chicken. Then he could have had an entire Styrofoam box tray filled with pizza to eat in the cell while watching the game. Leprechaun mentioned to him that more than likely the series will go to a seventh game and they could still watch the final NHL Championship game with pizza and soda pop. Hooch's Irish troll-looking cellmate, however, was wrong and the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in Boston Monday night.

The following day, I went to yard in the morning. Pizza was still the topic of conversation for some inmates and I overheard a couple of them ask my cellmate if he could get them additional slices when he came in from work. On occasion, kitchen workers are permitted to bring in extra trays of food. It is one of the main perks of working in the kitchen and allows them to earn extra money on the side to supplement their meager salary. I lost interest listening to "The Elephant" negotiating a barter with my cellmate when I heard inmates point out a prisoner who goes by the name "Smiley" being taken to Segregation by the cell house lieutenant. Smiley was a cell house worker and various men speculated his job had something to do with his trip to "the hole." Later, however, I heard an amusing story that he had been placed under investigation for purportedly putting out a hit on his cellmate. I never heard of a prisoner soliciting others to assault the person they shared the 11 x 6 foot space with.  A cellmate is regularly vulnerable to attack, if not murder, from the inmate he is confined to live with.

For lunch Wednesday prisoners were served salami sandwiches. It is one meal I will never eat despite how hungry I am and I did not bother going to the chow hall. However, I later went on a visit and ate a chicken salad sub sandwich with some sweetened green tea. The visiting room has a number of vending machines which sell various foods, snacks and soda. Visitors cannot bring in any cash but they can buy debit cards in the visit registering center. Typically the vending machines do not contain many healthy foods and I tend to think my family finds it difficult pleasing a finicky eater like myself. Occasionally, I will refuse to eat anything.

Not long after returning to my cell, I went to sleep. Most days I become tired by the mid-afternoon and take a nap. Days I go on a visit can add to my fatigue. They can also amplify my hatred of prison and make me feel more miserable. Contrarily most prisoners have their spirits significantly lifted by a visit. When my cellmate heard his name called for a visit earlier in the week he seemed jubilant and his good mood continued throughout the day. I did not know why he was so happy. He was still doomed to die in prison. Even though he is no longer on death row, he continues to be a dead man walking. Most of us at Stateville, innocent and guilty alike, are the living dead.

When I awakened from my nap, I made myself a sardine sandwich. The prison store sells packages of sardines in tomato sauce for a dollar and it makes a quick snack when put on some bread. I was not concerned about ruining my appetite for pizza. I doubted the pizza would be very filling and according to my cellmate they had no meat on them. On those rare occasions when pizza is made, kitchen workers add ground turkey-soy as a topping, but there was none. Personally I preferred a pizza without it and considered bringing my own meat with me. I had packages of shredded beef in my property box that I could put on the top.

At about 7 p.m., the upper gallery of the cell house was let out for chow. They were on the walk outside the building for a little while before being sent back in where they were locked on the stairs. The stairs are not far from my cell and the prisoners were very loud talking amongst themselves and shouting to men they knew on other galleries. I was becoming annoyed because I was trying to pay attention to the coverage of the George Zimmerman trial on CNN. Typically, I despise the reporting of the liberal queer Anderson Cooper, however, he has been objective and fair in his reporting during this case, at least so far. I intend to continue to watch his special trial coverage until there is a verdict. During a commercial, I took off my headphones and went to the cell bars to see what the problem was. Apparently, there was an incident in the chow hall and an order came over the guard's radio to stop all movement.

Eventually the prisoners were locked back in their cells and I thought Stateville was placed on lockdown. I took off my shoes and prison blues and waited for "room service". Other inmates were not as patient and began shouting for their pizza. A half hour later, though, chow lines began to be run again. Yesterday, I learned there was a three on one fight in the chow hall and this was the cause for the delay. The fight had to be broken  up and the cell house cleared from the building. The shift commander also had to make a decision to continue operations.

It was close to 8 p.m. and dark outside before my gallery was lined up outside the cell house on their way to the chow hall. Nearly every prisoner had come out for pizza and there was some jockeying to be fed first. An older black man with a crutch even cut me off in his hurry. Unlike most of the herd, I did not mind if I was one of the last to get my food. Although guards will occasionally rush prisoners out, after seeing what little portions the kitchen line workers were giving out, I knew I had plenty of time to eat. Other than a slice of pizza, all that was put on my tray was a "state cake". A state cake is a cake made in the IDOC at Illinois River Correctional Center. It is a little yellow cake similar to a Twinkie but rectangular in shape. Stateville is sent the packaged desserts by the thousands. On the serving line is a basin where cartons of skim milk are held. I grabbed three to fill my appetite.

When I sat down to eat, prisoners were quick to complain about the pizza. It was nearly a square, 4 x 5 inch, cheese pizza with no toppings. There was no meat, green peppers or onions and very little tomato paste. Basically, it was like a cheese cracker but the crust was not crispy. Men who had anticipated a much better meal since the beginning of the week and then had to wait until late in the evening to eat were greatly disappointed. A few eyed my cellmate who was given two slices because he was a kitchen worker. One prisoner said they should have given everyone two or more slices particularly because we were one of the last cell houses if not the last to eat and there was probably going to be plenty of leftovers. In prison, most men fold their thin sliced pizza in half making like a cheese sandwich. On this occasion, they could eat their meal in just a few bites.

In the cell I spoke to my cellmate about the homemade pizzas my mother baked when I was living at home. They were a marked contrast to the prison pizza we were just served. The crust was thick and she added fresh green peppers, onion, mushrooms and lean ground beef. He said kitchen workers probably made their own pizzas with better care and more toppings. The pizzas for general population were mass produced quickly to save time. There is a rumor that store bought pizza will be donated to the penitentiary next month. I never heard of "Tony's Pizza," but he said prisoners will probably like those better.