I get it. Prison food isn’t supposed to be comparable to food of the free world. We are in a place of punishment, to be held responsible for the crimes for which we were convicted and sentenced. The food should at least be edible though. It’s simply that the guys forced to prepare and serve it don’t care. They have no incentive beyond 40 cents per work day. No more good time or gain time. Just a life sentence and an overworked, underpaid kitchen steward browbeating them. Hundreds of mouths to feed three times a day is a lot of work and no reward or anything to hope for, so of course the food sucks. Even the tyrant Gordon Ramsay pays his subjects in the kitchen.
The reality of food at Central Prison’s dining halls is that it becomes the worst part of a day in the life of every prisoner. The long line in which we stand waiting for a tray often takes thirty minutes to move through 40 prisoners. With four dining halls and roughly 800 prisoners at CP (about 200 are locked down so only about 600 filter through the food lines) “feeding time”, as the guards like referring to it, is an all day affair.
Food aside, the lines are the worst part. If you’re smart and stand in line next to people you know and like, the time won’t be as bad. If you are unlucky and caught next to a guy who doesn’t know what a bar of soap is used for, or that a toothbrush is meant to include toothpaste, then the next 15-30 minutes is going to feel much longer. Worse than the stench of poor hygiene habits are some of the inane or frustrating conversations from personalities better to avoid than engage in eye contact. No radio to block that rant. Nowhere to go except the end of the line where you are subject to find some truly mentally deficient people. Unless, that is, you cut to the front of the line and risk a fight or enmity from multiple hungry people.
Assuming you make it through the line, get a tray with edible food, and eat it within the 15 minutes—which ends up being 10 minutes more often than not—you still have to make it out of the dining hall and back to the cell block. Avoiding difficult conversations and drama sounds easy, but sometimes it comes from unexpected places.
The other day as I stood in line, waiting with my chow group to go to the diet line (that’s for another post), we watched a prisoner attempt to walk out of the dining hall with a Styrofoam cup. A guard saw this, grabbed the guy’s elbow and pulled his arm. The prisoner snatched his arms out of the guard’s grasp. The guard immediately tackled the prisoner to the floor and was joined by a much larger guard who dogpiled both of them. The sergeant in the tunnel started screaming “Get those inmates back in the chow hall!” as two more guards joined the ruckus, though it was over before it began. The prisoner was cuffed behind his back and jacked to his feet, bleeding from his lip. After a moment the four guards hustled him down the tunnel to Unit One, CP’s solitary confinement unit. About five minutes later we were waiting in line for a tray.
Turning the incident over in my mind I realized the guards’ overreaction is a direct result of two things: 1) some of these guards were previously named in a lawsuit filed against a number of CP staff responsible for egregious abuses of power on Unit One; 2) this kind of guard has been let off the leash after the murders of five of their brethren in 2017, fomenting a more retaliatory environment.
I stood in line, wondering if this was the new normal, but knowing it was just the beginning. With Rep. Bob Steinburg and Rep. Marcia Marcy calling for Governor Cooper to deploy the National Guard at NC Prisons, bad food and endless lines are small potatoes compared to what’s coming.
*NOTE: this post references an article from the News and Observer
“Lawmakers urge Gov. Cooper to consider deploying National Guard at NC Prisons,” Alexander, Ames; Off Gavin; News and Observer, 20 Feb 2018. A1.