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Don’t Go to Jail for the Dining Experience

Getting information on corrections kitchens is surprisingly difficult. If not shrouded in secrecy, the business of incarceration foodservice is certainly no bulwark of receptivity, either. My request to interview or tour at one prison is floating in some unknowable internet ether. Prison inmates now working in local restaurant kitchens have repeatedly deflected my interview requests. One former inmate I did manage to interview has “blocked” much of his memory of time in jail—especially the food. 

When it comes to corrections food, few seem overly eager for scrutiny. However, Minnesota is one of the national leaders in the attempt to feed quality food to its 10,000 or so prisoners. “Being in prison is punishment enough, they don’t have to be tortured by bad food," said Tom Roy, Minnesota’s commissioner for corrections in a 2016 article for The Guardian titled, "Prison food politics: the economics of an industry feeding 2.2 million." 

Our state has one of the lowest per capita incarceration rates in the country. Here, we spend about $3 per day, per prisoner on food, where some states are doing it for a third of that. 

I talked to three people, with three wildly different perspectives, on what it’s like to work, and eat, from a corrections kitchen. 


The veteran 

Gary Thomas Jr. has been a cook coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Corrections for 16 years. He loves the job, especially considering that it offers health care, regular daytime hours and a pension, typically unicorn-like benefits in the culinary world. He feels lucky to work in a prison, Red Wing Correctional Facility, that allows his team some creativity and autonomy, including scratch cooking and gardening. Thomas estimates that about 60 percent of the facility’s cooking is from scratch, a stratospheric amount compared to most U.S. prison kitchens. 

Because Red Wing is a juvenile facility, certain therapeutic opportunities around food are applied, including family-style dining. Three years ago, foodservice companies like Aramark were replaced by state employees at Red Wing, a boon for scratch cooking opportunities in an industry that typically relies heavily on processed foods. 

Each morning, Thomas and his crew serve about 45 adults and 80 kids. Four full-time staff and seven inmates participate in the preparation of each meal service, and inmates are trained in “every aspect of food prep,” from baking to sanitation. 

“We’re fortunate if we get a guy who has some knowledge, and he’ll be placed in the kitchen first,” says Thomas. 

A telling statement, as in many prison kitchens few real culinary skills are necessary, as illustrated below. While the juvenile inmates are on a similar national nutrition mandate as federal school lunch child nutrition standards with calorie, sodium, and fat content closely monitored, Thomas and his crew can occasionally get creative and add to the “brown box stuff.” By brown box stuff, he’s referring to corn dogs, chicken patties, diced chicken, chicken strips and similar items that are purchased via U.S. Commodities for Child Nutrition Facilities.

The items they have on the menu for breakfast and lunch have to meet the Federal Government Child Nutrition standards.

But at dinner, the crew gets to have a little more fun, and Thomas has menued Shish Tawook, Tater Tot Hotdish, and scratch pizzas which are “pretty well received.” 

And, cooking from scratch has its financial benefits, too. “The cost of cooking from scratch versus using a processed product can save us a considerable about of money,” says Thomas. Although because the kitchen is closed on weekends, they sometimes use pre-made products to save on time and labor costs. 

Even so, Red Wing is a beacon of hope in a system that can often have stark realities like the much-publicized and infamous Nutraloaf (an icky food resembling meatloaf served to prisoners who misbehave), and scandalous incidents involving tainted food. Thomas is even hoping to add a foodservice class at his kitchen and he says the warden has been receptive to the idea. 


The newbie 

Sarah Langeslag is a longtime culinary professional who became enamored with the idea of working in a prison kitchen in order to help train inmates so they could go on to have a culinary career upon release. She’s worked locally at Chef Shack, Crave, Forum and Spasso, and she had high hopes that she’d be able to make a difference in the prison kitchen system. “I just thought what a great way to be able to teach and to help people," she says.

She’s currently working in a large, growing facility in Boulder, Colorado, where unlike Red Wing, the food is contracted out to large facility foodservice company Aramark, which services more than 600 correctional facilities nationally. 

She’s only a couple of months into the job, but she says so far, her culinary skills have gone mostly unneeded, as most of the provisions are either pre-processed or add-water mixes. Bread dough arrives frozen, mashed potatoes and gravy are powdered, pasta sauces are dry and get reconstituted. “It’s kinda sad. They’re getting a lot of chemicals. I’m a big believer in the healing power of food and nature.” 

Langeslag is also a vegan, and she’s noticed that inmates in her facility who are also vegan get very little beyond beans and rice. “It’s just rice and beans, rice and beans. I feel so bad.” 

Still, she remains optimistic. Her facility has a garden that inmates are allowed to tend in summer. “That gave me some ‘Yay!’ OK I can do this.” And she enjoys working with the inmates on her kitchen team. “The guys are laughing and making jokes. They make the most of it.” 

Her prison is coming up for an expansion, and she’s hoping they will make room for more of the work she wants to accomplish. “I hope it’s just not to make it bigger, but to give us the tools we need to be successful.” 


The inmate 

Phil (not his real name) says that in order to get an accurate snapshot of what it’s like to eat in jail, one most talk to an inmate. Phil spent about 11 months in a county workhouse on numerous drug charges, where he also took a job in the kitchen as a means for getting out of his cell. One of the benefits of working while incarcerated is the opportunity to exercise, and he says that when he could, he would fill buckets with water in the kitchen and lift them like weights. He earned a dollar a day for his eight-hour daily shift. 

“Food is basically the only currency in jail beyond cigarettes,” he says, and if he could save $3, he would be able to buy a pack of Top Ramen from commissary, a food item he learned to love during his time in jail even though the he had to reconstitute it with lukewarm sink water as inmates have no access to hot water. “It was disgusting.” Still, ramen enjoys top billing as the currency of choice in U.S. prisons. Simply type in “prisons” and “ramen” and dozens of articles appear. 

Phil also says he went into the workhouse with a distaste for tomatoes, and exited with a love for them. “You look forward to those little cherry tomatoes even though you only get one or two because you’re so desperate for anything fresh,” he says.

Other items that quickly became contraband were butter packets, or uneaten whole fruit from trays, which inmates tried to hide on their person and take back to cells. Naturally, if caught, such behavior was grounds for punishment. 

Potatoes and sweet potatoes became his favorite food items overall, because “there’s not much you can do to mess up a potato.” 

Lowlights were preprocessed Salisbury Steaks that arrived in a cryovaced loaf and was “juicy in a bad way,” Class D meat products, and “Chow Mein” that arrived in cardboard cartons. “I have no idea what was in it, and the noodles had the constancy of dust.” 

The upshot? “Don’t go to prison for the food.”  

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