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Food for Thinkers: WANTED! Prison Food Writers

Bryan Finoki pursues his interest in the politics of space into the prison dining room—and all the way along the inmates' digestive tracts.

Bryan Finoki is the author of Subtopia, a blog exploring the shadowy intersections between architecture, urbanism, militarism, border space, and geopolitics, as well as an adjunct faculty member at Woodbury University's School of Architecture in San Diego, California. For Food for Thinkers week, Finoki pursues his interest in the politics of space into the prison dining room—and all the way along the inmates' digestive tracts.


WANTED! Prison Food Writers
by Bryan Finoki

As a writer focusing for the last few years on spatial politics, architecture has served as a valuable conceptual prism through which to help further define the topic of "military urbanism" and investigate critical implications of space and control. I’ve always been curious about the notion that while people design spaces, spaces, in turn, design people. This has led to a somewhat compulsive need to constantly confront the prison landscape in all its facets.

So, Food For Thinkers has gotten me to consider food in a much dimmer context than I normally would. And, from what I can tell so far, most prisons suffer from a considerable lack of food writers. There are good reasons for that, I understand, but the position seems awfully ripe to me.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: How could prison food possibly be worth writing about? How could one embellish the institutional grub of hardened criminals into anything intellectually savory?


Well, prison food is not as simple as a three meals-a-day foray into the barred bowels of bare minimum nutrition requirements slathered onto a plastic tray. From the eyes of a relatively newcomer to food, if not prisons, it seems as though the connections between the two can be seen across a fascinating spectrum of cultural, moral, and economic landscapes, sharing fascinating intersections with histories of pop food magnates, innovative smuggler networks, Auschwitz-era recipe books, the politics of prison labor, and race-infused hunger strikes, just to start! All of which can hardly be relayed here in this piece alone, but only confirms my belief: prisons don’t just deserve their own inmate food writers—they absolutely need them!

First things first: Prison food probably isn't as bad as you might suspect. Fair to say, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FOB) mandates a somewhat healthy level of nutrition and portions on a per meal basis, and offers a standardized menu [PDF] that many prisons around the nation have adopted. Typically, from what I gather, most prisons serve basic stir fries and pastas, bowls of fruit, light salads, grilled burgers, and some even tofu. In 2008, N. Mate (an associated content writer for Yahoo! News), described prison food thus:

Meals are designed to be low-sugar, low-salt, and limit the number of both calories and calories from fat. To accomplish this goal, portions of the meal—typically the entrée, bread, dessert, and more desirable fruits and vegetables—will be portion controlled and handed out under the watchful eye of a staff member. The remaining items—carbs like rice and potatoes, condiments like ketchup and pickles, and salsa, and most vegetables—will be served buffet-style, with inmates taking as much as they want. Additional choices will always be available under the national menu: a "heart healthy" option (substitution, baked for fried, or prepared with less fat and cholesterol); a "no flesh" option (which may be a soy burger or a cheese sandwich but will have no meat including fish); and the ultimate in healthy eating, the confusingly named "common fare," consisting in a tall stock of row vegetables [sic], a bowl of cold vegetarian baked beans and a T.V. dinner style entrée.

Prison menus and dining protocols certainly vary from facility to facility. For the most part, inmate food rights fall under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment for federal crimes. However, violations and abuse have typically been difficult for inmates to prove. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the development of prison food law has largely been left behind by the greater progress made in the field of food law in general, which might seem a little backwards, since in prison, inmates cannot select their diets the way people in general society can. (Note: For a good historic summary of the genesis of prison food law in relation to the history of food law in general, see Cyrus Naim’s comprehensive 2005 study, Prison Food Law.)

Food, as we saw earlier this week, is inherently political, as is prison itself. Alongside the right to freely move, one’s right to freely put into one’s own body what one chooses is as human a right as any in my book. But in prison, when one has forfeited such rights (or, rather, they've been taken away), food takes on a precarious new set of meanings and moral functionality. Food more or less becomes a biopolitical digestive tract through which power is contested and transmitted, both as a weapon in the disciplinary tactics of the jailer, and as a currency on the black market within prison culture. In other cases, such as acts of starvation, the rejection of prison food can serve as a means of simply gaining medical attention, or as the critical umbilical in organizing collective inmate protests for deeper political action. In fact, you could argue that food is the most important political facet of prison architecture.

Ever since humans have organized themselves into groups, from early tribal structures to the cubicle spaces of a financial corporation, food has been used as powerful tool in the hierarchical formation of social power. Once inside the contemporary prison, you quickly go from even the most skeptical appreciation of the popular adage "you are what you eat" to a situation in which you are merely what you are given. Choice is no longer an option, and control of the very biological composure and fortitude of your body is suddenly at the mercy of a very profitable private prison operator’s food supply chain at best, a cantankerous warden or perhaps even another more powerful inmate’s greedy appetite at worst.

In other words, if people are what they eat, and (more so) are what they are made to eat, then the inmate is quite literally the product of the prison system itself. Food is nothing more than grease for the cogs of a systemic mechanical redesign of the inmate, controlled at the most fundamental level. Throw in the egregious capitalist and racialized politics of the private prison industry and the dubious legal landscape that bunks with it, and food can be seen as nothing less than a bare naked reflection on the genetic engineering of profits to be made off of prison population capacities.

A good portion of the prison food system is supplied by overstock, which brings both price and quality down. Just a week or so ago, CBS reported that "the USDA recalled more than 200,000 pounds of ground beef products sent to prisons in Oregon and California after inspectors found that some were discolored and smelled funky." Apparently, the packed-on dates were between July and November 2010. A spokesman for the company, One Great Burger (of all names!), admitted that "the beef was distributed only to prisons, not to retailers."

This most recent recall is only the latest in a string of examples of suppliers palming off their waste on the prison industry. Back in 2007, there were numerous documented cases that immigrant detainees were fed maggot-infested food in Willacy County, Texas, while the one-and-only Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona, has been accused not only of feeding his prisoners surplus airline food, but also "green—as in fetid—baloney sandwiches," and has even made inmates compete for a Christmas dinner in an American-Idol-like caroling competition. If that doesn’t begin to beg inquiry into food-as-a-torture device, than I don’t know what should.


However, nothing I’ve found so far about prison food is more sinister and curious than the infamous "Nutraloaf," or "prison loaf," as it's also called. In other circles, it's been termed the "special management meal," and, simply, "the loaf." The ingredients for the loaf tend to vary slightly from prison kitchen to kitchen: for example, apparently "Vermont's penal cookbook calls for a combination of vegetables, beans, bread, cheese, and raisins," which doesn't sound bad in and of itself. Should you be interested in sampling this (and I would encourage you to do so and report back), you can follow this recipe, compliments of Baltimore's Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center:

\nSpecial Management Meal // Yield - Three Loaves 6 slices whole wheat bread, finely chopped
4 ounces imitation cheddar cheese, finely grated
4 ounces raw carrots, finely grated
12 ounces spinach, canned, drained
2 cups dried Great Northern Beans, soaked, cooked, and drained
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 ounces potato flakes, dehydrated
6 ounces tomato paste
8 ounces powdered skim milk
4 ounces raisins

Mix all ingredients in a 12-quart mixing bowl. Make sure all wet items are drained. Mix until stiff, just moist enough to spread. Form three loaves in glazed bread pans. Place loaf pans in the oven on a sheet pan filled with water, to keep the bottom of the loaves from burning. Bake at 325 degrees in a convection oven for approximately 45 minutes. The loaf will start to pull away from the sides of the bread pan when done.

While that may or may not sound terribly dismal to you, bear in mind that the purpose of such a baked lump of ground-up food isn’t to be nauseating so much as the opposite: to be utterly bland. That is, the loaf should not wreak cruel havoc on the taste buds, but should instead let them down with insidious disappointment. In general, the cardboard-like lasagna, as some have described it, is served on a paper plate and eaten with the hands, and has gained much popularity as the prison’s disciplinary device of choice today. It is said that when all else fails in forcing a bad inmate to comply with good behavior, this tasteless brick of mash is deployed, and apparently with great success. Most prisons have reported not having to use it much, and there are apparently some informal limits. One pound loaves, served three times daily, for a maximum of two weeks at a time, seems to be the general rule, but again each facility does the loaf in its own very special way.

Yet, consider this: Perhaps one of the last shreds of humanity left for an inmate in prison (and perhaps a shred that prisons should at the very least try to preserve) is one's ability to taste and, to some extent, still enjoy food. If you've ever had a bad head cold, or known anyone undergoing chemotherapy who has lost their sense of taste for the duration, then you know how torturous it can be to eat in this condition. In prison, food is perhaps one of the few remaining opportunities left to experience joy on a purely bio-chemical level, which explains why the loaf has been so successful, and yet perhaps why it is also so cruel in a Clockwork Orange sort of way. (Though, apparently not cruel enough to be unusual by the Eighth Amendment’s standards.) It also helps us to understand why an inmate’s "last supper" on death row is such a crucial and yet also twisted ritual.


Interestingly, the Nutraloaf can be traced back to a longstanding history of foods used as a means of encouraging moral correction and spiritual reform. While sacramental breads have long been used in various rituals in the Church to honor Christ and the Last Supper, the Graham cracker and the cornflake took on more pop-theological dimensions, in which food became a kind of surrogate delivery service for a uniform moral purification.

Sylvester Graham, who was a Presbyterian minister, sold his famous Graham Cracker not only as a pioneering health food but as part of a special diet he advertised in the 1830s that he claimed would help suppress carnal urges like masturbation, impure thoughts, and other unhealthy maladies. The blandness of the Graham cracker was billed as the non-stimulating agent that could cure and soak up a deviant sexual appetite. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg felt similarly about the spiritual powers of food, propounding a vegetarian approach to health and the reduction of sexual stimulation through cornflakes and the menu at his Battle Creek Sanitarium.

The loaf fits right in with this tradition; that good behavior and moral righteousness can be enforced through the power of food. But, in prison, when one has no choice and food is given rather than selected, and where the Pavlovian desires of inmates surely exceed the daily drooling of the average citizen, the loaf becomes frighteningly reminiscent of an even more contemporary moral rhetoric. I’m referring to some of the security discourses that are too often heard justifying behavioral enforcement methods in the broader contexts of national police power and the Global War On Terror.

In the evolving arsenal of the carceral state, it is the non-lethal weapon that receives praise today for its humane ability to seize control of negative behavior without resorting to fatal violence and lethal force. Everything from handheld tasers and pepperball guns to concentrated rays of electromagnetic radiation, focused lasers, and sonic canons have helped to usher in a new era of "compassionate force" and the hubris of a benevolent police state. "Non-lethality" marks a new evolution in being able to capture, detain, and interrogate (ahem…torture), all without leaving a lasting bruise or mark on the body of any kind, which, of course, helps to exonerate the state of any abuse of power.

At a time when "enhanced interrogations" and "targeted assassinations" have essentially legalized the state’s power to preemptively torture and execute those members of its own population it deems a threat to national security, it is undoubtedly true that writers such as myself often overlook the role of food in enforcing state power, in favor of the dramatic headlines of drug war violence along the U.S.-Mexico border or precision drone warfare in Pakistan.

But as this quick taster shows, food is a very primal weapon, and its disguise under the cloak of non-lethality would surely not escape our astute prison food writer. In fact, no one has studied the long-term effects of prison food or the Nutraloaf. Despite the Federal Bureau of Prison's national menu and the justice system’s previous rulings against the Nutraloaf as any kind of cruel and unusual punishment, food seems to be a critical and neglected lens for looking into current interpretations of the state's obligation to its incarcerated population.

There are many other fascinating angles through which to scrutinize the carceralization of food, which an inmate food writer would certainly not fail to note. For instance, what would (s)he say about the collective hunger strikes amongst detainees in Guantanamo Bay that have been squashed by force-feeding through medical tubes, while bearing in mind the practice's long prison history (as an example, consider Alice Paul, the suffragist leader who went on a hunger strike in prison while fighting for the woman’s right to vote, and who was also ordered to be force-fed by Woodrow Wilson)?

What sorts of labor and class issues could the prison food writer illuminate for us while reporting on the fish farms that are being run inside Colorado’s prisons, harvesting tilapia to be sold on to Whole Foods grocery stores? Or the similar and yet very different situation in Vermont, where prisoners actually grow and eat their own food?


And what might the inmate writer uncover for us about the role food plays in prison culture? I'm thinking here of stories such as this one about the importance of honey buns in Florida jails, where they serve "as currency for trades, as bribes for favors, as relievers for stress and substitutes for addiction. They've become birthday cakes, hooch wines, last meals—even ingredients in a massive tax fraud."

Meanwhile, I hope our inmate food writer would not let us forget about the relevance of food in many prison contexts from the past, such as the "dream meals" imagined by women in Auschwitz as a survival tool. Indeed, their own writing could form a similar repository of culture, experience, resistance, and coercion in the future.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the inmate food writer's beat would lie in prison's microcosmic relationship to society as a whole. In such a limited, contained environment, the outlines of our relationship to food become clear—its potential to build community as well as enforce control, to nourish and to poison, to shape human health and order human society. From hoarding to smuggling to sharing to making—despite the limited range of ingredients, in many ways, the entire menu of human interactions with food is on display.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

Images: (1) Dining area at the notorious Maze Prison in Northern Island, 1972, via; (2) Inmates at Rikers Island bake a legendary carrot cake, and shared their recipe with The New York Times last summer, photo by Michael Appleton for The New York Times; (3) Nutraloaf, photo by Andy Duback/AP via The Ethicurean; (4) From Last Suppers by James Reynolds; (5) An advertisement for John Harvey Kellogg's Sanatorium Granola, via; (6) Postcard showing inmates at work at the State Prison Farm, Jackson, Michigan, via.

Editor's Note: If you are a currently an inmate and want to become GOOD's prison food writer, I want to hear from you! Email me at nicola [at] goodinc [dot] com.




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