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Bored but not broken: And now, to answer the big question...

And now, to answer the big question...

Today I need to start with an apology for how behind I've gotten in replying to my mail. I've been putting a lot of time and energy into the Peak's upcoming special issue on Ontario prisons. I've also, quite frankly, been feeling a bit lazy these past few weeks. It seems that all I really want to do is read and watch the European cup. But all excuses aside, the mail situation is quite simply overwhelming -- even at my most productive it's impossible to keep up. I'm so sorry if you've written me and haven't heard back yet. Please don't think I don't appreciate your letters -- I do!

As always, if you're wondering whether or not I've received your mail and/or if I've written to you send an email to mandyjailmail@gmail.com. I know that at least two things were withheld recently; a book and a magazine on May 30. I received a note saying they were sent directly to my property but no other information. also on June 19 I got notices that three letters that I received on June 11 were withheld but no reason was given. I've requested in the past to be given the sender's name and address and a reason when mail is withheld but I've never heard back -- it's quite amazing how many of my request forms vanish into thin air here, it's almost like they don't give a shit or something! Anyway, thank you to whoever you are. I'll get the stuff in December.

And now, to answer the big question...

"What's the food like?"

Everyone wants to know. It's by far the most common question people ask me after "how are you?" and "do you need anything?" I find this fascinating because I don't care much at all about how food tastes as long as it fills me up. Which is good in this place because there's always way more than enough, and I hear a lot of complaints from other inmates, usually along the lines of "What the fuck is this? I'm not eating this shit." Because I'm not picky and I'm on the vegan diet, I'm not in a very good position to assess what the majority of the people here eat. But I can tell you what it is, how the food is prepared and distributed and what meal times are like.

Food is always highly anticipated -- it breaks up the day and gives people something to do. Meals rotate through a four week long cycle and the menu is posted on the wall. Dinners are always hot and involve some sort of meat and rice/potatoes/pasta with a side of vegetables and some bread. There's also fruit and/or a treat like a donut, cookie, muffin or sticky bun.

Breakfasts and lunches alternate between hot and cold, so if it was a hot breakfast (sausage and eggs, omelet and potatoes, or pancakes) it'll be a cold lunch and if it was a cold breakfast (cereal and bread, bagel and cream cheese) lunch will be hot. Hot lunches are often as big as the dinners which makes for a lot of food in one day and often it's very similar food -- for example, today we had macaroni and cheese for lunch and pasta for dinner.

There also tends to be some strange combinations such as lasagna on rice. Cold lunches consist of various kinds of meat, or egg with various kinds of bread, fruit and rice/pasta/beans/veggies/potato salad. On Mondays, both the breakfast and the lunch are cold so it's referred to as "starvation day," which is preposterous, as the food is so carb heavy and there is so little structured opportunity to exercise that most people gain weight here.

As far as I can tell the food must be pretty nutritious, because despite the very limited fresh air I feel quite healthy. Of course, that could have a lot to do with having lots of time for sleep and exercise and nothing much to stress about, and the fact that I don't buy much junk food off the canteen. Still, I imagine that three meals at the same time everyday is a good way to eat, even if the timing is odd: 8:15 and 11:15 a.m. and 4:15 p.m..

The institution takes food needs very seriously too -- we see a nurse upon arrival and she takes down our allergies and dietary requirements. Special diets are available for medical, religious or lifestyle reasons. Some diets on the range right now are diabetic, gluten free, no bean, no fish, vegetarian and kosher. There are some limits: I heard of someone a few years ago asking for a vegan gluten free diet, and she was told that was beyond their capabilities and she'd have to choose one or the other.

It's helpful to think through your diet options before you get to jail, because it can be hard to change it during your stay. For that you have to get permission from a doctor and they don't always grant it. And for those of you who may end up here one day and would be interested in the vegan diet, know that it is very heavy on the soy: fake cold-cuts, fake sausages, veggie burgers, tofu, fake cheese, and every meal comes with a package of powdered soy milk.

On the upside, it seems to cause less gas . . . because folks, so many people here have gas, it's a foul thing, let me tell you. It must be something to do with the animal products or the lack of exercise but there are serious digestive tract issues in this institution. An unusual number of people don't shit regularly and the nurses seem to give out an awful lot of laxatives and stool softeners. I am fine so far, but I've still suffered, believe me -- the cells are small and the farts stink, the windows don't open and nighttime lockup is 12.5 hours long. And that, friends, is why you should never break the law!

I'm sorry. was that too much information? Let's move on.

The meals come in trays divided into three compartments. Cold trays are brown for regular meals and blue for diets, and are assembled at Cookchill, a separate building on the grounds of the Maplehurst correctional complex. Cold trays are assembled by the men from Maplehurst next door. Blue trays get labelled with the date to be eaten, inmate name, and diet type. One blue tray had a message written into it calling someone out for being a "snitch for 31 division."

The hot trays are a weird translucent brown and they are assembled by those sentenced to medium security, women at Vanier (those on unit three). Frozen food is scooped on the trays in an assembly line system and stored. Some are shipped off to other institutions. Before we eat them they are steamed, everything all together in the same tray. Miraculously this seems to work. Although the veggies are sometimes overcooked and mushy.

At meal times the trays are brought to the unit on a cart and parked outside while the guards make sure they're all there. Usually by this time we are getting restless, stomachs are growling, we are fully institutionalized, conditioned to the schedule. Some people are already scoping out the trading possibilities, cementing deals before the rush. New rivals try to sit at tables and are kicked out of taken seats, over and over again, sometimes nicely and sometimes not. The seating plan at the eight four-chair tables is inflexible and political, much like a high school cafeteria.

At some point the door opens, the cart comes in, and the guard hollers at us to "Line up! Diets up front." We get our tray(s) and a plastic spoon from the guard or a range worker, go to our table, see what's what, and within minutes it's like a huge game of settlers of catan.

"Juice for milk!"
"Anyone got creamers? Sugar for creamers!"
"I need peanut butter!"
"Rice cakes for peanut butter?" "Here." "No, I want peanut butter . . ."
"Anyone got coffee? I'll pay you back tomorrow."

And so on and so forth. People even trade in futures, a risky business on this unit because you never know when someone will be moved to unit three or four. My trades are limited to sugar for creamers so I don't have to use gross chunky soy milk in my tea and coffee, peanut butter for rice cakes, and peanut butter for the sweet treats that vegans don't get (hey, I never said I was a good vegan).

In trades anything goes, but the golden rule of trading/giving food away is table first. When the fury of trading settles we get hot water for tea or coffee, eat, offer any untouched leftovers around, scrape the rest into the garbage, stack the trays on the counter and rinse off the spoon. At some random moment (perhaps we've all been done eating for quite some time, perhaps some people aren't finished yet) the guard yells "Spoons up!" and we return them, giving our cell number and name so it can be crossed off the list because a missing spoon is a big deal.

This can be tricky for new people who sometimes throw their spoons in the garbage and then have to fish them out (a lot of people on the range find this funny -- almost as funny as when they get stuck in their cells because they don't know the doors lock automatically. It's hard to be new). As we all head to our cells for quiet time (yes, like kindergarten) or chores if it's morning, the range workers count the trays. a missing tray is also a big deal. On one memorable occasion a guard decided that one lid was missing and searched all 16 cells before realizing he must have miscounted. Smooth. It's unclear why plastic trays and spoons are such a big deal -- if they were really worried about us hurting each other presumably we couldn't be locked in a small concrete unlivable space with a stranger for hours on end.

Anyway, suffice it to say that meal times are a ruckus, so I actually enjoy eating in my cell sometimes when we're locked down. It's quiet, there is no rush, I can sit and read the paper over tea or coffee afterwards. The only drawback is that during lockdown we eat in the same small space that houses the toilet. But you cant have everything, right?

Because of the early dinners and long night time lock up, snacking is crucial. We save food throughout the day to eat in the evening -- fruit, desserts, bread, rice cakes, peanut butter and jam. Snacks are available to buy off of the canteen too -- mostly junk food like chips, chocolate bars and candy but also mister noodles, pepperoni sticks, cookies, cereal, crackers and granola bars. I don't bother much with canteen food unless it's a celebration, but I do like to snack, so as I write this in my cell I have: an orange, an apple, four rice cakes, a muffin, two peanut butters, two jams and three packs of soda crackers. My favourite snack these days is one a cellie introduced me to months ago: rice-cakes with peanut butter, jam and sliced banana. delicious! I eat that at least once a week because every Friday we get a banana with lunch and sometimes, if we're lucky, vegans get another one at dinner or with Saturday's lunch.

Having food in the cell can lead to some awkward moments. For example, twice since I've been here two different cellies have stolen my food while I've been sleeping and then denied it in the morning! Even though once I got up to pee and saw her eating it and the second time the tell-tale cracker packages were in her bed. The denials were curious, after all it was just the two of us locked in the cell . . . who else could it have been!? I didn't really care about the food, and had they asked I would have given it to them. Other times, however, there just hasn't been enough food to share or I just didn't want to. In a tiny cell there's really no way to be discreet about snacking, and it can be pretty uncomfortable to eat in front of someone who has nothing (or nothing as good as what you have, anyway). At the same time it's hard to feel responsible for people who lack foresight, and it's very important to avoid being taken advantage of in this place.

Storing food can be tenuous, because technically we're not supposed to keep much (or any?) in our cells. This isn't necessarily a pointless rule because a lot of the ground floor cells have an ant problem -- I'm on the second floor though and so far so good. Anyway because of this rule, when the dreaded searches happen some guards will throw it out. And then there are all the carefully traded goods, the bread and rice cakes lovingly packed away into chip bags (for freshness), the sticky bun you traded your last two precious peanut butters for . . . all is wasted and you have to start all over again. Luckily there is far more food than it's possible to eat at any given meal so it doesn't take long to stock back up.
 
During every meal leftovers get offered around the range before being tossed in the garbage. Because we eat out of pre-packaged one-size-fits-all trays instead of buffet style where we could take the amount of food we actually need, and because the trays are apparently assembled in a way that doesn't differentiate between male and female inmates, a shameful amount of food gets wasted everyday despite our best efforts to trade it or give it away. This is difficult for me, having been raised to eat everything on my plate, but I've made an uneasy peace with it. At first I tried to eat everything but that's unsustainable -- it's just too much -- I hear it's 3800 calories a day.

The doctor told me he keeps telling the institution to stop over-feeding us, but it seems they don't even listen to him. The worst thing is the amount of bread - two and sometimes three unnecessary slices at every meal. Over the course of one week in May I asked everyone to put their leftover bread on the counter instead of in the garbage and then I counted the slices. The tally over those seven days (21 meals) was 288! Just on this one range, which at any given time had a maximum of 30 people in it. Vanier can hold 125 people, so the mind boggles at the total amount of wasted bread we must produce here. There is something so disgusting about this, so completely unacceptable, because unlike so many other terrible problems with this institution, this one wouldn't be complicated to fix. Bring in a few bags of bread at every meal and let people take some if they need it. done.
 
OK, moving on from the environmentally and politically sketchy issue of over-consumption and waste . . . let's talk for a moment about how eating in jail can be just plain weird. For one thing, there are no knives or forks, so it doesn't matter what you're eating -- veggie patties, the excellent vegan lasagna, cabbage rolls -- you're eating it with a spoon. You spread peanut butter and jam with your finger, you slice bananas with the jail toothpaste container, which also comes in handy to peel oranges.

Milk and juice come in clear plastic bags that you tear into with your teeth. It's a bit like camping! Oh, and some guards take the powdered soy milk package out of the tray and mix it for you, because saving it for later is not allowed -- it's considered contraband. Apparently, you can make a cement-like substance out of it and use it as a weapon . . . not sure if I believe that . . . but who knows? It's as plausible as stabbing someone in the eye with a plastic fork, I suppose.
 
And what about the coffee? Crucial, crucial coffee. There are three important things to know:
 
1. Apparently, the pouch of powdered jailhouse stuff we get in our breakfast trays every morning is not caffeinated however you can buy pouches of Maxwell House instant coffee off of the canteen that is. If you drink more than one coffee a day you have to buy extra because the free stuff only comes with breakfast.

2. Paper cups are only handed out with breakfast and have to be reused throughout the day. If you lose it you don't get another.

3. Coffee is only available at meal times, when a hot water jug is brought onto the range. Some people do drink coffee and tea during the day made with hot water from the tap, but it really doesn't get that hot so it's not very pleasant. I tried it once -- it was my cellies' last night and she was so excited she couldn't sleep. She asked me to stay up late and party with her (and by "party" I mean share a bag of chips and a chocolate bar and play scrabble). That was an exceptional circumstance. Generally speaking it's not like we have any important meetings to be alert for or things we have to stay up late working on, or even a quiet place to go in the middle of the day to enjoy a nice peaceful cup of coffee. So not having it readily available isn't as much of a hardship as you might think. If you're a coffee snob you're in big trouble though! You might want to get over that if you think you might be spending time in jail someday.

I've been experimenting with lattes recently, on the days when I don't need the soy milk powder for cereal. the best recipe so far is half the soy powder, one maxwell house, half a jail-house coffee, one "creamer" (these are actually that chemical coffee whitener powder stuff) and one sugar. It's quite possibly disgusting -- I can't always tell anymore -- but I like it. Maybe just because it's something different a couple times a week. It's less weird than some of the things that people mix in here, for example lemonade juice crystals in tea.

Which brings me to juice crystals. People eat these out of the package, like candy and you can actually make jail candy out of them by adding a bunch of creamers and a little bit of water or butter and letting it harden. Other common treats (usually for birthdays) are rice crispy squares off of the canteen with a melted arrow bar (also off the canteen) mixed with peanut butter as icing, or sticky buns iced with a mixture of cream cheese and jam. often these "cakes" are decorated with canteen candy (jelly beans, jujubes, nibs, licorice all-sorts). It's really quite industrious in here at times.
 
So to sum up: the food is pretty bland and basic, people complain about it quite a bit, there are no options, there's a disturbing amount of waste and the utensil is not always appropriate. The fact remains that we get three filling and mostly healthy meals a day -- and that in itself is better than what a lot of people can look forward to when they get out. I'll never forget the morning a homeless woman was being released back onto the streets and we all scrambled to put together a care package. How sad is that? Having to rely on maximum security inmates for your next meal, knowing that for you freedom means hunger. What the fuck kind of world do we live in?

For those of you who are really curious about jail food here are the vegan tray contents for this past week:

Friday
Breakfast:
Rice Crispies
soy milk
two slices of bread
apple juice
coffee
two peanut butters, sugar, salt and pepper
 
Lunch:
vegan beefaroni
green beans
soup
crackers
banana
soy milk
two slices of bread
margarine, tea bag, sugar
 
Dinner:
vegan lasagna
squash
white rice
canned pineapples
soy milk
two slices of bread
margarine, tea bag, sugar
apple
 
Saturday
Breakfast:
Bran Flakes
soy milk
two slices of bread
orange juice
coffee
two peanut butters, two sugars, jam, margarine
 
Lunch:
chili with soy meat
white rice
corn
two slices of bread
soy milk
tea bag, sugar, margarine, salt and pepper
canned peaches
 
Dinner:
vegetable stew with tofu
potatoes
green peas
three slices of bread
a banana
apple
margarine, tea bag, sugar, lemonade juice crystals
 
Sunday
Breakfast:
two soy patties, tofu chunks, green peppers onions and carrots
potatoes
two slices of bread
soy milk
apple juice
coffee
two peanut butter, sugar, jam, ketchup, margarine, salt and pepper
 
Lunch:
rice salad with peas and beans
two slices of bread
spinach salad
soy cold cuts
soy milk
mustard, sugar, italian dressing
 
Dinner:
curried chick peas
white rice
green beans and carrots
two slices of bread
apple
orange
margarine, tea bag, orange juice crystals
 
Monday
Breakfast:
Rice Crispies
soy milk
two slices of bread
orange juice
coffee
two peanut butters, two sugars, salt and pepper, margarine and jam
 
Lunch:
tortilla wraps
green salad
soy cold cuts
soy milk
soy cheese
potato salad
orange
sugar, french dressing, tea bag
 
Dinner:
pasta and curried lentils
corn
three slices of bread
apple sauce
apples
soy milk, lemonade juice crystals, sugar, margarine, tea bag
 
Tuesday
Breakfast:
two potato pancakes
applesauce
two slices of bread
soy milk
salt and pepper, syrup, sugar and jam, margarine, apple juice
coffee
 
Lunch:
coleslaw
bean salad
hummus
three slices of bread
soy milk
mustard, margarine, sugar, tea bag
apple
 
Dinner:
vegan meat loaf
sweet potatoes
mixed vegetables
three pieces of bread
canned pineapples
soy milk
orange
tea bag, margarine, sugar, lemonade juice crystals
 
Wednesday
Breakfast:
Corn Flakes
soy milk
two slices of bread
apple juice
two peanut butters, two sugars, salt and pepper,
coffee
 
Lunch:
chick peas and rice
carrots
soup
crackers
soy milk
canned fruit salad
two slices of bread
margarine, mustard, salt and pepper, sugar, tea bag
 
Dinner:
teryaki tofu and rice
mixed vegetables
orange
apple
soy milk
two slices of bread
lemonade juice crystals, tea bag, margarine, sugar
 
Thursday
Breakfast:
oatmeal
applesauce
potatoes
orange juice
two slices of bread
coffee
two peanut butters, sugar, jam, sugar, salt and pepper, margarine, ketchup
soy milk
 
Lunch:
pasta salad
carrot sticks
celery sticks
tofu chunks
carrots and green peppers
two slices of bread
soy milk
sugar, margarine, tea bag
apple
 
Dinner:
baked beans
salsa
two slices of bread
canned peaches
orange
orange juice crystals, tea bag, sugar, margarine

This was originally published on Bored but not broken.

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