Turkey Day in the Clink

An insider’s guide to jailhouse cuisine

| November-December 2008

  • Turkey Dinner

    Image by mroach, licensed under Creative Commons.

  • Turkey Dinner

I like to get in fights. I like to drink and drive. I like to kick the windows out of cop cars and talk shit to humorless magistrates. In my spare time I enjoy harpsichord music, quiet walks in the woods, and fine dining. Lately, though, I have been dining in, at the Wake County Public Safety Center, also known as jail.

The Wake County Public Safety Center is a big, ugly building in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Donnie Harrison, the Wake County sheriff, says there are about 1,300 inmates in his jail on any given day. A small portion of the prisoner population consists of actual, dangerous criminals. Mostly, though, jail is full of people just like you and me—scratch that, like you—who ran afoul of America’s goofy dope laws or who bounced a check at Wal-Mart and then got pulled over for running a stop sign three months later and were busted on a bench warrant they didn’t even know they had. These people are different from you in only one key respect: They are young, black, and poor.

But I’m not here to whine about the criminal “justice” system or regale you with tall tales of life in stir. Let us dwell on a lighter subject: jailhouse cuisine. During my latest incarceration, I had the pleasure of sharing Thanksgiving dinner with Mack (trafficking), Nate (counterfeiting), Outlaw (parole violation), and J.C. (conspiracy).

There we are, sitting at a stainless steel picnic table bolted to the cement floor, playing dominoes, talking, and awaiting our Thanksgiving feast, each of us wearing an orange-and-white-striped Tigger suit and plastic flip-flops, except for Mack, our diplomatic liaison to the black and Mexican prisoner population, who has taught himself near-fluent Spanish and ordered a do-rag ($4.10) and a pair of hipsterish high-top tennis shoes ($12.25) from the commissary. Conversations in jail are not like conversations on the outside. They can go on for days, interrupted by Maury and Oprah and Jerry and then resuming again, fluid, free-floating, labyrinthine. Is Rambo real? Is there really iceberg water? If not, how would you melt an iceberg and bottle it? These sorts of questions occupy the dead hours of an inmate’s life, which is to say every spare minute in between meals.

Breakfast in jail is something like this: Scrambled reconstituted eggs. Grits. Two slices of Wonder bread. A half-pint of orange juice or milk. If you are like me and think breakfast is incomplete without a cigarette and a good cup of coffee, you’re fucked. You can buy packets of Sanka from the commissary, but by the time you mix instant-coffee crystals with sink water in an empty orange juice container you realize it’s not worth the effort. You’re much better off spending your money on salt and pepper and ketchup and hot sauce, because jail food in its undoctored form is hideously bland. A typical lunch: Spaghetti with tomato sauce. A slice of American cheese and cartilaginous bologna with two more pieces of Wonder bread. Chopped iceberg lettuce and a section of unripe tomato. Iced tea (decaf). Try eating iceberg lettuce with a plastic spoon. For annoyance, it’s right up there with showering in handcuffs.

Who assembles this slop? And where is the kitchen, anyway? When I ask Mack and Outlaw, they shake their heads. They know what I know now and what you’re about to: The villain of this story is LeCount Catering Center. LeCount’s cost-per-inmate meal in Raleigh is $1.28. Prisoners in Raleigh don’t hate the sheriff or the cops or the shaved-head, mace-toting, black-clad guards so much as they hate LeCount.

Chris Tiffany
11/4/2008 4:47:11 PM

My experiences with the CRIMINAL injustice system in North Carolina (and those of many others) have been far worse than those described by the excellent writer, Sean Rowe. Jails, remember, are where people are caged BEFORE TRIAL, as well as after trial. I was threatened with jail in Raleigh, North Carolina after reporting police misconduct by a cop who was later fired for killing someone (after I pointed out that the misconduct in question could have killed the 72-year-old with a walker), and when threatened with arrest by the IAD sergeant (in the Police Chief's outer office, after my written complaint submitted to the Police Chief had gone unanwered), I was literally shaking. I told him I though you would WANT to hear a complaint like this before you read it in the newspaper that some old man was killed by a cop. And when I was jailed, I had no food or water, except water from the back of the toilet (where other prisoners wash their socks and underwear), & every single cell I was in had feces and/or urine on the floors and/or walls and/or the water inlet in the back of the toilet, and after the Judge ordered me released, after I complained about what happened in jail before I got to court, a guard locked me up in the below-ground dungeon under the court-house (known as "the hole"), also with sewage all over the floor, and no lights or ventilation, with other prisoners, and he told them to commit sodomy on me, and left us there unsupervised until after dinner (all of us more than 24 hours without food or potable water) -all illegal, of course. When the innocent are subjected to such treatment by guards like Charles Graner, EVERYTHING is wrong. I've only touched a few of the highlights of what I've witnessed and personally experienced, but it extends beyond misconduct by the executive branch to include prosecutorial and legislative and judicial misconduct, and misc

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