The dinner chow line ran at 3:30 p.m., though calling it dinner is generous. This is where the well-traveled prisoners reported Oakland County Jail differed from the rest of the prison and jail system. Every afternoon, instead of a hot meal, we received four slices of white bread and a slice of baloney cut in half along with a few cookies. So after 10:30 a.m., Oakland County's inmates are given a snack that would leave most 8-year-olds hungry an hour later but is supposed to get adults through until 4:30 a.m. the next day.
There are also the issues of substitutions. In one prison, two ketchup packets took the place of spaghetti sauce. In another, two popsicles were served for breakfast after the kitchen ran out of orange juice.
But identifying a substitution from an actual designed meal is difficult given how bizarre the plates were to begin with. Spaghetti arrived made with potatoes, for example, which, as one disbelieving friend pointed out: "That's not spaghetti! That's just potatoes with meat sauce on it!"
The drop in food quality since Aramark took over the mess halls is another of the longtime inmates' regular grumbles and is behind some of the unrest, though many say it's hard to find sympathy for criminals eating borderline dog food or a lunch with the flavor profile of wet construction paper.
The daily debate in Oakland County Jail over exactly what kind of meat we were eating was indicative of the quality. It followed the same script every day. Cow? Turkey? Pig? Bean? I could never identify anything, but the discussion always ended with two people asserting that they could. One, who talked to a deputy, would know for a fact we were eating turkey, while another had it on good word from the kitchen that everything we ate was actually a beef-soy combination. They'd go back and forth, but, bottom line, there was just no knowing for certain what we were eating.
Surely receiving garbage for lunch or being shorted food is grounds for a lawsuit, right? Daniel Manville, a lawyer and director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University, says that as outrageous as finding maggots in or around food might seem, there's no real recourse for an individual prisoner. Class-action lawsuits have a better chance of success if it can be proven that, for example, a jail is serving less than the required 2,600 daily calories, and he encourages prisoners to contact him with that information.
But an inmate will likely lose an individual lawsuit, and those prisoners who have filed against Aramark have lost.
"You see a maggot, but where's your harm? It's a bad situation and technically it violates the Constitution, but there's an axiom that not every harm gets you a lawsuit," Manville says.
1 package pickle
1 package tuna
Five slices jalapenos (substitute crushed Jalapeno Cheetos if commissary is out of jalapenos)
1 package mustard
1 package mayo
1 hard-boiled egg
Slice the pickle lengthwise. Use a spoon to gut the seeds out of each half, leaving a "canoe" shape out of the cucumber.
In a container, mix tuna, pickle brine, mayo, mustard, hard-boiled egg, and jalapenos. Fill the canoe with the tuna salad. Crush up your favorite chips and sprinkle on top if desired.
So the meals don't meet any nutritional standards, are short on calories, and taste like garbage, possibly because they are.
There is one option for the hapless prisoner — get someone on the outside to put money in your prisoner account so you can buy food from commissary.
The more commissary I amassed, the more flexibility I had to barter for better food and the less state food ended up in my mouth. The less state food I had to eat, the more of it I had to trade away for commissary, and the happier I grew in general. The happier I was, the quicker those seven months passed.
The cook-ups were particularly useful in that everyone brought something to the table. Combined resources led to bigger and better meals. The resourcefulness in food preparation in jail was impressive. Everything was reused or repurposed or altered in some way to prepare the meal or improve the flavor.
In minimum security, the cook-ups took place on empty top bunk beds. Mattresses were removed, and four or five prisoners would gather around the makeshift table with beef sticks, cheese sticks, squeeze cheese, turkey sticks, dried beans, rice, bags of chips, pickles, jalapenos, packs of tuna, and anything else worth wrapping up in a tortilla.
Square soap dishes became knives that cubed and diced meat sticks. Chip bags were torn down the seams and used as plates and cutting boards. "Carry-out" containers from the commissary's hot food became serving bowls in which nachos were piled on top of sheets of notebook paper that were made into liners to keep grease off the bowls.
The jail burrito was the most common dish. One of the first I witnessed was made by my friend, Ed, who went by the name Chef Home Boy 'R E-D. He and his crew put together the biggest and baddest cook-ups in general, and I learned a lot from watching him. If I owned a bakery, I'd hire Ed as a pastry chef when he gets out.
But he was also a master of the jail burrito. Rice and refried beans made up the base, which was spread thick across the tortillas and topped with tuna soaked in jalapeno-infused pickle brine. Generous portions of cubed beef and pepper turkey sticks topped the tuna, followed by pickle cubes, and slices of pickled jalapenos. Ed next drizzled jalapeno squeeze cheese mixed with the pickle brine around the pile.
While the burrito was under construction, someone else crushed into powders the contents of bags of nacho cheese Doritos, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, and Sun Chips, which were mixed and sprinkled on top of the mounds for extra flavor.
"We call this a ghetto nigga muthafuckin' burrito," one of Ed's crew explained as he wrapped up the pile.
While wrapping up a dozen ingredients that don't necessarily fit together seemed kind of gross at first, it made more sense after a few weeks of soggy and bland state meals.
The other way to spend commissary money was by purchasing "hot" food off a menu full of items like pizza, burgers, and chicken wings. Those orders arrived once a week, and, while better than the state food, I'm pretty sure the recipes were torn out of whatever cook book elementary school lunch ladies pulled from.
Some people ordered seven hot meals at a time, stashed them in their lockers, and ate one each day throughout week. At home I threw out anything that sat on the counter for more than a few hours, fearful of spending a day in the bathroom. But upon realizing what Aramark's hot food is actually made of and its astounding resistance to degradation, there was no thinking twice about eating a burger that sat in a room-temperature locker for a week.
Of course, we weren't supposed to keep the hot food or any state food from the mess hall in our lockers. Normally locker sweeps came without warning, but one afternoon a deputy announced over the loudspeaker that we had 15 minutes to rid our lockers of contraband, including hot food, or face a 24-hour bunk restriction, which means you sit on your bunk for 24 hours.
After the announcement, we scrambled wide eyed off our bunks to our lockers, grabbing whatever we had stashed and stuffing it in our mouths.
I had settled into a system whereby I ordered enough hot food to provide one "good" meal daily from the weekend through Thursday. That afforded the flexibility to trade away in-demand state food for commissary items, so by the time Thursday came around, I had enough stockpiled to continue eating well through the weekend.
But the locker sweep came on a Tuesday and still in my possession were double and triple cheeseburgers penciled in for that evening's dinner and the following day's lunch. Even though they were three days old, I jammed the burgers into my mouth as fast as I could. Like cooking beans in the shower, it led to an out-of-body moment where I witnessed a new low. But that was something like $20 worth of food, and the alternative was eating state grub for the rest of the week.
I continued swallowing unchewed bites of triple cheeseburger, nearly choking on it and laughter as I watched a line of low-level criminals cramming aging meat lovers calzones and congealed pizza into their faces, chasing them with Solo cups of ranch.
For those who didn't have their people putting money in their account there wasn't much to do but turn (deeper) into a life of crime.
Once, in minimum security, I was given a locker where I stashed my commissary, but it was broken into and the few bags of chips I had were cleared out. Everyone, including me, knew which group of mutants pried open the locker door and took the food. They never had any chips on the day commissary was delivered, which made it pretty obvious that their people on the outside weren't putting money on their books. And who could blame their people? While I wanted to break their hands, I had to give them credit for their move. There really wasn't much I could do and they knew it, to the point that one of them sat on his bunk and openly ate the chips he and his crew had stolen an hour earlier.
What were my options? I could punch him, but that would've resulted in a possible assault charge and a transfer out of minimum security to the "Ten Man" cellblock/dungeon. Informing the deputies would've told the deputies, which would've landed the thief in the Ten Man, but that would've resulted in me being transferred out of minimum security for my own safety.
So I did nothing, and they ate my food.
The same guys were the ones bottling spud juice, an alcohol made by saving and fermenting the frozen apples served for breakfast.
Others with limited funds who were on medication didn't swallow the pills during med distribution and sold the pills for bags of chips. There are no narcotics or sedatives in jail — there's no getting high — so sleeping pills were most in demand, because nothing pushes the clock forward like sleeping away two-thirds of the day. I liked the only people I knew doing this and was sad to see them go when they got caught.
But I couldn't blame them for trying. They were broke, and with Aramark in the kitchen, shorting us on food or serving up garbage or breeding maggots and mold, dealing drugs to afford a bag of chips might just be worth the risk.
For numerous reasons, the author of this piece has used a pen name.