As they do every evening, hundreds of fruit flies perched on the dank tiled walls in the Oakland County Jail's showers look on as I step in to prepare dinner.
The roughly 6-by-4-foot enclosure is dimly lit by yellow, fluorescent light. The mildew is staggering.
Aside from serving as a fruit fly sanctuary, the shower serves multiple needs for hundreds of inmates daily. Even though it's filthy, it's where we scrub ourselves of the jail's filth. It's also where we do our laundry: Underwear and socks are agitated and scoured in five-gallon buckets also used to clean out the showers, then held up to the showerhead for a rinse.
Worse yet, it's the only place where a prisoner can find some privacy. And a few moments out of sight in the day of a sex-starved criminal lodged for months in the county jail leads to one thing.
The shower is also our stove. It's where we "cook" our commissary food, and in my hand is a clear, 20-ounce plastic cup filled halfway with pale brown, no-brand dehydrated refried beans. I hold the cup to the showerhead and fill it until the bean flakes are submerged. The beans need hot water to cook. Jail shower water is tepid at best, but regardless of the outcome in the stove, the beans are my ticket into that evening's "cook-up."
The cook-ups are a sort of potluck in which inmates pool ingredients purchased from commissary, which has a stock list similar to that of any crappy Eight Mile party store. But a party store offers better food than the Oakland County Jail cafeteria, and the cook-ups are essential. The "state" meals are painfully short on calories and taste, so each night we pile up mounds of junk food on chips or tortillas, creating sodium bombs packing the flavor and fill lacking on the state-issued trays.
My cook-up partner and friend, Chillin' P, who goes by this nickname despite his felonious assault rap that would be evidence against the moniker, is contributing semi-cooked and still mostly crunchy white rice along with a bag of pulverized Flamin' Hot Cheetos used for seasoning. Some dude who has the face of a classic cartoon thief brings tortillas, pickles, jalapenos, and squeeze cheese. These are the ingredients of a variation on the jail burrito — not much of a dazzler on this night, but it'll do.
For a moment in the shower I become very aware of what I'm doing and my surroundings. It's a harsh flash of reality. The scene is gross and depressing as I take a fruit-fly-on-the-wall look at myself: Me standing in a jail shower, a cup of dried refried beans held to a dirty showerhead. The din of dozens of inmates recreating in the dayroom on the other side of the shower curtain echoes through the cellblock. It's a stew of sad lives playing spades, Scrabble, chess, or watching TMZ. The only thing louder than them is the deputy yelling at them to shut the fuck up.
I smell the mildew and I see the staring and still fruit flies. I know I stand on an unfathomable amount of "pris jizz." I see the pile of old, wet socks the last prisoner who laundered in the shower left behind. A wave of despair hits, but retreats in an instant. The repulsiveness is shut out by the need to eat. Any germaphobe hesitation disappears. Germs present less of a threat than hunger. My rumbling belly trumps all. In jail you've got to do what passes the time quicker. Hunger is a weight on the minute hand. And if standing in that dank horror chamber with a cup of dried beans is what gets me through, well ....
I pull the cup from the showerhead. Ten minutes later, the beans — now a scientifically impossible soggy yet crunchy paste — are presented to Chillin' P and thief face.
We break bread.
1 package tuna
1 package chili
1 package pickle
2 packages mustard
1 package saltine crackers
Spread the tuna on the tortilla. Dice half a pickle. Crumble saltine crackers into a pile. Try to heat the chili. After failing, mix chili, pickle cubes, and add saltines for thickening. Pour chili mix over the tuna. Liberally apply mustard.
A convincing argument can be made that jail food should be pretty gross, but what it shouldn't be is rotten, maggot-infested, pulled out of the garbage, or gnawed on by rats. Unfortunately, that's exactly what it has been at times in Michigan's jails. Aramark, the company with which Oakland County and the Michigan Department of Corrections contracts for food service, seems intent on outdoing itself with each increasingly appalling headline. If you thought those maggots they served in Jackson last week were pretty gross, then check out the rotten chicken tacos they plopped on the plates in Kent County this week.
While OCJ has been spared the more gruesome issues, I still got a taste of Aramark's approach to feeding inmates during my seven-month stay in four different cellblocks, and it wasn't good. The media has been on them. Not only here, but also in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, and everywhere else where mouse turds or bugs or worms are turning up in prisoners' dinners.
Thankfully, I didn't read about the extent of it until after I got out.
In the days leading up to a sentencing I knew would leave me confined for much longer than preferable, I rounded my belly by licking plates clean at all my favorite restaurants. Chicken gyros from Plaka, deep-dish pizza from Loui's, burgers from Nemo's, cake after cake from Astoria.
As a teenage delinquent with a Hollywood Knights-style relationship with the local law, I had gotten acquainted with drunk-tank cuisine, so I figured I knew what to expect and would fatten up a little beforehand.
But as I waded into my protracted stay at the Oakland County Jail, it quickly became evident that I wasn't prepared for the daily culinary horror show. No one is asking the jail to polish the silver for a bunch of beer-bombing dolts and petty thugs. However — assuming they weren't serving actual trash that day, which is a legitimate worry in Michigan — there was no imagining the cartoonish menu items that would land in front of us, like bologna soup. There's no knowing ahead of time that "meatballs" in fluorescent gray sauce were actually the best thing rolling out of the kitchen and cause for excitement.
The problems with taste didn't compare to the sudden drop in caloric intake and persistent hunger. No one straight up starves in jail but, unless your people are putting money in your prisoner account so you can buy chips, candy, beef sticks, tuna, beans, or other ingredients to prepare food from commissary, you go hungry.
Within a week I dropped 11 pounds and within two weeks my ribs popped through as I shed another 10. Slices from Loui's and chicken gyros from Plaka danced and tumbled through my dreams. When my cellmate and I weren't bitching about our cases, we sat on our bunks and debated which restaurant in town stacked the tallest Rueben and one-upped each other's potato salad recipes.
The only person I ever met who gained weight in jail put on a shocking 20 pounds. By the looks of his pencil-thin frame, one would've guessed he had just lost 30.
"I was a meth addict before I came in," he explained over a bologna sandwich.
"He was on the stem-fast diet," another of his tribe chimed in.
Being hungry while confined in a monotonous existence places food in a whole new light. Surviving jail with your sanity intact is all about pushing the clock forward with as much joy as one can scrape together, and hunger — the kind that causes everyone in the room except meth addicts to drop 20 to 30 pounds — only slows time and cracks the spirit.
Meals become one of the few bright-ish spots in an otherwise dismal reality. There's nothing else from which to draw any pleasure, rest assured. So for those with money for commissary, cobbling together a tuna Rueben or assembling a junk food burrito the size of a football is an immense joy that can swing a day from miserable to tolerable by offering some delight and variation that, by design, is in very short supply.
Brighten enough days in that way and time might not seem to stand quite so still.
Food also becomes currency. You're pretty much illiterate and want someone to write a nice letter to your judge? Hand over a Honeybun. Need a barber to do something about your lid? The going rate is two bags of chips and a scoop of coffee. For those looking for a liquid lunch, someone always had "spud juice" made from fermented apples in their locker. A 20-ounce bottle runs $5 worth of commissary items.
Food becomes a source of camaraderie through cook-ups or a spot at the blackjack table, for which one must ante up a pack of cookies. Inmates steal for food, barter for food, argue about it, and physically fight for it.
In other words, food becomes directly or indirectly involved in almost every aspect of jail life, and at a sentence's outset, one goes hungry. But hunger is a powerful motivator, and it doesn't take long to learn where to find a few extra calories in the day.
That means swallowing whatever pride remains and cooking refried beans in a cum-covered shower/washing machine/mildew factory, but it's a small price to pay for satiation.
Chicken Rueben Wrap
1 package pre-cooked chicken
2 scoops of state-issued coleslaw (no dressing)
1 pickle package
1 pack of ketchup
5 slices jalapeno
1 package mayo
1 packet jalapeno squeeze cheese (if desired)
1 state-issued hard-boiled egg
Save the state-issued "coleslaw," which is often just shredded cabbage and carrots with no dressing, in a clear plastic cup bought out of commissary.
Pour the brine from the pickle bag into the cup and let the cabbage sit for at least four hours.
Dice the pickle into small pieces. In a container mix the pickles with the mayo and ketchup to make Thousand Island dressing.
Dice up the hard-boiled egg. Break up the packaged chicken and mix it in with the egg.
Place the tortilla on a "plate." Add chicken and egg. Cover chicken with the "sauerkraut." Squeeze jalapeno cheese over the kraut and spread on Thousand Island dressing. Wrap and enjoy.
Because food takes on a whole new meaning and a whole new level of importance in jail, it should come as no shock that Aramark's incompetence generated anger inside the walls, prompting hunger strikes, protests, and lawsuits. The company's problems with food shortages and quality managed to piss off everyone from murderers to the American Civil Liberties Union to the bean-brained reps in the Michigan Legislature who thought switching to Aramark was a good idea in the first place.
While anyone with a shred of foresight could've seen these problems a mile beyond the horizon, privatizing prison functions in Michigan is considered a great way to free up some budget dollars. While the state's incarceration rate is in the middle of the pack nationally, it still jails more people per capita than places like Russia, Iran, or Cuba.
Even with an average incarceration rate, Michigan makes headlines because it spends 21 percent of its general fund jailing people — a greater portion than any other state and more than it spends on higher education. Since 1980, its biggest growth industry has been the prison system.
In other words, Michigan throws a ton of people in jail, but really sucks at housing them.
Naturally, when in 2013 the Republican-led legislature put their heads together to come up with a solution to out-of-control prison costs, they failed to think long and hard about the correlation between absurd, new minimum sentencing guidelines and the state's prison population growing by nearly 250 percent between 1986 and 2006. Instead it saw an opportunity for privatization.
Enter Aramark, which signed a three-year, $145 million contract in late 2013.
The food service megacorporation grossed over $14 billion in 2014 and is the nation's 23rd largest employer. Not only does it provide food for jails, its cuisine, to use the term generously, is also served at ballparks, on airplanes, in national parks, in hospitals, or in corporate boardrooms. Of course, it offers varying levels of quality, and by the looks of its growth, it does something right.
But, hoo boy, are those reports on its correctional food services division disturbing. In the Saginaw Correctional Facility, the company was busted serving prisoners food pulled out of the garbage. The latest of three "maggot-related incidents" was reported in June in Jackson, where a year prior 30 inmates were sickened and quarantined after maggots were found in their potatoes. In Kent County, 16 inmates are suing Aramark in federal court after the company sickened 250 prisoners by allegedly knowingly serving rotten meat on chicken taco night.
In the Central Michigan Correctional Facility, an Aramark employee allegedly ordered inmates to serve cakes that rats partially ate, and in Macomb County prisoners ate cold food for months after a raging mold infestation shut down the kitchen.
But the issues with Aramark aren't restricted just to food quality. Its employees were caught humping inmates in a walk-in refrigerator, smuggling in drugs and cellphones, and putting out a hit on a prisoner.
Democrats are naturally pissed because these problems didn't exist when the union ran the mess hall, but even conservatives recognize that terms like "partial quarantine" and "prison riot" give privatization "a very bad name," and last year Republican leadership in the Senate joined the call for the cancellation of Aramark's contract.
One would think clearly serving garbage to humans is indefensible and grounds for action, but against all the evidence, Aramark essentially said the problems are lies made up by unions, and even the MDOC doesn't seem too concerned.
The tainted meals have received so much attention over the last 18 months that, in its most recent poll, Public Policy Polling included a question on whether Michigan should dump Aramark: 62 percent of respondents said "yes," while 25 percent said they weren't sure. In an interview with MLive, Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesman, hilariously defended the contract by pointing out that 12 percent of respondents don't think the state should fire Aramark.
He also stated the company doesn't use public polling to guide its decision-making. In other words, the agency that takes over 20 percent of our general fund just told us it doesn't really give a shit what we think.
But, hey, at least the exceedingly pro-business Snyder administration fined Aramark $200,000.
Oh, wait — it secretly canceled half those fines and no one can really say for sure if the company ever paid a dime.
Naturally, Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler defended the company.
"There have been hundreds of unfounded allegations made by special interest groups against our company and our hard-working employees in Michigan. Privatization is a political issue that prompts emotional responses on both sides. Despite the ongoing manufactured attacks, we continue to serve quality meals to 45,000 offenders daily and save the taxpayers of Michigan more than $14 million per year that can be used to fund vital programs in the state," she told the Metro Times.
The last line, which is completely bananas for several reasons, presents an interesting question. It's prisoners who are the victims here, and contracting with Aramark saved Michigan $12 million in 2014 and $16 million in 2015. With that kind of money for "vital programs" at stake, should Michiganders accept that a few people are going to have to eat maggots and rotten chicken?
Classic Jail Cake
1 state-issued pack of peanut butter
2 Oreo cookies
½ Snickers bar
½ package of peanut M&Ms
Spread peanut butter across the honeybun frosting. Crumble two Oreo cookies onto the peanut butter. Crumble ½ Snickers bar. Halve peanut M&Ms and top the cake.
Deep in the state's contract with Aramark, where the specifics on nutritional benchmarks are laid out, is a food pyramid followed by a quote from Hippocrates: "If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health."
Rich stuff, guys.
Though no one expects anything that would land on a prison cafeteria tray to approach healthy, it appears someone put some time and thought into designing a full day's menu devoid of nutritional value. No one could have accidentally assembled meals with so little nourishment.
The contract also stipulates Aramark must serve 2,600 calories to male inmates each day in addition to meeting the weekly nutritional benchmarks. According to an Oakland County official, the same goes for the Oakland County Jail. The idea that Aramark puts 2,600 calories in front of the jail inmates daily would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that going hungry isn't very funny. The state even cited Aramark hundreds of times for shorting meals and making unauthorized substitutions, though it should be noted none came out of Oakland County Jail.
Of course it's difficult to prove Aramark, which is charging the state just under $4 a day to feed an inmate, is cutting calories, but the unique meal schedule and menu at the jail supports the claim. The breakfast bell rings promptly at 4:30 a.m. each morning and we dragged ourselves out of bed for something like a hard-boiled egg, frozen apple cubes, and plain oatmeal or grits along with powdered milk. Lunch, which was an actual meal, arrived at 10:30 a.m.
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.