JULY 7, 2016: On my unit we all have to work. My job is called “FS-PM,” or afternoon/evening food service. Each day I leave my unit at 12:30 and head down to the kitchen/dish-washing floor and don’t return until 6:30. When I go, I join four or five others from my unit and board the elevator. Our staff escort takes us up to each successive floor to pick up other “food service” workers, all of whom (except for us) are volunteering to work for the “income.” When we have collected all the workers, we head down to the kitchen. Just the elevator ride is an experience.
Inmates riding the elevator must always stand facing the back wall and ride in silence. In the interest of efficiency, our escort tries to pick up all the workers for the shift in one trip, resulting in an intimate gathering. Since we can’t talk, I spend the time counting the number of men packed into a 6′ x 8′ elevator. The record so far is 21, and as we deplete the available oxygen in our cramped and descending capsule, I think, “Sardines have nothing on us.”
Arriving at our workplace, we find waiting for us 17 seven-foot-tall metal carts filled with dirty plastic meal trays and 17 shorter stainless steel carts with dirty plastic hot-food containers. The next hour and a half can only be described as a massive, organized yet chaotic food fight. A fair percentage of the food that went up to the floors for lunch has returned untouched, and workers are banging the trays and hot-food containers on a metal counter to empty them enough to be loaded into the massive dishwasher. Food is flying everywhere. When the 1,600 trays and containers exit the other end of the machine, cleaned and sterilized, they are stacked on giant carts and wheeled over, steaming hot and dripping, to be reloaded with the day’s dinner. The food that comes back from lunch is collected from floors and counters and put into large clear plastic bags to be loaded by the hundreds of pounds into grey, plastic, three-foot-deep wheelbarrows and hauled to the dumpster. Dinner dishes, a few hours later, undergo a repeat performance.
The “Federal National Diet” (as prison food is affectionately known) requires that every inmate get a certain number of calories each day. However there is clearly a disconnect between the ones arranging for those calories and the ones providing them. Between the type of food chosen to meet those calories and the preparation and presentation of that food, a good percentage of the intended calories never enter inmates’ stomachs. The actual caloric intake of many inmates comes from the creative culinary imaginations of self-made “chefs,” who in the late evening hours prepare in the microwave oven everything from tamales to cheesecake whose ingredients are gleaned from items purchased through the commissary. But, more on that later.
We get paid for our labor. My first monthly pay sheet was quite the revelation. One evening in the kitchen, between the lunch and dinner dishes, we were each handed a paper with our name and register number at the top and an evaluation of our performance over the past month filled out on both sides of the form. The evaluation included categories such as: Response to Supervision, Overall Proficiency, Ability to Work with Others, Quality of Work, Initiative, Eagerness to Learn, and so on. Each category had a scale from 1 to 5, poor to excellent, with “3” being “satisfactory.”
Being the model employee that I am, you can imagine my disappointment when I found that I had received 3s across the board in every single category. At the bottom of the back page was listed a total of 140 hours worked, a zero under “bonus paid,” and my total gross pay for the month, $16.80. Yup, I had made a whopping 12 cents per hour. I was troubled. It wasn’t the pittance I was paid that was eating me; it was all the 3s. It was only after I saw the pay sheets of a couple other men that it sank in. The CO (correction officer) had a stack of already-filled-out evaluation forms which he had photocopied, to which he only needed to insert the inmate’s name and register number at the top and apply his signature at the bottom. All the evaluations were the same.
Not unlike the regulated and mandated calorie count, the regulated and mandated evaluation form was completed and the requirement fulfilled. We all dutifully signed our forms acknowledging our receipt and acceptance. The $16.80 will be added to our books, and we can rest in the assurance that we all did as well as everyone else and nobody gets more Snickers from commissary than anyone else. In the process, the prison staff models for the inmates the values of efficiency, fairness, and following rules and regulations. Who says that prison is not rehabilitative?
Dennis Apel is serving four months in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, having been found guilty of crossing the “green line” during peaceful protest at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and then refusing to comply with supervised probation.