An Insider's Guide To Jailhouse Cuisine

By  Sean Rowe |  September 13, 2010

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. On the ninth floor, where I spent a month in solitary confinement, the windows are painted black so that you, the law-abiding citizen, don't have to see what is going on inside. Good for you! But this means that if you're inside, which you aren't, we are, you can't see outside. You cannot see the sky. You cannot see grass or trees or hot women. You can see the marquee news crawl on the Channel 11 building across the street, if you squint through a slit my friend Jamaica scraped in the paint with a contraband razor blade.

Outside, you are safe, more or less. Again, good for you; or, as we say in the big house, Fuck you, motherfucker. Inside, well...let's just say one is also more or less safe, but the emphasis is on less. Look at your life-insurance policy. There in the fine print on page nine, the part I bet you haven't read, you will see that your coverage evaporates the moment you step inside the pokey. But isn't safety a relative concept?

Jail is a great place to score drugs, get gang-raped, or plot a revenge killing. It's a great place to catch up on your reading or watch a Dolphins game, assuming you're willing to throw a dictionary at the three-hundred-pound mongoloid who decides it would be better to watch the Cartoon Network. Donnie Harrison, the Wake County Sheriff, says there are about thirteen hundred inmates in his jail on any given day. This is teensy, even weensy, compared to L.A. County, where I have also spent time, but that is another story. A small portion of the Wake County prisoner population consists of actual, dangerous criminals. Another portion is made up of people who are psychotic. Not psychotic in some cutesy, figurative sense, but in the literal, DSM-IV, eat-your-own-vomit sense; in the let's-shiv-a-guard, let's-scream-all-night sense. Mostly, though, jail is full of people just like you and me—scratch that, like you—who have run afoul of America's goofy dope laws or stolen their pedophile stepfather's credit card and tried to split to Costa Rica or bounced a check at Wal-Mart and then gotten pulled over for running a stop sign three months later and 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 am 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). By then I was out of solitary and had taken up lodgings at the jail annex on the edge of town. Imagine a sparkling-new airport terminal where your plane never lands or departs.

There we are, sitting at a stainless-steel picnic table bolted to the cement floor, playing dominoes, and awaiting our Thanksgiving feast, each of us wearing an orange-and-white-striped Tigger suit and matching plastic flip-flops, except for Mack, our diplomatic liaison to the black and Mexican prisoner population, who had 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 weekly commissary. J.C., whose own parents turned him in for growing a marijuana plant in his closet, is so young he has only recently started shaving. Nate is young, too, just twenty-five, but he's a hard-bitten entrepreneur who operates an auto-detailing business with his mom when he isn't printing up fake hundred-dollar bills. Mack and Outlaw, like me, are in their early forties and repeat offenders. They've been here for months awaiting trial and prison. I've already been convicted and am serving a soft jolt for drunk driving.

J.C. is giving me a crash course in Orange Cush, Skunk #7, and Great White Shark because I have decided to solve my financial problems by becoming a big-time doper when I get out of jail. Mack and Outlaw are reminiscing about chickenheads they have known. (You learn strange new words in jail, many related to sex; a "fifi," for example, is any device used as a masturbation aid behind bars; a "chickenhead" is a prostitute who services crack addicts.) Conversations in jail are not like conversations on the outside. They can go on for days, interrupted by Maury and Oprah and Jerry and Friday Night SmackDown 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? What would you do if you won the Powerball? These sorts of questions occupy the dead hours of an inmate's life, which is to say every spare minute in between meals.

An army marches on its stomach, Napoleon wrote. So do jailbirds, though of course jailbirds don't literally march anywhere, except for Petro Sandulyak, a guy whom prosecutors described as the "godfather" of Raleigh's underground Ukrainian community. Petro ran a multimillion-dollar cleaning service that by night employed hundreds of his undocumented countrymen. His company was the principal janitorial contractor for Kmart and Kroger on the East Coast. Petro was a fat slob when I met him, but while he waited around to get convicted and pay half a million dollars in fines, serve a year in prison, and be deported, he lost sixty pounds marching in disciplined circles around the cell block. It wasn't just exercise that made Petro svelte. Diet played a big part.

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. There isn't any coffee in jail these days and there aren't any cigarettes. That's the big difference between jail and prison; in prison—the place you go after you've been convicted of a crime or received a sentence of more than a year—tobacco and coffee, like sex, are commonly available. (In jail—the more crowded, chaotic, dangerous prelude to prison—you can buy little packets of Sanka from the Tuesday commissary, but by the time you mix instant-coffee crystals with warm sink water in an empty orange-juice container you will 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 wholly unseasoned and hideously bland.) A typical lunch: spaghetti with tomato sauce. A slice each of American cheese-product and cartilaginous bologna with two more pieces of Wonder Bread. A packet of cut-rate mayonnaise. Chopped iceberg lettuce and a section of unripe tomato. Iced tea (decaf). Try eating iceberg lettuce or spaghetti with a flimsy 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 at my naïveté. They know what I know now and what you're about to: that the villain of this story is LeCount Catering Services. 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 Catering. They fantasize about catching LeCount prep cooks in dark alleys.

You stop pooping three or four days after you're incarcerated. This is alarming until you realize that you simply aren't getting enough nutrition to create much in the way of waste. You aren't quite starving, but in the long hours of the night you think you are. The jail's operations manual states that there "shall not be more than fourteen hours between the evening meal and breakfast," and there usually isn't, but it feels like eternity. One night, Nate's snoring woke me up and I glanced over at his bunk. He wasn't snoring; his stomach was growling louder than I thought was possible for a man's stomach to growl. Some of the kindly older guards who tuck you in at night recite the following adage: "Sleep late, lose weight!" In other words: Don't under any circumstances miss breakfast.

If the low-cal diet provided by LeCount Catering Services was all there were to eat in jail, riots might rule the day. In fact, LeCount won the million-dollar jail contract in the first place because the sheriff got nervous about an uprising. In 1995, the jail quit doing its own cooking and hired Aramark Correctional Services to run the kitchen. During the next two years, complaints about moldy orange juice, spoiled milk, raw chicken, and human hair in the Stroganoff went through the roof. The county commission booted Aramark and brought in LeCount Catering. Today, LeCount uses its own kitchen and trucks in the meals. No one can even remember where the old jail kitchen is located.

Jail food might be marginally better today than it was a decade ago, but thank God for the weekly commissary. Assuming you have money, and you damn sure better, you can order Cheetos and popcorn and humongous garlicky kosher dill pickles. You can order Honey Buns and MoonPies and tuna salad and peanut butter and jelly and oatmeal cookies and Pop-Tarts and chocolate pudding. You can order half a dozen kinds of candy bars, from Twix (least favorite, according to a poll I conducted) to Snickers, which outsells all other brands combined. What I haven't mentioned are Ramen noodles.

Ramen noodles are a phenomenon. Because of their low cost, tastiness, and high caloric value, inmates spend upwards of half their weekly food budget on Ramen noodles alone. Cajun chicken is the most popular flavor, followed by plain old chicken; beef; and chili. Last year in Houston, Texas, inmates consumed three million packages of Ramen noodles. Mexican inmates save up food, including Ramen noodles, and throw big late-night prayer-session picnics; black inmates trade Ramen noodles for other food at regular mealtimes; white guys use crushed-up Ramen noodles to make "state cakes," a sort of jailhouse pizza invented in the state prison system. Without Ramen noodles, life in jail would grind to a halt.

It did in Raleigh, two days before Thanksgiving, when a memo from the sheriff appeared on the wall: effective 11/28/07 the following items will no longer be available on the commissary menu: ramen noodles.

There was no explanation for this outrage. Rumors and then conspiracy theories began spreading like Malibu wildfire: the Ramen ban was an act of sadism disguised as a water-conservation measure (North Carolina this fall was in the midst of a record-setting drought); the Ramen ban was an outburst of racist paranoia aimed at Black Muslims and stemming from a lamebrain muddling of the words "Ramen" and "Ramadan." Finally, one night, a no-nonsense senior lieutenant of the guards appeared on the scene to clarify the situation. The Ramen ban, he said, was the result of too many sinks getting clogged up by noodle flotsam, a byproduct of noodle preparation, wherein hundreds of prisoners mix Ramen products with hot(ish) water from the jail's sinks.

This was the grim situation that obtained on the afternoon of Thursday, November 22nd, as J.C. paused in his horticulture lesson and Mack and Outlaw momentarily ran out of chickenhead reveries.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm going to tell you about the ghastly meal that arrived masquerading as Thanksgiving dinner, and how we subsequently set our mattresses on fire and took the guards hostage. Or: You think I'm going to swipe some pampered adjectives from Bon Appétit or Food & Wine to describe the astonishing gourmet fare that LeCount Catering presented for our enjoyment—pan-seared sea scallops perhaps, with squid-ink polenta, rosemary-roasted Thumbelina carrots, and smoked salmon soubise.

Wrong.

Neither.

I'll cut to the chase, or, more accurately, the anticlimax. The trays arrived more than an hour early, at 3:45 p.m. This seemed wonderful until one sourpuss pointed out that it just meant more hours till breakfast.

What could be waiting beneath the lids of those heavy brown plastic trays? A hush fell over the cell block as a trusty lifted the first one.

Cranberry sauce, a good tablespoon or more. Sliced turkey—big, thick slices—with gravy and dressing. An actual dinner roll. Turnip greens with chopped onions. Enormous pieces of chocolate cake. Milk.

There was nothing to grouse about, and nobody did.


I like where liquor takes me. Usually. Selma, Alabama, might be an exception. I was minding my own business, whizzing east through the night on Route 80, halfway between my best friend's wedding in Port Gibson, Mississippi, and a nice warm bed in Savannah belonging to a beautiful witch I was dating at the time. She had promised to rub me with a secret lotion made from the blossoms of hallucinogenic flowers she grows in her tiny garden.

One part of me wished I was driving the ragtop '69 Pontiac Rick Bragg sold me in the mid-1990s, but I owned that monstrous, smoking, fireapple-red law-enforcement-magnet less than a year before my then-wife declared it was her or it. What I was actually driving was a nondescript Ford Escort with functional blinkers and taillights; and maybe just as well, since I was weaving subtly across the centerline. Good thing there's no one on the road but me, I thought, when all at once my rearview mirror erupted in flashing blue lights.

The drunk tank in Selma is downright medieval. It's a cube made out of cinder blocks with a single, billion-watt bulb in the ceiling that never goes off. Directly beneath the bulb is a hole in the floor the size of a coffee-can lid, and that's where you answer the call of nature, in front of your fellow incarcerees. There's no toilet paper or running water. There are no blankets and there's nothing to sleep on but the concrete bench running around three sides of the cell.

The thing you are never supposed to do in jail is ask another guy why he's there. Being who I am, it's the first thing I ask. "What are you in for?" I say to the guy straight across from me. After a moment of surprise he says: "Saltin'." I point to the next guy. "What about you?" He answers: "Saltin'." Twelve guys later I get to the last. "Saltin' on a officer," he says, and I finally understand what saltin' is. It's assault, and it's Saturday night in Selma.

When the sun comes up (theoretically, I mean; there aren't any windows, so I can't be sure), we hear a clanging at the big, steel dungeon-door. What happens next makes me think I'm still asleep, and dreaming. One by one the drunk-tank denizens get up and stagger toward the door and receive a tray through the food slot at the bottom. When I get mine, I am staring down at real, honest-to-God scrambled eggs, hot biscuits, strips of bacon, and grits pocked with chunks of melting butter. There is enough food on the tray for two men, and it is all mine. Later, at dinnertime, we get chicken sandwiches. I'm not talking about the kind of chicken sandwiches one finds at Bojangles'. I'm referring to a real Southern chicken sandwich such as you almost never see these days: two pieces of white bread with a gigantic baked chicken leg in between. A chicken leg with a goddamn bonein it. Should I describe supper? I won't. You get the idea. Next time you're arrested, do it in Selma.

When I had paid for my crimes against humanity and been released from jail in Raleigh, I walked up Hammond to Tryon and turned right, moving toward a vague recollection of a bus stop. Half a mile up the road my nose started twitching. Before me stood a faded building surrounded by cars: Larry's Southern Kitchen.

Soon I was inside noticing that the patrons divided along racial lines, half black and half white, none of them remotely skinny. The long buffet was freighted with macaroni and cheese and pinto beans and candied yams and fried trout and fried chicken and barbecued chicken and pigs' feet and gizzards-and-rice and roasted potatoes with onions; with chitlins and salmon cakes and black-eyed peas and cornbread and dinner rolls and hushpuppies and country ham and fatback and grilled beef liver with onions; with biscuits and gravy, the gravy made from old-fashioned sage sausage; with chicken pastry; with pork chops; and yes, with coconut pie and pecan pie and banana cream pie and strawberry shortcake and lemon chess pie and pineapple-orange cake. I felt like a blind dog in a smokehouse, and I would still be at Larry's if it weren't for the need to make a living and get on with things. As it was, I emerged an hour later (and $8 poorer) and made my way slowly toward home through the December chill carrying a Styrofoam to-go cup of delicious sweet tea. The caffeinated kind.

Larry's Southern Kitchen does a lot of catering. I've written to Sheriff Donnie Harrison, enclosing a small check for his re-election campaign and suggesting he fire LeCount Catering and let Larry's crew take over the food service at the Wake County Public Safety Center and its sparkling new annex. Harrison's a busy man, and so far he hasn't written back.  

INMATE ART BY MICHAEL BROWN