Pavlovian Response

Pavlov's dog

Ivan Pavlov is known for his work in Classical Conditioning back in the early Twentieth Century in which he was able to create a learned response in dogs by getting them to salivate when a bell was rung rather than by showing them food.  In the MDOC something similar happens.  Meal service begins morning, noon, and evening after count clears.  The housing units are dismissed to the chow hall one at a time.  There are different rules in different levels and the COs also enforce their own rules.  In general, the lobby area is off limits until the unit is called to chow.  The CO gets on the PA system and announces “Chow Time” to dismiss the unit to chow.

In level IV the inmates must be released from their rooms and they will then leisurely stroll to chow, drawing out the amount of time spent out of their cells to the maximum amount possible.  There is no urge to be first because there is no sitting and enjoying the meal.  You eat and you leave the chow hall under the strict watch of the COs.  But level I and II are completely different.

In level I and II when the unit is called to chow it is a stampede.  The door to the unit is a natural choke point and it gets pretty crowded with bodies jostling each other to get out.  When you add canes and walkers, someone is likely to get run over.  To alleviate this some facilities will call a special early chow for handicapped inmates.  Those with canes or walkers find it difficult standing in line and given the distance from the housing unit to the chow hall would end up at the back of the line.

MDOC food service at an unnamed prison.
( Photo: Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press)

Chow can take 1½ to 2 hours to run depending on the size of the chow hall and the number of inmates to be fed.  Factors like food preparation issues can add additional delays.  Aramark and Trinity had a history of problems like running out of food and were fined for it.  Running out of chicken quarters on a Sunday could delay the release of the last unit while more is cooked or an alternative like chicken patties were prepared.  In level I and II getting the last unit into the chow hall is the cue to open the yard.  Prior to this movement is controlled.  This means that after eating inmates return to their unit or go to callouts such as school or medical.  When the yard opens inmates can go into the front yard and big yard. The reason for controlled movement is to among other things prevent inmates from slipping back into the chow hall.

Double dipping is a real problem.  Portions are not big enough to satisfy most adults, so guys will try almost any way to get full.  To control food costs the kitchen prepares a certain number of meals based on estimates of inmate and staff meal consumption from historical records. For instance, maybe only 50% of inmates at a given facility regularly eat breakfast, so only that much food will be prepared for oatmeal, grits or cream of wheat days.  However, on waffle and sausage day 75% of the inmates will get up for breakfast so more food will need to be prepared that day.

From friends working in the kitchen I’ve heard reports of meal preparation exceeding 125% of the inmate population plus staff.  To combat this the MDOC invested in a computerized system using bar code or magnetic strip readers to scan ID cards as people go through the serving line.  But like the other cat and mouse games that inmates play they are always looking for ways to beat the system.  I’ve seen guys duck under the rail to get back in line when the staff wasn’t looking.  Guys passing trays from the line to others sitting nearby.  Guys taking two trays off the line to get a second burger or hot dog and abandoning the tray when they leave the end of the line.  Use someone else’s ID card who isn’t going to chow.  And the old standby of having a friend on the serving line.  All of this in addition to food service workers stealing food.  No wonder the portion sizes are so small.

Not only do you leave the chow hall hungry but also disappointed because the food quality is so bad that some things had to be left on the tray as uneatable.  Potatoes that were so over cooked that they are as hard as bricks.  Under cooked rice.  Over cooked greens.  Polish sausage that is the texture and consistency of rubber hose.  Fish that is mostly fins and scales.

There were rumors abound about boxes of food labeled “Not for Human Consumption” being delivered to food service for inmate meals. Newspaper articles appear from time to time documenting events where Aramark or Trinity were fined for attempting to serve food with maggots, rat droppings, or fished out of the garbage.  The bottom line is the bottom line, food costs money.  The goal is to feed an inmate for $1 a day and has been for years regardless of inflation.  When buying the cheapest food isn’t enough food service management will do whatever it can to contain costs, even cut corners.  I suspect that Pavlov’s dogs wouldn’t have salivated in anticipation of a meal at the MDOC.

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