This is a reasonable representation of what Butt Naked Fish looks like in comparison to a regular breaded fillet.
Not much needs more to be said about food service in the MDOC than to mention “Butt Naked Fish.” This will elicit a visceral response from anyone who has served appreciable time as a prisoner. BFN is an unbreaded fish fillet that has more in common with particle board than Van de Kamp’s. Most prisoners would describe it as a square white hockey puck made from fins and scales. It wasn’t seasoned yet the flavor is indescribable. Generally, it was served on the Diet Line for people with a medically restricted diet like diabetics however, from time to time it would make an appearance on the menu for the regular food service when there was a shortage of the breaded baked fish normally served.
I heard stories from the old timers about getting giant cinnamon rolls and coffee for breakfast. Pork chops, fried chicken, beef liver and other real protein sources were served as a regular part of the menu. At one time the MDOC had its own dairy, slaughter house, and farms that provided the majority of the food stocks for the chow hall. Prison work camps supplied the labor. Then a series of unfortunate events involving prisoners resulted in the closing of the work camps and the elimination of the prison farms back in the early 1980s. This corresponded closely in time with the “tough on crime” movement that more than doubled the number of people behind bars and put a significant strain on the department’s budget. Food service was severely impacted, and the goal was put in place to feed inmates for $1 per day.
There have been a number of changes in food service in the last few years as the department sought to reduce costs further under Governor Snyder. Food service was outsourced to Aramark a national vender that provides meals to a number of state prison systems, in the attempt to reduce cost by leveraging increased buying power. When the contract was put out for bid none of the original bids met the targeted cost savings. On rebid Aramark was awarded the contract. In what I would describe as a rocky relationship, Aramark replaced union food stewards with minimum wage inexperienced personal. The officer’s union lost something like 350 staff positions and was bitter and resentful about that and went out of its way to ensure that privatization of the food service failed. They didn’t care about the impact it would have on the 40,000+ inmates.
After several years of struggling to hire and retain sufficient staffing to provide oversight of the inmates working in the kitchen, contraband smuggling, illicit sexual relationships between staff and inmates, and fines for failing to meet contract obligations, Aramark decided to give back the contract. Trinity was then given the contract at several million dollars above what Aramark had been paid. Trinity basically took the Aramark employees and the problems continued the same as before. Articles appeared in newspapers across the state detailing issues involving the food service and calls by many to return it to department control. In 2017 it was announced that Trinity would be leaving, the food service returned to the department, and jobs returned to the union.
What is lost in all this is the effect it had on the inmates. Food quality and quantity decreased meaning that there were many times when inmates went hungry and not by choice. Hungry natives are restless natives. Back in the day it was understood that one of the ways to keep the prison population under control was to make sure that they got fed. Today though prison is all stick and no carrot. In the roughly 30 years that the department tried to limit the food cost to $1 per day for each inmate, food and labor costs have increased significantly. The only choice was to buy cheaper meal alternatives and reduce portion sizes. For instance, instead of fried chicken breasts baked leg quarters were served and over time they shrank in size. I once observed that on days when chicken was being served that there were fewer pigeons to be seen on the yard. Ground meats like hamburgers or meatballs that looked and tasted like there was more filler than beef or turkey caused many inmates to ask, “Where’s the beef?” like the old lady in the Wendy’s commercial. The Hot dogs and Polish sausage had the consistence and taste of a rubber hose.
Pizza was served by the single slice that were the size of a 3×5 index card. For a guy that used to eat a whole medium and sometimes a large pizza all by himself, this just didn’t satisfy me at all. One time the pizza would be so over cooked that it was as stiff as cardboard with burnt cheese on it, and the next time the dough would still be raw in the center of the pan. This sometimes occurred in the same meal service, it was just luck of the draw if you got an eatable piece.
Calories from other sources such as potatoes, which are a starchy carbohydrate, make up a sizable portion of the meal. Mashed potatoes, Garlic mashed potatoes, Oven browned potatoes, Cheesy potatoes, Potato salad, Baked potatoes, Tater tots, and Potato wedges. Potatoes were served on average four days a week and sometimes for both lunch and dinner. I heard that at one facility the food service director owned a potato farm and sold his crop to the MDOC at his facility. There were an unusual number of food substitutions where potatoes replaced the scheduled rice or pasta, go figure. Now I like potatoes, but when they are cooked in such a way that they are uneatable, they provide no nutritional value and simply end up in the trash.
Boiled collard greens, spinach, and cabbage; canned green beans, mixed vegetables, and corn; cooked beets (not the pickled ones); and carrots that looked like they came from a deer hunters bait pile, were cooked until they are flavorless and devoid of nutritional value. When a menu change introduced peas to the rotation a friend of mine exclaimed, “I thought these had gone extinct!”
In recent years meals like Turkey ala King and Turkey Tetrazzini were added alongside old staples like Chili Mac as ways to stretch the budget further. Why is it that on every menu there is always one meal that doesn’t look good on paper let alone in reality? Back in the day it might have been Chipped Beef on Toast, which was affectionately called “S#*t on a Shingle” or a modern dish like Turkey Teriyaki (Turkey Teri-yuk-e) or Salisbury Patty (Salisbury’s Mistake). There were those who didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t eat the main dish with the beef, chicken or turkey included, so at lunch and dinner there would be a meatless alternative offered. It would sometimes be the same dish with soy substituted for the meat, at other times it was beans. Occasionally the alternative was better than the primary offering like when they served Spinach Au Gratin. But like everything else in the chow hall it depended on who cooked it, so some days it was a lose-lose situation with no clearly better choice.
The best part of the meal was the 2 slices of wheat bread and the desert. The bread was store bought, so it was hard for them to ruin it. I would take it back to my bunk to make a peanut butter sandwich. Desert was either a cookie or a piece of sheet cake. They used to serve ice cream before Aramark took over. At one facility we used to get ice cream donated by a local dairy company when they had a manufacturing hiccup and mixed in the wrong type of nuts or something. In fact, a number of Michigan food manufacturers donated or sold off-spec but still eatable food products at significantly reduced prices to the MDOC. The practice of accepting these ended when Aramark took over.
Breakfast was a rotation of oatmeal, grits, or Ralston (Cream of What?) or All Bran as a cold cereal alternative. Older menus offered waffles and sausages once a week. Newer menus mixed in coffee cake, gravy and biscuit or French toast bake (the French don’t take credit for this). Most inmates didn’t even bother getting up for breakfast. Generally, food service started too early and offered little incentive to go, unless they were serving peanut butter, which we would bring back to save for that peanut butter sandwich later. Eggs, even powdered eggs were not served at all during my time in prison. I had a diabetic roommate one time that got hardboiled eggs in his snack bag. He didn’t like them and would trade them to me for what ever I had in my locker that he could eat when his blood sugar got too low.
Coffee wasn’t part of the meal service like it was back in the day. The options were milk or a juice like apple or orange for breakfast, and for lunch and dinner a Kool-Aid like drink, or water. The serving size was listed as 1 cup, but the plastic cups were small, and I don’t think could hold 8 ounces without spilling.
If you look at the published menu included below you will see that it looks a lot like a public-school lunch menu. The menu had a 6-week cycle where the lunch and dinner meals were switched, so the reality was 3 weeks of menu variety. While it looks good on paper, I can assure you that the paper tastes better. As I have described elsewhere theft was a major problem, especially after it was turned over to Aramark and Trinity. This had a significant impact on the meal preparation. For instance, when a recipe called for spices, the required amounts would be issued to the inmate cook. If he decided to steal the spices and sell them on the yard, then the dish he prepared would be bland. Likewise, the Kool-Aid drink mix came in powdered form and if the person preparing it decided to take some of it then the drink would taste watery. Many guys would take the seasoning packs from Raman Noodles that they would purchase in the commissary to season the meals in the chow hall. I did that on a regular basis, but I also noticed that the food served in the chow hall was like a flavor blackhole. No matter how much seasonings or hot sauce I put on some dishes it didn’t seem to make a difference.
On several special occasions when volunteers from a faith-based organization came into the prison and shared a meal with us in the chow hall, I got to observe first-hand the reactions of people who had never tasted prison food before. The experienced volunteers who knew better than to eat the meal would stick to the fruit, but there was always one rookie who would try the meal. Without fail we would hear the next day that the brave volunteer who tried the food ended up sick overnight. To say that prison food is an acquired taste would be an understatement. Conversely, I heard from more than one guy who had returned to prison that there would be a period of adjustment when I went home as my body got used to real food again. The only good thing that I can say about prison food is that it is better than what they serve in the county jails.