Butt Naked Fish

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.

menu page 1


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.

Motel 6


Tom Modell, the spokesman for the Motel 6 lodging chain used to end his commercials by saying, “We’ll leave a light on for you.”  A friendly way of letting people know that they were always prepared to receive guests.  The MDOC by contrast is more like the “Hotel California” in that “you can check out any time you want but you can never leave.” Prison and county jails for many are like a rat’s maze that is difficult to navigate, full of many dead ends, and all the exits seem to lead right back in.

Like all areas of government in this day and age, financial resources are tight, yet jails and prisons are critically over crowded.  Being asked to do more with less has resulted in a situation where jails and prisons more closely resemble warehouses than rehabilitation centers.  It has reached the point where correction has been replaced with punishment.  To most, the idea of pointless punishment is considered cruel and unusual, but for the MDOC it is business as usual.

After serving a sentence which is on average 127% of the minimum which is 120% of the federal average, many find themselves back on the streets with a large debt accumulated and limited prospects for an income sufficient to live on let alone spare resources to go toward retiring that debt.

It is the practice of county jails to charge booking fees for each suspect arrested and processed into jail.  So, whether you are ultimately found guilty or not you have started accumulating debts which will add up.  Many jails also charge inmates a daily rate.  Any money found on your person at the time of processing immediately goes toward paying the bill.  Any unpaid charges will follow you after your release.

In court you must have legal representation and if you can’t afford a lawyer on will be appointed to you.  What used to be provided as a pro bono service by a local attorney or through a public defender’s office at no charge now comes with a significant price. When you pay for your own attorney you must pay up front prior to having services rendered. If you are indigent and can’t afford an attorney they will provide you one and then bill you later.  In either case you are out thousands of dollars simply to “negotiate” a plea agreement and tens of thousands of dollars to fight your case in court.  Only those with significant financial resources can afford to mount a rigorous defense.

Upon conviction, as part of the sentence agreement you will receive a bill for fines, restitution, and court costs.  These will follow you to prison and under state law the MDOC will collect from your prison wages and any deposits to your trust account 50% of what you receive over $50 per month, and if you have multiple cases they can take up to your last $20 or $5 if there are federal charges involved.

To ensure that these costs are recouped, the MDOC has the power to seize your assets, and empty your bank accounts and investment savings -anything that is solely in your name.  They don’t have the ability to seize anything that is in a joint account or has a second owner named such as a deed to a house or car.

After paying off the fines, restitution, and court costs including court appointed attorney, the MDOC can then charge prisoners a daily rate for their incarceration, until the seized financial resources have been consumed.  Paying for your own room and board in prison does not entitle you to any extra privileges, no extra helping at chow, and no mint on your pillow.

In theory the prison chow hall diet is based on 2000 calories per day, but the reality is somewhat less than filling.  Most people will lose 10-20 pounds in prison.  Overweight people may lose 50 pounds or more as their fat reserves are tapped.  For many, physical activity such as weight lifting, rigorous workouts, and sports are part of a daily routine in prison to help the time pass quicker.  However, with increased physical activity comes a biological demand for more calories.  To supplement the necessary caloric intake the commissary does a booming business.  As this is not a basic necessity but is considered a luxury it comes with a steep price.  In county jail a package of Raman noodles may cost a dollar, in prison it costs $0.34, while in the world they go for 10-15 cents each.  With a captive market, prisoners pay exorbitant prices for low quality products.  Catalog vendors, for instance charge $20 for a pair of sweatpants and another $20 for a sweatshirt that you could buy at WalMart for $15 for the set.  Most of what is sold is seconds and irregulars, not high quality durable goods.

I found this picture of a prison TV for sale on an Etsy webpage.

Due to safety concerns TVs, radios, headphones, and other appliances approved for purchase must be made of clear plastic so that it is not possible to hide contraband inside.  However, some of the plastics used are of an inferior quality and are subject to breakage under conditions of routine usage. A small 13-inch flat screen TV that you probably can’t even buy on the streets will cost you $200.

They say “it sucks to be poor” but it is even worse to be poor in prison.  Since the majority of people in prison are from the lover socio-economic classes they and their families are the least able to afford it.  Prison didn’t use to be this way.  Society paid the cost of keeping the streets safe by paying to incarcerate the violent offenders.  Then the “war on drugs” sent a large number of non—violent drug addicts to prison.  Prison populations increased dramatically and so did budgets but not at the same rate.  Prison officials needing to do more with less have sought ways to charge for services that they previously provided for free.  When it’s time to leave prison, you have to turn in your state blues, the state will sell you a pair of khakis cut from the same uniform pattern for $50.  Something you wouldn’t even want from the Salvation Army store at half the price.

Dealing with the Quarter Master can be like dealing with a used car sales man.  If you lose a towel or a washcloth, they will charge you for them, luxury prices for third world quality.  Underwear and socks that are ill fitting and shoes that will ruin your feet.  Blankets and sheets are used until they are threadbare and then some.  To save money they reduced the number of sets of state blues from 3 pair to 2.  At some prisons laundry in only once a week, prisoners have to wear the same set of cloths for days on end.

The MDOC requires that prisoners either attend school or work.  Students are paid $0.58 per day for a 5-day school week.  Pay rates for the various jobs from porter to kitchen worker and wheel chair pusher to clerks and tutors vary significantly.  Most jobs pay less than $1 per day.  Depending on whether it is a 3, 4 or 5-day detail or has overtime available some earn as little as $10-15 a month while others may earn as much as $70-100.  For those very few who are fortunate to work for the Michigan State Industries (MSI) or Braille Transcription Service income rates may be higher still.  Pay rates for prisoners have been stagnate for years and in some cases have gone down significantly, such as when they eliminated bonuses for kitchen workers.

And the cost of living keeps rising so that what little buying power they had has eroded. Currently in the commissary prisoners are allowed to spend $100 per store every two weeks.  From this they must purchase their necessary hygiene and food items.  For an individual with no outside resources they must live on what little income they have earned from some type of hustle on the yard.  There is a great gap between the haves and the have nots.  A small bag of instant coffee costs $4, so for many it is the only luxury item they can afford and may preferentially choose that over soap and deodorant.

If you have need of medical service from Health Care there will be a $5 co-pay required for all routine services including teeth cleanings, eye exams, illnesses and non-job-related injuries.  If you don’t have the money in your account, service will be rendered but they will take the money out first when some shows up.  Additionally, over time the co-pay has been applied to chronic care visits for those with long-term and possibly life-threatening conditions that cause the person to seek medical services beyond the semi-annual exam.

For those who are unable to work or receive outside support, the Prisoner Benefit Fund (PBF) can provide $11 a month to those who meet the criteria for indigent status.  This is a loan that must be paid back when there are funds in the inmate’s trust account.  To qualify a person must have had no money in their account for the last 30 days.  The funds provided are for necessary hygiene only.

Health Care no longer provides basic medical pharmaceuticals such as aspirin for headaches, cough drops, cold pills, antacid, fiber laxative or hemorrhoid cream.  In the crowded living conditions colds and other illnesses spread rapidly throughout the population due to poor hygiene and sanitization.  Those unable to afford the remedies available for purchase in the commissary must struggle through their illness without symptom relief.

With the inability to earn money to pay for the basic necessities and large debts assessed by the courts most prisoners leave prison without any financial resources at all only to find out that the debt accumulation is not over.  On parole oversight fees and electronic tether monitoring fees can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars more.  Depending on the type of programing required by the Parole Board there may be additional program fees incurred.  All outstanding fees owed at the end of parole will be turned over to a private collection agency on behalf of the state.

The longer a person is on parole the higher the chances of violating that parole. Recidivism rates within the first 3 years of release from prison range as high as 75% for some categories of felonies.  Random drug and alcohol testing, random curfew enforcement checks, failure to comply with reporting and work requirements can all result in the revocation of the parole and send you back to prison.

For some the only hope to break this cycle is to “max out” on their sentence so that they can avoid having to deal with parole.  The result is that a person doing 2-10 years may be eligible for parole at their earliest release date (ERD) of 2 years may return to prison several more times due to parole violations and received a flop by the parole board and end up doing the full ten years on the installment plan.

For some this is not an option, since the tail on their sentences from multiple convictions have been stacked so that they have a potential 25 to life that they could theoretically have to serve in prison.  But in either case it sets up a revolving door whereby a person can expect to return to prison for some additional period of time.

To address the high recidivism rates and the critics accusations of warehousing, the MDOC does offer programming for some categories of felonies. Violent offenders may be required to take Violence Prevention Programming (VPP) or Thinking for A Change.  Sex offenders may be required to take Sex Offender Programming (SOP).  Those that have drugs or alcohol involved in their cases may have to take Phase 1 and Phase 2 Substance Abuse and additionally have to take ASAP/RSAP which are residential treatment programs.  Domestic abuse cases may have to take Bridges.  There are group classes, some of which are conducted by Psych Services.  Positive reports must be earned or else the parole board may not grant parole.  For those without education or with learning and/or psychological disabilities this can be a challenge.  Also, the mentality of so many prisoners is to resist authority, a “you can’t make me learn” mentality, or simply a person who likes who/what they are and doesn’t feel the need to change.  These programs will do little good to ensure a positive outcome and successful rehabilitation for these people. For some repeat offenders who have completed all the applicable programming and returned with a new case for the same crime no additional classes may be assigned, not even a refresher course.  The opposite is also a possibility, a person back on a parole violation may be required to complete the programming a second time even when the violation was on a technicality not a new conviction.  In either case all they can do is hope for the best with the parole board.  Just as it is true that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.  You can send a felon to prison but you can’t make him think.

Going to prison is costly both financially and in human terms.  Lost productivity which can never be recouped, lost years of family time including weddings, births, and funerals.  A debt to society that society refuses to accept payment for.  Trust that has been broken by both parties in the relationship but for which separation is not an option. For many in prison the only light at the end of the tunnel is the oncoming train.