On Saturday, July 25, 2009, at 4:37 p.m., Officer Thompson, during my “frightening anticipatory walk” to collect my dinner tray -and God knows what food- issued a warning, camouflaged as an announcement. “Tomorrow,” he said, “and I’m glad I won’t be here, there are going to be some changes and none of you are going to like them.” That was all he said.
His statement was particularly disturbing to me, because as nearly as I could tell, at least over the past six or seven months, Lieutenant Marsh, and his entire staff, had not seen fit to announce any changes they implemented. “So why the “announcement” now”, was my obvious question? “Changes” took place every shift because each floor guard “ran things his way”. As an inmate, you had no say in what was going on anyway- which served as a sort of perverted pleasure for the individual guards. So why did Thompson feel the obligation to give the inmates a heads-up? It must be catastrophic!
Thompson’s announcement therefore loomed large; not because of what he said; in fact, he had said nothing. But because it signaled a change even he was uncomfortable with implementing. That was the message (along with his inferred disclaimer: don’t blame me for this change; I had nothing to do with it).
Thirty minutes later, during his “unlock” Dallas knocked on my cell door to announce that tomorrow (Sunday), July 26, 2009; Solano County would no longer be serving hot meals.
Information travels fast in here and that was another reason why Thomson’s announcement was a waste of energy. Dallas also made a particular effort to also share his belief that at 18 years of age, he was going to “die in here.”
I took the food announcement with a little less drama. It made no difference to me. I had just been served a wet, cold, gummy, rubbery, unidentifiable meat sauce over rice, and over steamed carrots, and over 2 cookies, and over a lettuce salad. From my perspective, it couldn’t get any worse than that. It was cold already, so what difference did it make that they were now announcing that it was cold. That was certainly not news. I actually welcomed a meal not processed, contaminated, served nor prepared by a murderous gang member, or multiple sex offenders. Perhaps it might actually be simple and nutritious, something like more raw fruits and vegetables, more fiber and less fat and carbohydrates. I know it was wishful thinking, but nonetheless that was my hope.
Besides, it emphasized a belief I’d had for the longest – particularly as a physician- and I was eager to see it in practice. For the poor among us, it has always been my contention that it was cheaper to eat healthier than it was to contaminate your body with fat and processed food; a breakfast of an apple and yogurt seemed much more healthy than bacon, or sausage, eggs, and fried potatoes. And a whole lot cheaper.
Furthermore, the State of California was in the midst of a 27 billion dollar budget deficit, had been issuing IOUs while they searched to find solutions; and it only seemed reasonable to suspect that the cut in services would begin with the disenfranchised. I for one had suggested to the guards that eight to 10 jobs might be saved along with millions of dollars a year if they just turned down the air conditioning going into cells. While I understood that the idea was to make it as uncomfortable as possible for the inmates, it could equally be achieved cheaper at 62ºF as well as 58.
Besides, no politician was going to justify feeding “criminals” while simultaneously cutting services to the poor. To be frank, they could have solved much of the prison problem by finding these guys work and sending them home. Despite what politicians and the corrections lobby say, that is their insistence on keeping America in a state of fear in order to keep their correction’s jobs, a good 40% of the inmates, as far as I could tell, were like Corey; they had been housed at Solana County for more than a year for walking out of a convenience store with a magazine. I doubt Corey even remembered he was in a convenience store, or had the magazine with him. It is precisely that state of affairs which earned him the moniker, “the village idiot.” He is not a threat to society. He is a threat to no one.
I, for one, though had bigger problems. The process of being “locked down” exacts its toll. That evening, after my customary three to four hours of sleep, I awoke with my mind racing, concerned with everything that I believed had gone wrong in my life. A feeling of anxiety made it difficult – at least in my mind – to breathe. These “attacks” began with the belief that I had been wronged, progressed to an inability to do anything about it, and culminated with a feeling that the walls were closing in and that the supply of oxygen was getting thinner. The catch-22 was that you couldn’t walk outside and clear your head, and you certainly weren’t going to get any empathy from the guard sitting alone at a desk at 2:47 in the morning.
It’s no wonder that such a feeling ultimately directed me toward a feeling of resentment and a desire for revenge. That’s what happens in here. You can get to a place where you take responsibility and plan to do better, but being in here prevents any positive action on your revelations. And so with time, negative thoughts creep back in, no matter how vigilant you are. I saw the state’s fiscal crisis as the price for their meanness. I saw government as having lost its moral commitment, a commitment to protect individual rights and its fiscal collapse as part of the same disease. My shortness of breath was merely the symptom of a world imploding upon itself and I was helpless to help them.
It reminded me of a vacation I once took – if you can call it that – to Telluride, CO. The altitude was so high and the air was so thin that with my heart disease I spent five days literally gasping for air, constantly air hungry and feeling that I would suffocate at any moment. Perhaps this was the desired effect the state was trying to achieve in order to make jail a deterrent. It wasn’t working. It only served to make me acknowledge man’s cruelty to each other. It also caused me to acknowledge that it wasn’t going to get better. History had offered no lessons. We were still spiraling down, out of control, hate bringing on more hate, injustice bringing on more injustice, meanness spawning more meanness.
The new “cold” breakfast the next morning consisted of two slices of bread, a packet of peanut butter, two smaller packets of jelly, a brown rectangle of what I believed to be some type of granola square – it was soft with a grey tinge but not crunchy; there were no nuts in it – an apple and a carton of milk. Visually, not the most appealing of breakfasts I will admit, but breakfast nonetheless.
I opted to have the milk and the apple immediately. The granola bar wasn’t particularly tasty, but it wasn’t foul either. It seemed to me an acquired taste that was easily overcome, and I planned to accomplish that. You have to eat in here. If you focus too much on what it is or how it tastes, you’ll find yourself hungry all the time. I ate it reluctantly. I saved the peanut butter to snack on later.
What was disturbingto me was that the breakfast was being supplied by Aramark, the commissary people. I have no particular aversion to Aramark; I have an aversion to a government sponsored monopoly. The fact that they were now supplying all the food signaled a lack of choice, which ultimately translates into a lack of competition. That meant the taxpayer was not going to get the biggest bang for his or her buck. Aramark could charge what they wanted (and probably did).
Needless to say, over the next three days – in spite of my aggressive attempt toward optimism – the meals provided by Aramark, the commissary people, got incredibly, almost unbelievably, worse. Last night’s meal included beans that contained foreign particles, not just one but in all 28 meals on the mod, water with a few mixed vegetables in it, and bread sticks (that, by now were wet). Most disappointing of all was that the beans had spilled over to contaminate the whole tray. Beans were on the vegetables, and all over the bread.
Again, I would reiterate that the state is under no obligation to feed inmates, but if they do, that makes it even more important that we, and they, the state, don’t waste money. But if what you’re presenting is impossible to swallow, all it is is wasting taxpayer dollars.
Yet it’s impossible for me to let go of the fact that the people supplying the meals also supply the commissary. If they continue to make the meals inedible, inmates are forced to purchase commissary items and in a sense Aramark controls both supply, demand and price and thus can influence the “market”. It’s as if no one on the administrative side thought this thing through.