FORMER PRISON COOK

He  joined the cook crew—a choice that ended up changing his life.

Being in the kitchen was something I was always interested in.  It was kinda like a plan B for me for whenever I didn’t have funds.

Leading up to my prison sentence and actually working in the kitchen, my cooking was minimal.  Cooking was never something that I stereotyped to just women.  For the simple fact that I had male family members that I seen cooking on the grill. I kinda associated that as there are different styles of cooking. 

Mom constantly cooked. I remember having meals on a regular basis. I would say, every other night was a home cooked meal. I think we had one to two nights when we fended for ourselves. She always tried to make sure, towards the weekend we would have pizza, or she would make a type of nacho. We would always have fun food towards the weekend, but always had well-balanced meals throughout the week. I was always interested in knowing that foods had vitamins and minerals. My favorite foo was fruits and vegetables because that is what we had to have in order to have the sweet treats. My favorite thing that mom cooked was broccoli. The way she steamed them, and buttered them, and salted them was perfect to me.

I actually put in a request with the kitchen hack–as they call it. The kitchen supervisor—I put in a request with him that if a position opens, I would like to be considered for it. Over time, the position opened up and he gave me a chance. I believe that position opened up within like two and a half months, which is really rare. Usually you have to wait a year to two in order for you to earn a position like that. You have several hundred people that would love to have that position. It is one of the better paying jobs on the inside. So, it was just God making a way for me.

The kitchen made everything better. We trained each other. My favorite part was using all the tools in the kitchen. You use industrial potato peelers, mixers, fryers, ovens, pot cleaners. Everything is industrial sized. Then every once in a while you would get extra food or something that we had to use up real fast and it doesn’t matter how you used it. So, that’s when I found out that I had a knack for baking. Towards the very end of it, when all I really was, was like an overseer—that’s when it got fun for me.

The type of cooking that I did, it wasn’t like for me. I’m trying to make sure that every person that came through there enjoyed it. That’s one thing I took notice of on the other side of being in the kitchen: Every once in a while you would get a decent meal and a lot of times you didn’t. When I cooked, I tried to make it delightful, make it a pleasant experience overall.

Christmastime or tax season—a lot of people don’t even come to the kitchen. Everybody’s doing well ‘cause of the gifts. So, they don’t even come to the kitchen, they ballin’ now. They can afford canteen and go to the store. That’s all ours now. They think, “You know we got extra money now, I’m not going to the kitchen.” But they still want the food when we bring it up there. Everybody gets a cut. The dishwasher might get two pieces of chicken to leave with that night and the number one might end up with thirty or forty pieces. 

As the grade number increases, the work load decreases. I think as a dishwasher the least I got was thirteen dollars for a month. As a grade one cook, the most I ever made was a hundred and forty dollars for a month. That’s with a bonus—usually I got paid a hundred dollars a month. I cut my cut in half because I wanna see these guys live a little better. I know there’s guys in there that don’t have anything at all. So, I try to recognize that and even make a special trip to that guy’s dorm, ‘cause it’s obvious when somebody’s doing bad. I think I gained more respect through that because if you can pay, you can pay, and if you can’t, oh well.  You don’t owe me nothing. I’m not that kind of person. I wasn’t raised that way. 

Most people work out constantly.  There are some people that work out three times a day. I was working out two times a day. Protein, protein, protein—it’s all about protein. Food is the number one, if you don’t have cigarettes. Cigarettes is number one. The supervisor gives like a five or ten minute window to get out of the kitchen—he turned his back, but once you get to the number two or the number one position, you can pretty much afford a horse. You can afford someone to take your stuff and even sell it for you. So, you don’t jeopardize your job. 

The same menu is served every two weeks.  It’s usually like two Mexican meals, two Italian, two for the Blacks, and then they might throw a Chinese dish in there. You usually get a vegetable, a meat, a bread and maybe a piece of cake, something like that. They pretty much all taste the same ’cause you all have the same spices. It was rare to do a menu change—if we did it, it’s because there’s a shortage of an ingredient. Try to make the most of what you got to work with. The holiday is when you have the layout like you would at home.  They did do it up pretty big on the holidays.  Everything you would see at home—they went all out.

Regardless of what you use, they never served leftovers. A lot of that food is outdated too, so once you cook it, it’s over with. It’s no re-using. They keep it frozen though, until the last minute. Just enough for that one meal gets thawed out. You pretty much get fresh food around the holidays, but that’s it. In 2008, when I ran into the number two position, that is when I started to pay attention more. My duties were less, to where I could pay attention more. It was like 2008, and the box of ground beef said 2000. That was scary for me at the moment, but as time goes on, you get closer to those kitchen supervisors and they give little bits of information and break it down that it is what it is. You don’t get rewarded with top notch food, you’re doing a prison sentence here. But at the same time, they try to let you know the measures they take to keep it so it’s not degrading to the inmates.

I had a double hernia. They wouldn’t get me checked out and I’m in the kitchen and it’s like mid-afternoon. Nobody will give me attention about this. So, there was a pan of melted butter—there was a four inch pan—so I laid the butter on the floor. I kind of spilled it on the floor myself.  I poured all the butter out, laid the pan down there like it fell, then I just ran my foot through the butter. Then I laid down on the floor and put butter all up my side. I didn’t think the officer cared that much, he was doing his job. You know, responding how he was supposed to, but he hopped on his walkie talkie so fast. Prison guards from where we were at and across the street were there, in like ten seconds, and got me carried out of there. That’s what it took for me to get my double hernia surgery. 

With kitchen work you have to be very assertive, very fast, and you got to let them know that you’re no nonsense. A lot of people—they’ll try you—try to set you up in certain ways. You might have somebody throw a bag of food. Once it leaves the kitchen, it’s considered contaminated. So if you got that in your possession, that’s an automatic termination of your job, or it’s supposed to be.  The competition is between the number one and the number two cook. Just say that I’m number two, but I know that I know how to cook that rice and chicken better than he do. But, he just set on making it that day—you can feel that vibe.  If you can’t function amongst ourselves, then the police get involved.  So it’s pretty much an unspoken kind of law that “hey, you’re here to work—keep your mouth closed and you’ll be taken care of.” 

I think I had barely been the number two cook for a while. The guy, he had been on pots and pans. His name was Light—I’ll never forget.  He saw me—the shift was almost over, I put my chicken in one of the pots. It was already bagged up. So you kinda set it by the door and I was waiting on my chance to leave. I usually waited for it to clear out and helped the number one check everybody’s station. I’m helping him and I come back. I notice he headed towards my thing. He was like, “Man you shorted me out of a few pieces of chicken.” I don’t remember the number. He’s coming from the pots and pans area. I’m coming from like the dining room almost and both of us are headed towards the pot. We didn’t have a messed up relationship, there was a respect that was there. I kinda gave him, a running shoulder, like “don’t touch my stuff.” The next day it was a big laugh, like I almost slipped, the floor was wet and everything. 

The least I had to cook for was 350 and the most I had to cook for was 620.  So you have to make that work. As the number one cook I had to be the one to serve that meal and I better not run out. So you just gotta make it work with what you got. It prepared me because it is my line of work now. That’s one thing I regret–that things weren’t a little more like in a regular kitchen, where more normal-sized tools are used because that’s what I was thrown into when I made it back out.

It teaches you what to expect in the kitchen. Nine times out of ten the way they talk to you on the inside in the kitchen is how they are going to talk to you in the working kitchen in the free world. They embarrass you in front of people to make you stronger. They talk to you like that because they know that you don’t want to be talked to like that. When they take the time to talk crazy to you—which is weird—it means they see something in you. 

A dish prepared by Jeffrey
A dish prepared by the narrator.

— Angelina Morales

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