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The holidays in prison are depressing and most if not all of us just wish it would hurry up and pass. Mail, which is very important for prisoners, is delayed, and programs are cancelled, which leaves little to do. Prisons are short staffed and those who are working are disgruntled and they take it out on the prisoners. And maybe the worst torture is that the same tired re-runs on TV remind us that we are away from family.

I was born on Thanksgiving. My family would gather at my grandparents’ farm. I remember Grandma in the grand kitchen cooking, baking and fluttering around creating memorable smells. There was always a dish of olives for us to put on each finger like tentacles.

Grandpa would greet everyone at the door with cheer. He entertained us with grand stories and bad jokes. He played games with us in the basement, and when he would get up and say, “I should put another log on the fire,” we all shouted, “No!” He was a bit of a pyromaniac. 

I’ve spent almost 18 years of Thanksgivings in nine different prisons. Prior to Correctional Industries (CI) taking over food services, we looked forward to a homemade brunch of chocolate chip pancakes, waffles, sausage links, scrambled eggs, real orange juice and chocolate milk. Dinner used to be a large baked turkey leg, homemade stuffing, cranberry sauce, yams, pecan pie, ice cream and a treat bag.

After CI took over, the brunch was replaced with our usual tasteless, unhealthy breakfast consisting of four slices of bread, frozen peanut butter and flavored corn syrup packets, a brownie and chips for lunch to eat in our cell. Dinner was a slice of processed turkey, stuffing, overcooked vegetables, a heated whole yam, maybe cranberry sauce, frozen pumpkin pie (no ice cream) and the usual rotting fruit.

But there are some positives. It is one of the few times when we set aside prison politics to watch the game or play cards together. I call my family in the early morning because I know it is harder to get to the phone and it gets louder later in the day. Although there is no lending, trading, borrowing or giving allowed, the guards usually look the other way as we make and share our “spread” of prison cuisine. 

Different groups get together to make their spreads, which are usually nachos or Top Ramen burritos. Others line a table with a trash bag and turn it into a community nacho spread for the entire pod. Airway Heights was probably the most creative. In the morning, a group who had money would make omelets with powdered eggs, French toast, pancakes made from instant potatoes and bacon strips for everyone. Afternoon or evening meals would consist of various different takes on the standard burrito or nachos — cold burritos made with shredded beef, cream cheese, lettuce and sometimes tomatoes if available and nachos with chili, beef crumbles, squeeze and block cheeses, and a mix of various different chips.

With the pandemic last year, there was little trading of various Thanksgiving dishes because we had to eat in our cells. There were no special spreads. We were mostly locked down. 

We hope this year will be a little more relaxed as all working staff have been vaccinated. I think everyone is tired of hearing about COVID-19. The supply chain issue has already affected the commissary, which is continuously out of staples like beans, rice, cheese and even popcorn. It’s hard to tell what Thanksgiving meal will be this year.

Still, I can be thankful that I probably won’t be in the hole this year as I stopped filing grievances and lawsuits against the prison staff. I have Turner Classic Movies on my cable package. Although they are all reruns, they’re old enough I probably have not yet seen them. The Prison Journalism Project has also made me feel like I am again contributing to society and hopefully will be part of fixing a broken system.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Jeffrey McKee

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary. He is serving a 25-year sentence. He considers himself to be an outspoken person, and he welcomes opportunities to discuss his knowledge of prisons and the prison system.