It’s a given that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape for Thanksgiving gatherings, which for some families are the only time of the year that they are able to come together as one.
Thanksgiving in prison is a different affair altogether. The menu hasn’t changed in the 16 years that I’ve been incarcerated. It consists of turkey, dressing, yams, salad, mac and cheese, a dinner roll, butter, cranberry sauce, a slice of pie and chocolate milk. The pie varies. It’s usually pumpkin but has been pecan and apple a time or two. The NFL football games start early and the usual three games that are shown last the entire day.
Here in my section, which houses 84 of us, we have an additional tradition.
There are four tables that fill up with food every year. The four cooks go around early in the month with four separate lists, soliciting contributions from those who are able. Those who aren’t able — in the spirit of Thanksgiving — will eat with us regardless. One table is run by Sage, a short heavily muscled Asian man who makes a very well-prepared rice bowl dish, comprised of Chinese sausage, summer sausage, deli bites, shredded beef, peanut butter (which is actually very good in the dish), soy sauce, sriracha, curry powder and I’m not sure what else. It’s always very good and an expression of his culture and he makes enough for about 25 bowls.
Then there is Red, one of the biggest White guys I have ever laid eyes on and had the pleasure of befriending. He could easily be a starter on the offensive or defensive line of an NFL team. He’s around 6 feet 4 inches, weighs 360 pounds and is a great cook. He prepares four pizzas and a mean chili mac dish. The package vendors that we are allowed to shop from have all that is needed to make all of the dishes I mentioned, including pepperoni slices, pizza sauce, pizza dough and mozzarella cheese.
Then there is Mosko, a very old Hispanic man who’s been in prison 40 years. He sets up his table early and keeps it simple, making plenty of high-quality tacos and burritos with an authentic Mexican flavor.
I am the cook for the fourth table. With my New Orleans roots, I make gumbo with chicken, crabmeat, summer sausages, deli bites, shrimp, mackerel and oysters. The gumbo mix is also sold through a vendor. I make 30 bowls.
We all go from table to table filling up bowls, getting slices of pizza, tacos and burritos, tasting different cultures and socializing. A prayer is said, and everybody who wants to eat gets to eat whether they contributed or not.
The meal usually happens between 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. That way we are able to also enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving dinner when it is served in the chow hall around 6 p.m.
People may judge those of us in prison, but at the end of the day we are people, too. We might have broken our social contract with society, our communities, our families and ourselves, and we are paying the consequences, but there are times like Thanksgiving Day when humanity supersedes everything else, and we get the chance to prove to ourselves and others that we are still human.
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.