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Mirror image of a man facing inward, with the background of a bandanna; one half is tinted red and the other half is tinted blue.
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi; Depositphotos.

What happens if you have a food allergy in prison? Do prisons make dietary accommodations for religious reasons?

In the latest edition of PJP’s ongoing dialogues between a Blood and a Crip, Red Nose Pit and Blue Nose Pit discuss the intersection of food and faith in prison. 

Both incarcerated at North Branch Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Maryland, the two former gang rivals have broken the taboo of speaking across the historic divide to shine light on the realities of incarceration.

The identities of these men are known to Prison Journalism Project; we are honoring their request for anonymity to ensure both mens’ safety.

In their first conversation, Red Nose Pit (a Blood) and Blue Nose Pit (a Crip) discussed the dynamic between those with and those without life sentences. This is the second in an ongoing series, and has been edited for length and clarity.

— PJP Editorial Team

Red Nose Pit: Today on the lunch trays, the regular diet was peanut butter and jelly, three pieces of bread, a spoonful of carrots, a serving of rice and a carton of 2% milk. For those like me, who are on a “mechanical soft” diet, we had three pieces of bread, hamburgers, carrots and a mixed fruit cocktail with a drink mix pack. The Department of Corrections is required to give us 2,000 calories a day. But the mind is left in an utter state of shock when you give hamburgers on peanut butter day, liver on tuna fish day and peanut butter on hot dog day.

Blue Nose Pit: I have delved into this subject before in a different facility. Many of us came to a similar conclusion. I believe it’s all psychological — the small portions of food, feeding us just enough not to starve; the odd feeding hours, waking us up at unreasonable hours or risk going hungry; and the odd number of bread slices, which, depending on the meal, is never enough or it’s too much. The calorie intake is below average in most regards and the menus are never accurate. This stuff is definitely mind-blowing.

Red Nose Pit: It’s hard for me to be completely hard on the entire dietary department across all state institutions, only because I believe North Branch pirates are on their own wavelength. For example, there is no seasoning on the regular menu’s food, but on the menu for those with diets, there is. 

They don’t recognize food intolerances, just food allergies. If you have a mild allergic reaction to some foods — itching with no hives, a runny nose with no blood — then you’re made to skip the meal if they’re serving eggs, peanut butter or seafood. Same if your throat is not constricted and swelling up, and your body does not begin to look like a honeycomb. If that’s the case, you will have to miss a meal. 

I know this to be true because I told this institution in 2016 that I was allergic to seafood and was made to write a grievance. I then was denied the grievance and had to risk my life to show them that every other jail recognized my allergy except them. An EpiPen later, and a shot of stemedroyl [a steroid], an injection of Benadryl and oxygen in my nose, and it finally made it through. Now my ID is tagged with the allergy, and it’s in my base file.

Blue Nose Pit: I have no food allergies that I know of, but I have definitely seen many men nearly lose themselves because of allergic reactions to certain foods, even after the staff has been made aware of these facts. 

Something else that also matters and bothers me about this institution is the lack of preparation and attentiveness with regards to certain religious diets such as Ramadan. There is a lack of organization every year for this event, which I always participate in, and there is never any improvement.

Red Nose Pit: How dare you do that? Who do you think that you are to tell the Department of Corrections that they can’t violate a person’s First Amendment rights? 

Seriously though, I concur wholeheartedly, bro. This institution’s “breaking of the fast” for Ramadan consists of providing dates on the last day. For the Nation of Islam, Savior’s Day is held in February and there is no feast. The institution, I believe, is not culturally versed in the Islamic religions. That trickles down to the chaplain’s ignorance on how to direct the dietary department to proceed. 

During Passover, the Jewish brothers are given their food. During Palm Sunday, the Christians are given their supplements. I try not to judge a department on an individual’s actions; however, it becomes hard not to see separatism in certain things when they are punching you in the face.

Blue Nose Pit: I’ve seen the same inconsistencies with a vast variety of faiths. I don’t mean to fire shots at anybody’s faith or any collective but it seems that Buddhism, Hinduism, Rastafarianism, Paganism and sometimes Islam are overlooked because they are not faiths that the institution feels compelled to provide for. Some religious services even lack proper books to study and practice from because the chaplain does not regard them as necessary for such beliefs. It’s crazy, Blood!

Red Nose Pit: Yes, it is crazy. So what steps do you take or believe we should take to advocate for the right to equal and fair treatment? 

Blue Nose Pit: Wow, I wouldn’t even know where to start. They use every tactic in the book to stop us from having a synchronized voice. For example, they no longer choose to acknowledge petitions, even if they have hundreds of signatures — and I know that from experience. Our grievances are often overlooked and dismissed for our individual complaints and issues. When we appeal them, our issues still are not properly addressed. I guess our last play is to use platforms like this to expose the truth and make the mayor and governor roll up their sleeves. Feel me?

Red Nose Pit: Not only do I feel you, but I’ll allow those words to be the last ones. Until next time, it’s been real.

A Blood and a Crip Talk Series: Read their first conversation about life sentences.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chris.X is a writer incarcerated in Maryland.