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A man leans against the wall of his prison cell surrounded by shadows of sporks.
Illustration by Katrina Rodriguez

Prison can be dehumanizing in a number of ways.

We basically dress in pajamas every day. We are told when to shower. And, perhaps worst of all, we are forced to use sporks.

The spork is supposed to be superpowered cutlery, combining a spoon and a fork. Instead, it seems to lose the best aspects of both utensils.  

Inside my California prison, we are allowed to have plastic forks, but we can’t buy them anymore. You have to acquire a fork that has been “grandfathered” in. I did just that two years ago when my cellmate Carlito gifted me his. For two years, it simply sat among my cup of sporks.

After all, what do I really need to use a fork for? Everything we eat in here is either mushy or bologna — safety food with safety utensils. But every once in a while, I want to feel like an adult instead of a child.

So I cleaned my plastic fork and attempted to eat my faux-meat dinner: a texturized vegetable patty shaped like a chicken cutlet. As I tried to cut into my counterfeit chicken, I came to the horrifying realization that I had forgotten how to use a fork. Ten years of sporking had ruined me.

It’s a surreal and utterly demoralizing feeling when you are confronted with the reality that you have forgotten how to be human. To make things worse, it reminded me that I earned my way into a prison system that treats men like codependent children.

Once upon a time, back when the California Department of Corrections ran state prisons before the name changed in 2004 to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), we had forks. Metal forks and metal trays. Then people started killing each other by stealing and sharpening those metal forks into weapons, and using those metal trays to bash each other in the chow hall.

You can see why the prison administration took away the metal and everything became plastic and sporky. Maybe, on some level, we did this to ourselves.

But things have changed considerably from the old days, in my view. Prison culture has transformed dramatically, with CDCR now investing in rehabilitation programs and the California state government looking at restorative justice versus the old “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality of a bygone era. 

These days, California Gov. Gavin Newsom is announcing plans to transform San Quentin, one of the state’s largest prisons, into a Scandinavian-style rehabilitation center with a focus on education, job training, substance abuse therapy and other programs to help people transition back to the outside. 

The question I have is this: Given these progressive changes, why are we still being treated like children who are dangerous to ourselves and others?

Shouldn’t the nature of the times be fully reflected not only by the 12-step and educational programs we are allowed to attend, but also in the level of treatment we receive, so we can assimilate back into society as normal, well-adjusted adults — ones who still know how to use forks?

My facility has several pilot programs for emotional development and education, including opportunities to earn associate and bachelor’s degrees. One would think that such a place would deem an inmate ready to reacquaint themselves with the way of the fork.

As for what became of me and my bumbled attempt at “fork reintegration” — I am proud to say that I retrained myself to use the once elusive tool, and I’m rediscovering how undoubtedly easier it is to eat salad with a fork rather than a spork — no more acrobatic lettuce-balancing acts for me. 

During this utensil journey, I’m reminded of another long-lost utensil, one that is supposed to accompany the fork: a knife.

For now, I won’t make a case for knives in prison. While some special prison units in the U.S. allow knives, we are still a long way from having that conversation.

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.

Daniel X. Cohen is a comedy and drama writer and is currently working on screenplays and short stories. He serves as a facilitator for self-help groups. He is currently incarcerated in California.