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Kitchen Dharma

By S. D.

Vegetables on a prison kitchen counter.
The quality we experience in a given situation is largely dependent on our individual perspectives. (Photo by Aaron Hockley)

Of the 3,000 people incarcerated at Menard Correctional Facility in Southern Illinois, I happen to be one of the fortunate few who enjoy the privilege of working a job assignment. Until recently, however, I didn’t feel very fortunate or privileged. In fact I could honestly say that my latest job assignment was the worst I’d ever had.

I work in the kitchen as a line server. My duties include setting up steam tables with the daily menu and then helping to make up to 2,600 trays a day for two of the four cell-houses’ breakfasts and lunches. Other duties are considered “as needed,” which means I do anything I’m told, from moving supplies to loading empty crates onto a semi for shipment out of the institution.

Working in a kitchen in maximum security gives a whole new meaning to the idea of food service industry. In fact, I seriously doubt you can compare it to any such services you might find on the outside where standards of quality, sanitation and safety apply.

For starters our kitchen is over infested with roaches and covered wall-to-wall in a sickening assortment of grease, sauce, and food splatters that stand up against the nicotine stained enamel white paint job applied over six years ago after incarcerated people sued over conditions. The lawsuit went nowhere. The nicotine stains grow worse, as do the roaches.

The food in our kitchen is about what you would expect in a state prison: drab, cheap, bought and cooked in bulk until the flavor is all but leeched out of it. Servings per person are minimal, although more times than not literal trash bags of leftovers are thrown out after every meal.

Surprisingly enough, we do get treated to things like cake three or four times a week. Unlike the cake served in the officers’ dining room at the other end of the institution ours has no icing and is left uncovered overnight waiting to be served dry and crumbly the next day. I work an eight-hour shift in the kitchen six, sometimes seven days a week. Our kitchen employs between 35 and 50 incarcerated people as line servers, dish washers, and food cart workers. They range in age from 20 to 60 years old and are serving anywhere from a decade to natural life sentences. I am in that latter category with the natural I earned for myself some 27 years ago. The majority of the people working in our kitchen are African-American and Hispanic. Curiously enough, all our food supervisors are white. This being Southern Illinois, nobody is really surprised by this, although at times it creates a point of contention and resentment between incarcerated people and staff.

As serious a problem as bigotry and racial discrimination can be in a prison environment, it does not seem quite as prevalent as it once did here even 10 or 15 years ago. Still, from time to time it does tend to rear its ugly head. This is especially true in the kitchen where black people are far more prone either to being fired outright and sent to segregation (solitary confinement) for relatively minor offenses, or set up outright by supervisors with that proverbial chip on the shoulder, just looking for someone to take their frustration out on.

As you might expect in a prison situation, there’s no such thing as a living wage. In a good month I earn no more than $18.00, a mere $8.00 more than what an unassigned person receives in the way of a monthly stipend. I am assured by my supervisor that it’s not about the money and that it beats sitting in a cell all day. I am not entirely sure whether they mean my cell on the workers’ galleries or in segregation which is where assigned people end up for 30 days if we try to quit the kitchen.

No, don’t get me wrong, I like to work, and I like to stay busy and be productive with my time. I enjoy going to bed at night feeling as though I have accomplished something with my day, perhaps even made things a little bit better in the world I’m consigned to live in. Unfortunately, these feelings are difficult to come by working in a place where the food I’m about to serve half the population has been sitting next to an open garbage can for the last hour and a half.

Unlike the other jobs I’ve had over the years, this one seemed to offer me little in the way of challenge, opportunity for self-expression, or meaningful contributions. All I did was slop food, push another tray. Where was the reward or fulfillment in that? As far as I could see, there was none. What I could see was an endless string of days waking up at three in the morning for yet another shift of mind-numbing redundancy. In contrast to other assignments I suddenly found myself working with all but a handful of men who had no idea what teamwork or job pride meant, and was forced to be on my guard against players and self-proclaimed pimps who spent their work days regaling one another with stories of past illegalities or trying to set up whoever they thought was an easy mark.

All too often officers and food supervisors didn’t pay much attention to such goings on. I watched in ever-growing dismay and frustration as they conveniently disappeared morning after morning into their air-conditioned offices behind locked gates while the rest of us worked our shifts largely unsupervised in temperatures exceeding 110 degrees. Working conditions, safety and sanitation, food quality and preparation all took a back seat as staff breezed from paycheck to paycheck and incarcerated people simply tried to make it through the day without ending up in seg or worse, the health care unit.

One of the problems that faces a state that jumped on the get-tough-on-crime bandwagon back in the early 80s and 90s is that the powers that be suddenly find themselves with a prison system bursting at the seams and breaking their fiscal budget. The Illinois Department of Corrections’ current population of incarcerated people stands at 44,000 men, women, and children, each costing the state an estimated $17,500 a year to secure and maintain. Recent studies conclude that people serving a 30-year sentence in Illinois are expected to cost the taxpayers $1,000,000 each. As of 2006, there were 4,500 people serving 30 years or more behind bars. While that number represents a mere 10% of the prison population, with truth-in-sentencing laws requiring incarcerated people to serve 80% to 100% of their time, that figure will grow exponentially in coming decades.

Taking into account a long list of people serving life and natural life sentences since the 1980s, the 103 youth offenders between the ages of 14 and 17 who are just beginning their sentences of life without parole, and adding the thousands in county custody awaiting trial, sentencing, and shipment to IDOC, the Department of Corrections finds itself no longer able to afford such extravagances as new facilities, adequate manpower, or vocation and rehabilitation services that might in the long run reduce recidivism.

On an individual basis, people serving time behind the wall find their living conditions sliding back into something like what they must have been in the early 1900s rather than the first decade of the 21st century. While prison is, and should be, about punishment, this should not be used as an excuse for substandard care and treatment of those held in custody. Regrettably that seems to have become the case more often than not in recent years. The bare minimum has become the standard.

Here at Menard, for instance, people count themselves lucky if we can finagle two pair of new, even used state pants and shirts a year. All too often clothing slips come back to us with the request crossed out, or the slip is conveniently lost altogether, thus resolving the problem for a clothing house whose shelves grow increasingly bare as the fiscal year winds down.

Population increases and staff shortages mean medical and dental care are harder to come by. A two-year waiting list for routine medical or dental checkups is not unusual any more. Since staff shortages increase the workload for all, things like medical follow-up, timely prescription refills, even patient bed checks are sometimes neglected. When this happens, consequences can be fatal, as was demonstrated a couple years ago when a person admitted to the Health Care Unit on Christmas Eve was found dead in his cell the next morning. Cause of death? Hypothermia.

Even the commissary has felt the budgetary strain, compelling supervisors to raise prices on items already on the shelves or replacing those items with outrageously priced items that they hope will increase profits, a percentage of which will find its way into their pockets.

Last year, for instance the $105 Brother electric typewriter sold in the commissary for several years was suddenly removed “for security reasons” and a clear cased $272 typewriter was offered in its place. Beard trimmers, once disapproved and even removed from electric razors purchased at commissary suddenly became approved property in yet another clear case model which also required the added expense every month of AA batteries. Strangely enough, trimmers are still regularly removed from electric razors, forcing people to decide either to buy a clear case model or simply use nail clippers to trim beards and mustaches.

A portion of commissary profits is regularly assigned to a benefit fund for incarcerated people which in past years was used in the individual institution it was raised in to purchase sports and recreation equipment like baseballs, basketball, and board games or Chapel supplies like Bibles, Korans, and other religious publications.

These days however all proceeds from an institution’s funds are sent directly to IDOC’s main offices for their discretionary disbursement. What happens to the thousands of dollars that leave Menard each month nobody quite knows, at least not the incarcerated people. What we do know is that requests for funds to purchase Bibles, Korans, and Buddhist materials have regularly been denied. People in prison are encouraged instead to write to outside organizations willing to donate said items.

Job assignments, which in actuality save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars every year which would otherwise go toward hiring new employees to fill those jobs, are regularly downsized or eliminated altogether. State pay for incarcerated people, once ranging from $15.00 to $65.00 a month has slowly been reduced to $30.00 as top pay. There won’t be many who can afford a typewriter, trimmer, or one of the new pair of $80 tennis shoes any time soon on state pay alone unless, of course, they choose to go without soap, shampoo, and toothpaste.

Unfortunately IDOC doesn’t seem overly concerned about living conditions, as long as they meet the letter of the law. When Menard’s horticulture instructor retired, rather than finding a replacement and keeping one of the prison’s last remaining vocational programs going, they tore down the greenhouse instead. When the librarian took a better paying job as a counselor, the one-room library, many of its books having been donated by incarcerated people, was shut down for “inventory.” That was over a year ago.

When my job as a paint crew worker was eliminated, I found myself with two available options: I could either be moved off of the workers’ gallery where I have spent years developing friendships and have enjoyed a few perks, such as a larger cell, daily showers, and night yard during the summer months, or I could take the only available job and work in the kitchen.

I went with option two. The question became: How do I deal with a less than positive, sometimes degrading and dangerous ongoing situation in a manner that will allow me opportunities to live with as much quality, personal growth, and contribution to others as possible?

I am still struggling to answer that question even after six months in the kitchen. Some days, of course, are better than others. The Buddha was right when he said that all things are transitory. Very rarely, if ever, can we label our experiences as either 100% good or 100% bad. Rather, the quality we experience in a given situation is largely dependent on our individual perspectives.

Keeping that in mind throughout my day affords me a certain amount of freedom in deciding how I will deal not only with my job but with every other aspect of my life as well. If nothing is either 100% good or bad, suddenly it becomes my responsibility to be open and patient enough to allow my circumstances the opportunity to manifest their nature, not in how I think they should be, but as they truly are. That which should be is often a construct of my own making, an image that can never live up to reality and can only lead to disappointment. It is only when I am willing to drop an image that I am able to work constructively with what’s really there.

I was able to put this into practice for a few moments just last week when, after setting up the bulk of the lunch line after breakfast was cleared and the steam tables cleaned, I had the opportunity to take my breakfast tray outside and eat on the service ramp. Considering that the institution has been on lockdown status with no regular movement for nearly two months now, the fact that two other workers and I were outside at all was a treat that few others were able to enjoy.

As an added bonus, halfway through our meal we were paid a visit from one of the few stray cats that still roam freely about the institution. Despite the administration’s repeated attempts over the years to remove the feline population who wander in and around the prison, still others manage to find their way in and make themselves at home.

Some of these end up having kittens which, if found in time, are often adopted by caring staff, or if not, grow up wild along the parameters of the institution. The latter, while avoiding nearly all human contact, manage to live quite well off the bounty provided in and around the institution dumpsters.

This particular stray, a young tabby by the looks of her, had not grown up wild. She was in fact familiar and comfortable enough around people that the first time we made her acquaintance was when she had taken up position next to our kitchen line early one morning and followed us straight to work as though it were the most natural thing in the world for her to do.

We had only seen her a couple of times since then, and not at all in the last week and a half. There was speculation that she’d been scared off by some dog-loving officer who’d chanced across her path. Worse yet, we wondered if she hadn’t met an all-too-common fate on the busy street in front of the prison. Happily neither misfortune had befallen her.

I watched as our little friend slid her way through a chink in the security fence at the front of the kitchen and proceeded to make her way almost casually to just within ten feet of us. She stood there looking at each one of us expectantly, gave out a single “meow” and sat down, waiting expectantly for what she seemed confident would soon be coming her way.

Now, this is prison, something one does well never to forget. It’s filled to overflow with men who have committed some of the foulest deeds imaginable. Yet, when I went inside to find something suitable for her highness’s palate, guys’ eyes lit up just to hear that she was outside. Smiles broke from ear to ear as a few workers made their way to the cooler looking for milk, left-over fish, or bits of turkey. Several otherwise “hardened criminals” headed straight out the door where their gravely voices could be heard trying as best they could to purr and meow a welcome to our visitor.

I found myself simultaneously amused and touched by the spectacle playing out before me. For several minutes I just stood there, watching as the defenses dropped away and men serving decades behind 20-foot walls secured by armed towers and razor wire forgot all about where they were and did their level best to pamper the closest thing most of them would ever get to owning a pet again.

Once more I was reminded that deep down, even the supposed worst of the worst of us have at least a spark of that incomparable Buddha nature left inside, a spark that no matter how dim it may sometimes appear, can never entirely be extinguished by mere outward circumstances.

In recognizing that moment of Buddha-nature in others I was reminded how all of us, by sharing in that nature, are interconnected with one another in ways that a stone wall can never cut off. Suddenly the constructs were shattered and I felt an affinity toward my fellow workers that hadn’t been there as strongly before.

While it is certainly true that working a job I don’t particularly care for has its challenges, thanks to that job I also find myself in a position where I can better relate to what people in the outside world have to deal with on their jobs every single day. I suppose that coming from me, that’s saying something. Truth be told, I never had a job on the streets. I came into the prison system before I could drive a car, let alone be legally employed.

I have had plenty of jobs on the inside. I have worked everything from the law library to commissary to segregation. To one degree or another I enjoyed all of these jobs. But none of them ever put me in a position where I had to think about things like layoffs, alternative employment, worker exploitation, or unhealthy working conditions.

Now however such concepts aren’t as foreign to me as they once were. In fact they have become something more than mere concepts. They have become firsthand experience that has allowed me a greater degree of understanding and sense of compassion for people who deal with far more difficult circumstances than my own. In America alone there are some 35 million people living on a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Many are forced to work twice the hours I have to. They have no health care insurance coverage or paid sick leave. Yet they continue to struggle from day to day on the bare minimum their jobs allow them in time or money. If I were fired from the kitchen tomorrow and never worked again, I would still get three meals a day and a place to lay my head at night. How many of those 35 million can say the same?

As much as I would like to see my circumstances change for the better I find myself hoping that other people’s circumstances, both on the inside and outside, will improve even more. Strangely, or perhaps naturally enough, the more I hope for others, the less difficult my troubles seem. The perspective has changed.

I don’t know what the solution is for all of IDOC’s problems. Maybe more money would help. Maybe jumping off that proverbial bandwagon and releasing some of those who have already served 20 or 30 years behind bars would do it. From what we hear, a commission is now being established to review and make recommendations concerning the problems facing this prison system where an estimated 500 new lifers and people incarcerated for the long-term will enter it each year. By June of 2007 they will present their recommendations to the governor and his representatives. Perhaps something good will come out of it. Perhaps it’s simply political grandstanding as elections grow near. Time will tell.

Whatever the outcome, all I can personally do from here is deal with my immediate situation openly and honestly, live each moment to the best of my ability, and hope that if it is as I believe and we are truly connected, then even the little I do will have some positive effects on the whole.

After our feline visitor had eaten her fill and everyone else had gone back to what they were doing before, I went inside and decided that since all things are in fact transitory the grease splattered walls around my work area need not stay that way any longer. For the next hour I scrubbed my way through four buckets of bleach water and just as many Brillo pads until I could at least see more wall than stain.

Every day since then I try to do something positive. Sometimes it’s a simple good morning to a supervisor otherwise in a bad mood and looking for someone to take it out on. Other times it is helping out someone overwhelmed by their workload or just offering a guy a cup of coffee who has otherwise gone without for a couple weeks thanks to lockdown. Yesterday I took some stale bread leftover from our breakfast and fed the sparrows.

I doubt that any of my actions will work miracles, but every little bit has to help. It certainly makes waking up to another day in the kitchen more bearable. I still can’t say I enjoy my job but at least I can face it with a bit more optimism and energy. Sometimes that’s the best we can hope for. Sometimes it’s more than enough to see us through.

Incarcerated people

Many incarcerated people from all over the United States correspond with Venerable Thubten Chodron and monastics from Sravasti Abbey. They offer great insights into how they are applying the Dharma and striving to be of benefit to themselves and others in even the most difficult of situations.