The Recipes I Use to De-Escalate Violence in Prison

    In 2015 I was transferred to West Tennessee State Penitentiary, a prison with a reputation for violence. My new cellie was a gang enforcer. Meanwhile I had never been in a fight.

    That first night was very intimidating. My only tools were a couple of packs of mustard, crackers and summer sausages left over from the chain bus. I quietly arranged plate of crackers, each with a slice of sausage and garnished with mustard. I held it out to my cellie and said, Here, I made us some snacks.

    At first he didn’t know how to respond to that, but we ended up eating crackers and talking the rest of the night. The next day, his gang was involved in a major fight. Shortly before it started he came back to the cell and told me, Stay here. You’ll be alright.

    Food can be a form of violence harm reduction in prison.

    I’m not a fighter. But I do love to eat. In every prison I’ve been in over the course of 28 years incarcerated, food has been my way of becoming valuable to those who might otherwise be more inclined to harm me. And over the years, it’s become a way for me to not just defuse threats to my own safety, but also the safety of neighbors, many of whom are also older, queer or otherwise especially vulnerable. Food can be a form of violence harm reduction here.

    I’ve hosted many conflict-resolution meetings to which I lured both parties with promises of food. I tell them I’m not going to try to change their opinion, I’m just going to facilitate and they can each say their piece, but first we’ll have some food.

    People lower their defenses when they’re eating. They allow themselves to be more vulnerable. They also tend to listen better when their mouths are full. Food can be an equalizer in prison. We all have to eat, and we all appreciate something that has actual flavor, which is not typically anything you’ll find on the trays in the chow hall.

    It’s hard to make a tray of shit taste like food. But with food items you can afford to buy at commissary, or from kitchen workers hustling them out on the side, you can then get creative with the microwave in the day room.

    A good hustler can smuggle out cabbage, carrots, onions, celery, rice, instant potatoes, oatmeal and the like to willing buyers, usually for around $1 to $3 per item. Or rather, the equivalent value in commissary items, since those of us fortunate enough to have jobs only make a few cents per hour, and thus USD is a currency that’s hard to come by.

    I was a decent cook before prison. After I began my sentence, it didn’t take me long to begin experimenting. These are a few favorites that are also relatively accessible and don’t require you to have a lot of money, since none of us really has the means to buy as much commissary as we actually need to eat well on a regular basis.


    Microwave Cabbage

    I use a plastic calculator to roughly chop the cabbage. In a large microwave bowl, I’ll mix one pack of seasoning from a beef ramen noodle cup with three tablespoons of water. Then add the cabbage on top. Cover tightly with a garbage bag, or plastic wrap if I have it. Microwave 12 minutes. Uncover and stir in butter, salt, pepper or whatever other seasoning might be available.


    Microwave Carrots

    Raw carrots are almost impossible to chop without real utensils, so I break them in half and microwave them in a quarter-inch of water for six minutes, covered with a garbage bag or plastic wrap. Once steamed, they can be rinsed in cold water and easily cut up however you like. Put them back in the bowl but with no water this time, and cover with butter, a few sugar packets, salt and pepper. Cover with plastic, microwave six more minutes.


    Tuna Patties

    This calls for two packs of tuna and a sleeve’s worth of crushed-up crackers, though chips will also work. Add three-quarters of a cup of mayo, three squirts of ketchup of hot sauce, and additional seasoning if you have it (garlic powder; onion powder; pepper flakes). Form into patties and place in a well-buttered microwave dish. Cook uncovered for four minutes; turn; cook for three more minutes. They’re great with rice, if you have it.


    Prison Fruit Cake

    Begin with one box of oatmeal pies, crumbled up. Add half a cup of peanut butter, one pack of trail mix and one pack instant oatmeal. Add half a cup of liquid milk if you have the powdered milk to prepare it form, or make the equivalent from water and creamer. I like to add raisins borrowed from the Raisin Bran cereal. Cook uncovered for three minutes, until the center feels firm. Then flip it out onto the lid. For a glaze, mix two tablespoons jelly with one tablespoon butter, nuke it enough to melt, then drizzle.


    Time and again, I’ve de-escalated conflict through a trusty recipe. I’ve found this a much more appealing option than picking up a shank and sinking my opinion into someone. But more than just decreasing conflict, a meal that has been prepared with care—and seasoning—helps restore the humanity that is chipped away by each pile of slop we’re handed in the chow hall. I’ve been served trays of prison food containing everything from rat turds to used Band-Aids.

    The food we make for our fellow prisoners provides a framework for living in community, as it does on the outside. We bring food to new neighbors to welcome them and introduce ourselves. We share meals with those we know well or want to know better. We share how our day went, the good parts and the bad. We remind each other we’re human.



    Cropped photograph via Office of the Corrections Ombuds

    • Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He’s also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.


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