“I said a silent prayer, asking for the strength to get through another day of being incarcerated, and climbed down from my steel bunk, ready to navigate the gossip, fighting, and ordinary drama that come with prison life.”
ast food makes its way to a prison slowly, but the rare chance we inmates have to eat burgers and chicken are a reminder of how simple changes in daily routines could make American prisons more humane.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that prisoners need all the salt and fat that makes fast food so hard to resist but, rather, that allowing prisoners a taste of normal life is psychologically healthy.
The story of one recent day in Washington Corrections Center in Shelton demonstrates this.
I woke up that day, as always, looking at the stained concrete walls of my prison cell. I said a silent prayer, asking for the strength to get through another day of being incarcerated, and climbed down from my steel bunk, ready to navigate the gossip, fighting, and ordinary drama that come with prison life. Slipping into my shower shoes, I grabbed my towel, toothbrush, and toothpaste and headed toward the bathroom.
Much of prison life is predictable. That morning, I would expect to see the prisoner Big Mike (yes, the nickname reflects his size) sitting at his table, hunched over a book. Snook, a 75-year-old prisoner who has been incarcerated for more than 50 years, would be lounging in his usual chair. Other prisoners would be sitting lethargically at the steel tables with their earbuds; loud music is a common coping mechanism that helps incarcerated individuals psychologically prepare for another day.
But, as I neared the day room, I heard laughter and vibrant conversations that indicated something was different. One prisoner, who always seemed to have a permanent scowl on his face, walked by me and smiled, with an unusual bounce in his step. Another incarcerated individual was enthusiastically rubbing his hands together, speaking loudly about his anticipation of the afternoon. The prisoner sitting next to him was even more cheerful and animated. The tension that typically defined prison culture seemed to have evaporated.
I was pondering what might have caused the change in mood when I heard one of the prisoners exclaim, “I can’t wait until my chicken gets here!” Then I remembered, it was the day of our fundraiser for the Hispanic cultural group, which meant Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) allows the various cultural groups in our prison to sponsor occasional fundraisers. For these events, prisoners are allowed to purchase outside food, from a list of approved vendors, with DOC approval of inmates’ selections required. The cultural group then determines the markup on each item—very aware that we inmates are paid 42 cents an hour for our labor—and the nonprofit organization that is the beneficiary gets the profit.
Prisoners order their food about a month before the fundraiser meal day. Anticipation builds, and when the food arrives, the effect on the spirits of those incarcerated is obvious. The monotonous and often depressing experience of being locked away from the rest of society can be changed by a piece of chicken, a reminder of what normal life feels like. Even though prisoners are subject to punishment by DOC for sharing their food, prisoners on these days don’t hesitate to share with those who couldn’t afford it, acts of kindness and generosity that are far from routine in prison. Adding to this joy, no doubt, is the break from eating poor quality prison food—the overcooked oatmeal, burned potato squares, and “meat” that most people wouldn’t even feed their pets.
Also important is that the prisoners know that they are making a contribution, however small, to a group in the outside world doing good work. Maybe the food is the primary attraction, but the ability to be a good citizen is part of the joy.
No one would suggest that daily fast food rations would improve prisoners’ physical health. But these special days show how treating prisoners like full members of society, lessening our sense of separation from the outside world, would improve the mental health of prisoners and help reduce conflict and violence. Any way in which life inside can mirror the conditions outside of prison is bound to help prisoners develop the social tools needed for successfully transitioning back to their communities upon release.
There are other examples of how treating prisoners like people pays off. The State of Washington’s prison system holds “Significant Women” events, which gives the incarcerated men a chance to honor the women in their lives (spouses, girlfriends, mothers, and sisters) during a special visitation session. Some normal restrictions governing contact are lifted, allowing families and friends to connect with their incarcerated loved ones with a little less of an institutional feel. (There is also a “Significant Men” event in women’s prisons.) On these days, the prison brings in dress shirts, ties, and jackets, so that the incarcerated men can meet their loved ones not in prison garb but in “normal” clothing.
The criminal justice system needs radical change, from policing to prisons, and I don’t pretend to be an expert. But no expertise was needed that day to see how much we inmates crave not only a piece of chicken but feeling like part of the communities we left.
Antoine E. Davis is serving a 63-year prison sentence in Washington state. After graduating from The Urban Ministry Institute, he received his pastoral license at Freedom Church of Seattle. He is the author of the Building Blocks curriculum, which focuses on helping young community members overcome past and present traumas that lead to destructive behaviors. Davis is working on a book about how the power of faith produces healing for those impacted by trauma. He can be found on X @Antoineedavis