A RARE DAY
Thanksgiving Is Better in Prison, It Turns Out
By the end of Thanksgiving, people of all races would eat together. They would not do so the next day, and never acknowledged that it had happened, but once a year it did.
For all our promises to not talk religion, Republicans or race at the table, too many turkeys are ruined by inevitable, alcohol-fueled arguments. But there is one place in America where Thanksgiving works the way it is supposed to, unifying not just cantankerous generations but warring racial factions; where murderers get along for a day. Thanksgiving in prison brings prisoners together across racial and other lines in a way unthinkable on any other day of the year. They even eat together.
Race relations inside the walls of American prisons, especially the maximum-security kind where many people are never leaving or at least not for decades, are far behind greater society. Becoming prisoners rather than regular people plays its part. The dehumanizing system takes away clothes and hairstyles we had used to express ourselves. We are deprived of the possessions accumulated to claim one’s place on the ladder; even our names are replaced with numbers.
But there was nothing the Department of Corrections could do about our pelts. Bald and naked men still have a race, so the first level of social organization that prisoners filtered themselves through was by skin. There were roughly three categories in New York State, where I did my ten years for armed robbery: black, Hispanic or white, before navigating subtleties of faith, nationality, orientation, origin and class.
It’s been so for a while. Racial discord is a double-edged sword for the administration; while it ensures that the prisoners do not unify and use their greater numbers to seize control, the animus leads to dreadful acts of violence that can make the press and ruin the careers of wardens. However, I suspect the administration would rather have the tension than otherwise. In 1971, when the prisoners of Attica took over the prison and were allowed to speak to the nation through the rolling cameras, the first point they made was that their movement was inclusive of every racial group. The cooperation was so rare and novel that it gave the inmates hope and struck fear into the DOC. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was afraid that the 60s had reached his wards. Shooting came soon after.
Typically, prisoners do not even eat with each other if they are not of the same race. While such segregation is not as strong in the Mediums, where no one is serving more than six years, it is the law in the Maxes. I was told on my first day that if I were to eat with blacks or Puerto Ricans, I couldn’t expect to return to white society. Whom you break bread with is taken quite literally as who you are with, and who is behind you.
After a few years in, I thought I had enough of a rep to slightly test this atavism. I had a Mexican friend who was very popular with the rest of the white guys from the yard. Chino and I worked as porters together, lived next to each other, and had the same sense of humor. I liked his paella and he appreciated my broccoli; we started having our meals in tandem.
For a while it didn’t matter, but then it did. I had an enemy. He’d been in a few years longer than me and was staying for a few more decades. This guy just didn’t like me and was waiting for me to make a mistake. Eating my dinners with Chino turned out to be it. He made a big show of describing my racial betrayal to the other guys on a day I didn’t go outside. It was uncomfortable for everyone, as Chino was friends with many of them independently. And yet I had broken a long-established rule.
Chino offered to go outside and deal with my accuser. I couldn’t accept that, but I did borrow his jagged shard of pointy aluminum. I went to the yard for my “trial” and made sure everyone knew I had the thing in my waistband, just in case. About 25 tough white convicts gave me a chance to convince them why I should not be ostracized from their society.
While in prison logic, violence trumps all, talking was more my style.
In a movie, my character would have made a speech about how such rules are artifacts of a different time, pointing out how each and every one of us had a black friend or Spanish buddy. That we were all men in green, while the enemy was wearing blue. It would have been the dawn of a new era of harmony in the yard.
That wasn’t a movie. I admitted to eating dinners with Chino. My defense was that the block we lived on had only one other white prisoner who wasn’t a sex offender (they don’t count). That particular paleface was my enemy, the very man who brought the charge against me. He had lived there before me, watched me move in, and never even offered me a sandwich. What choice did I have but to eat with Chino, when such a race-traitor like my enemy had treated me so poorly?
I won that day; my accuser was shamed for his terrible hospitality and I was given a pass on my breach of protocol. Chino and I continued to eat together, but when a new whiteboy moved in to the block I made sure to send him a bowl too. Chino understood; he had his own obligations to the other Mexicans there and they often ate my broccoli when he brought them little bribes to ignore his friendship with a guero. Chino served his 20 years and died the year he was released, while my enemy is still in, doing 34 to life for his father and his father’s girlfriend. Parole will be a problem for him.
I got out in 2014 after 11 Thanksgivings behind the wall. It could have been two more, but I was granted “good time” for my mediocre behavior.
The state offered the same holiday meal every year, three slices of turkey roll and some other stuff that sounds good on paper and is inedible in person. Those meals were not looked forward to by anyone, since everyone expected to eat much better later on. Thanksgiving is the day that prisoners cook as well and as much as they can. In the Maxes, men locked in their own cells are each responsible for a portion of a meal, which is then combined by the porters who can run between cells. In Mediums, two communal microwaves serve 60-man dormitories; on Thanksgiving the machines run from before sunrise. Men assemble cooking teams segregated by race; the big three are ubiquitous, but I’ve also seen Native Americans, Asians and Jews work together to make meals. The feasts are big; prisoners save up in preparation, start working early, share ‘kitchen’ time by scheduling shifts, and massively over-cook. Making too much food is a big part of the celebration and no accident.
There is an element of friendly competition to this, as food is money inside and the consumption of it is a way of showing one’s wealth. That spur to make more than necessary benefits all. Men who cannot afford to contribute also eat; sometimes for doing the dishes, sometimes not. More importantly, as the day proceeds, the usual barriers drop and food is shared. I looked forward every year for my chance to eat soul food that was normally forbidden to me. The white groups ordered expensive smoked meats that everyone else wanted to try and did, and the Hispanics made the painstaking-to-prepare bacalaitos, fried patties of reconstituted cod fish. By the end of Thanksgiving, people from all races would eat together. They would not do so the next day, and never acknowledged that it had happened, but once a year it did.
The state-supplied meals were not horrible, just not holiday food. They felt like a reminder that we had lost our real Thanksgivings. But the hard work, expense and cooperation of the prisoners reversed that sensation and made Thanksgiving very special.
Christmas didn’t function that way; too many people couldn’t celebrate it because of their recent conversions to Islam or painful associations with family gatherings they were missing. New Year’s was the day everyone tried to get stoned. Easter was barely there; Columbus, Memorial, Labor and Independence days were uniformly two hot dogs and hamburgers. Strangely, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was not marked at all, while St. Patrick’s meant corned beef.
Thanksgiving was the rare time when no one could say it was just another day in prison. When I hear about the familial arguments free people experience over their turkeys, I wish I could convey the enormous racial segregation that the convicts overcame of their own volition as an example that we can be better, at least for a day.