Prison Chow

Robin Ledbetter, author of one of CLCM’s most moving blog entries as of late – “Laying Roots”, is an inmate in Niantic, CT. This piece was written in response to an assignment to discuss prison chow. Robin writes, “most of the women wrote about receipts, but I wrote about a sad revelation I had early in my incarceration.”

I squeeze my eyes shut and try to calm my racing heart. Listening to it slow in my ears, I crack my eyes a little. I was startled out of my sleep by the slamming of a metal trap door. There is one cut into each cell door in the restrictive housing unit. That slot is the gateway to any and everything we need. I don’t think I will ever get used to that sound.

I have been in restrictive housing for a little over a month now and in prison for close to three. I was sent to restrictive housing for assaulting an officer who called me a bitch while breaking up a fight between me and another inmate.

Prison is bad but the restrictive housing unit or “seg,” short for segregation, is worse. If you live on what is referred to as the “max side” of RHU you are considered the worst of the worst.

I yawn and stretch. I sniff under my arms and wrinkle my nose at the smell. We are allowed a shower only three times a week and during the shower, you are handcuffed in the front. Being permitted outside your room without handcuffs is considered a violation of safety and security. Showering is considered a privilege, so if they don’t feel like running showers, or one person upsets a guard, then the whole tier goes without bathing. Which, on our last shower day, is exactly what happened. It has now been five days since I have bathed. I have tried to freshen up, but it’s hard. On the max side you don’t get proper running water. What you do have is a metal sink/toilet combination. The sink is basically a water fountain; the stream of water is so weak that you have to press your mouth to it and suck the water from the pipe. I refuse to do that and my lips are slitting and painful as a result.

I lay on the slate of metal they call a bed, depressed. Being forced to neglect my hygiene is one of the hardest challenges I have faced in my bid.

My trap slams open.

“Breakfast, Ledbetter!” The guard yells into my cell tapping his key on the metal door.

“I don’t want it.” I grumble back. The trap slams shut again. My door was the last one on his tour, so seconds later I hear the tier door slam shut.

“Robin! Why you ain’t eat yo breakfast?” Gina yells from her cell to mine.

“You know I don’t eat that shit!” I yell back.

“Tell him to give it to me.”

“He gone. Damn, Gina, you so greedy!”

She wasn’t really. Another form of suffering they infect you with in the big house is starvation. The food is disgusting and if you do get used to it, and manage to choke it down, they barely give you enough to sustain you. No matter how hard I tired, I couldn’t stomach the majority of the stuff they served. I’ve lost a significant amount of weight since being in RHU, but I’m not sure exactly how much. All my baby fat has been replaced with ribs and thinning limbs. On the regular compound you are allowed to buy commissary, but in restrictive housing you aren’t. Almost every night Gina and I lay on our beds, talking about all the different foods we want to eat.

“Robin, happy Fourth of July!” Gina yells again. Her cell is on the bottom tier. Her voice carries through the vent so clearly that it’s like we’re in the same room. Every room on the max side is connected like this. It’s our only way of communicating because all the cells here are singles.

My heart fluttered a little bit because I had forgotten that today was the fourth and from what I’d heard, it was a good day in prison chow. It would be my first, and I was looking forward to it. We don’t have much to look forward to in here. But, this was one thing.

I jumped out of my bed, then, and starting doing a little Fourth of July dance. I shuffled my feet and flailed my arms.

“Robin, what you doin’ up there?”

“I’m doing my Independence Day dance!” I laughed.

I lay on the floor of my cell and yelled under the door: “Happy Fourth of July! On the menu for today: hamburgers, hot dogs, salad, watermelon, ice cream sandwiches!”

I heard a few grumbling responses, but I wasn’t satisfied. I started banging on the door as hard as I could.

“Wake up! We gonna eat good today!”

I could hear Gina banging and yelling below me. I liked Gina a lot. She was my only friend and we talked and laughed all day, every day. I met her when they moved her downstairs. She’d moved because she had broken the light switch in another cell in an attempt to electrocute herself. She was an alcoholic and said she’d rather die than live without drinking. She had a few more comical attempts at suicide – like the time she drank twenty bottles of nonalcoholic mouthwash – before she gave up and got an AA book.

I was excited for the fourth because I hadn’t had a decent meal since I got here. At fifteen I was dealing with a lot and took it all like a trooper. I hadn’t cried once since being here. I hadn’t seen my family, spoken to my family, smelled fresh air, or gone two feet away from my cell without being handcuffed. The guards berated us regularly, but I dealt with it. There were a lot of bad days, but nothing was going to steal the bit of joy that this day would bring.

The morning passed quickly. Gina and I sang Yankee Doodle, the Star Spangled Banner, and found things to laugh about.

Around 11 o’clock I heard the tier door open and the unmistakable sound of the first trap opening.

“Gina, lunch is here!” I screamed with excitement.

The anticipation was killing me. I danced around the room, waiting for my tray. Finally my trap opened, I grabbed my tray, and sat on my bed.

When I opened the tray it didn’t have the ice cream sandwich or the watermelon; I was disappointed, but I was all right. I had high hopes thinking we’d get that in RHU. I was just happy to have an actual hamburger and hot dog bun. I sat the tray down on my bed and picked up the food; my mood hadn’t deflated in the slightest. I raised the hot dog, and noticed one whole side of the bun was green.

I sat there for a minute, processing. I know someone saw this – you couldn’t miss it. And still they put it in the tray and sent it off to be fed to whoever received it. Then, for the first time since I came to prison, I cried. I wailed. I screamed. I yelled. I kicked and punched the door. I tore up my bed and stomped the tray. I didn’t cry when I was arrested, I didn’t cry when my lawyer told me that they were offering me no less than forty years at the age of fourteen. I didn’t cry when I walked into this prison, was strip-searched for the first time, and was told by the female guard to spread until she saw pink.

All these things showed me how low I was, and so much more, but I finally realized at this moment where I was, and that I was no longer considered a human being. Now, I was an animal, worthy of the worst treatment and the most putrid food. I am an animal. Who knew prison chow could make you have such a revelation?


6 thoughts on “Prison Chow

  1. Robin, Unless we hear stories like yours’ we don’t really know what it’s like for those of you on the “inside” and we need to know what it’s like. Thank you for your writing — I can see that green hotdog bun so clearly. It makes me sad to think you probably have no way of responding to these posts.


  2. What a talented writer! I am deeply moved by this story. You’re writing allowed me to see every image you described, feel every emotion you felt and I can nearly smell the food. I am appalled, ashamed and angry at the country we live in, or rather the world we live in. No matter one’s past, everyone deserves some compassion. At least the decency of humaine treatment, the basics such as food should never have to be questioned especially not when living in one of the most powerful countries of the world.

    I admire your strength as a person and as a woman. Not breaking down when things get bad, allowing yourself to grieve and cry when they do become overwhelming and then being able to write about your experience so eloquently is power. Never allow ‘them’ to break your spirit or mind. ‘They’ cannot steal your thoughts and intelligence. I am truly grateful to have read this story as it gives me further fuel and inspiration to do my part in social justice and I hope it does so for many others as well.

  3. Damn Robin I am sorry what a waste they have done to you truly not justice I haver not forgotten about you. All these years I still think of you from time to time and what a waste I know it is. keep making yourself known.

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