Post # 149
1300 words; 5 minutes to read
The previous post talked about some important aspects of life in a federal assessment unit, including learning the rules, mail, TV, and the telephone. This post discusses food and canteen.
In the constrained environment of prison, very small things take on great importance. One of these is the food. In the assessment unit hot meals were delivered from the central kitchen, which was mostly staffed by prisoners, to each range twice a day – in our case, around 11 AM and 3:30 PM, give or take 15-30 minutes.
Well before this time, prisoners would start lining up the hall, holding what we needed to eat – our plastic plate, cup and utensils, and things from our cells we might want at the meal, such as bread or sugar or perhaps some fruit we had saved from before. When the cart with the food appeared, someone would yell ‘Wagon up’, the signal for all prisoners that it was meal time.
Three or four prisoners were in charge of distributing the food in the common room; this was a privilege that the more senior prisoners gave themselves or others on the range – because those distributing the food tended to get more themselves. We got our food doled out and sat at one of the tables in the common room to eat. Mostly people sat at the same spots for every meal, though occasionally someone would move around.
Poor quality meals
Meals followed a four week rotating schedule. I would describe the food as mediocre at best. CSC had to absorb very large budget cuts in the last years of the Harper government, and food was one of the areas badly affected, as reported by the Correctional Investigator. The quality of the meals had, inevitably, declined. Indeed, the quality of food was one of the prime causes of the riot in 2016 in the Saskatchewan penitentiary.
Most jails used to have their own kitchens, staffed mostly by prisoners, but to save money the system was moving to centrally supplied, flash frozen meals for all the Kingston area jails. But just as importantly, the system scrimped on quality and quantity of ingredients. An example was the move, announced in a self-congratulatory press release by the federal government , from fresh to powdered milk, which was supposed to save about $3 million per year in a budget of more than $2 billion.
During my time on the assessment unit most of the meals were not awful, though there were a couple I and many others found inedible, notably those involving baked fish. Despite what is sometimes written in the media about prisoners getting ‘three square meals a day for free, not one of the meals I had in 77 days would reach the standard anyone would expect or accept even in a very cheap restaurant.
Meets standards but not good
I’m sure that the meal plan was designed by a dietitian to meet the Canada Health standards; the food was low on salt and sugar, for example. But it was definitely low on taste also. Sometimes food was spoiled when we got it – for example inedible, rotting lettuce or moldy bread. Meals also had very few fresh vegetables; the salad was regularly of very poor quality, and the ‘spinach salad’ consisted entirely of large whole leaves of spinach. Cooked vegetables tended to be badly overcooked. There was fresh fruit daily – apples, bananas and melons, but never any citrus (apparently because it can be used to make alcohol) or grapes, let alone things like kiwi or pineapple. Once during the summer we were served ice cream, which I remember as being extraordinarily delicious – probably because I hadn’t had any for so long. People would regularly trade food as well while waiting in line – for example offering their fruit for extra French fries.
Beyond the two hot meals, we were given supplies for food for other times of the day. At each afternoon meal we were also give something for the next day’s breakfast. Most often this was bread and hard boiled eggs, but sometimes it was waffles for toasting or a kind of oatmeal cake. We were also given small servings of peanut butter and jam, which could be used for snacks, along with any extra food we did not eat at the meals or the fruit that came with them. We were given a helping of instant coffee and a few tea bags each week, and also small rations of cereal such as cornflakes (I used to snack on the cornflakes in the evenings as if they were potato chips) and rice cereal that we could eat with the reconstituted powdered milk that was in the milk dispenser in the common room.
For someone like me there was plenty of food, even if the overall quality was not great and there were not nearly enough fresh vegetables and fruit. However some prisoners disliked much of the regular food and relied heavily on what they could buy through the canteen; for example, one of my cellies subsisted largely on peanut butter and on the ramen noodle packages he bought from the canteen.
The canteen was a very important aspect of life in the assessment unit. Things you could buy on the federal canteen, if you had the money to pay, included supplementary foods such as ramen or tins of tuna, treats such as potato chips or pop or chocolate bars or candy, writing supplies and stamps, and hygiene items such as shampoo, and better quality toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap or deodorant. (More about money in a future post.) In my unit we got to order canteen every second weeks. We would get order forms on Friday and hand them in on Monday. Our orders would then arrive sometime later that week – anywhere from Tuesday to Friday. In the federal system the canteens are run by inmates, who keep the profits for general welfare purposes; in the Ontario provincial system the canteen is contracted to a private company.
Ordering canteen was a source both of great expectation and often of great frustration. There was endless discussion about what people had ordered or were going to order, and what they actually got. Sometimes prisoners had no money so borrowed from others, who would order for them to be repaid later. There was much speculation about what day the order would arrive, and some people seemed to spend hours looking out the window to spot the cart with all the orders coming across the courtyard. Yet after all that anticipation, it seemed that week after week virtually nobody actually got everything they ordered. Some weeks the canteen might be out of a particular kind of potato chip or chocolate bar, for example, and would either give you something else that you didn’t want, or nothing at all.
It also seemed that if you ordered a lot of anything, there was a good chance you wouldn’t get any. One of my friends wrote a lot of letters, so regularly tried to order 20 or more stamps, yet several times got no stamps at all, while I, who typically ordered 6 or 8 stamps each time, always got them. Another person liked Coke and tried to order 24 at a time, but sometimes got 10 or 12, or even none, or perhaps another brand instead of Coke, whereas I always got my 3 or 4 Cokes. And needless to say, there was never any explanation as to why something was or was not received. The prisoners who brought the orders would say when asked that they had nothing to do with the packing and couldn’t answer any questions about mistakes, though at least your account was not charged for goods you did not receive.
More posts to follow.