I was overseas this week screening my film Jesus Politics, when I received an unexpected letter from Mark. The entire Texas prison system is under “lockdown,” after a death row inmate made a threatening telephone call to a state senator using a contraband telephone, allegedly smuggled into prison by a guard who was bribed.
What was more alarming to me was Mark’s description of what a “lockdown” means, which he describes in his current bog. He had already mentioned in a past letter to me, that at times like this prisoners are fed “Johnny sacks,” (cold food) such as when the electricity was down because of the impact of Hurricane IKE. I learned that “Johnny Sacks” consist of primarily cold sandwiches – typically peanut butter sandwiches. In his current letter Mark’s claims that, although the press is reporting that the lockdown began around October 21st, they have been in this state since October 13th. His letter also describes a new type of sandwich: “…three pancakes and two slices of bread with nothing on it.”
Twelve days is an awful long time to eat dry “pancake sandwiches” I thought to myself. So we decided to investigate. Jason Clark, the Public Information Officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said Mark ‘s description of pancake sandwiches did not sound accurate, but he confirmed that inmates are being fed “Johnny sacks,” which could include peanut butter sandwiches. And yes, they could be getting these sandwiches three times a day. The reason, according to Clark, is that inmates typically cook the meals, but as they are also in lock down, everyone will most likely receive these Johnny sacks until the lock down ends, as long two to three weeks, the time needed to search individual cells in a statewide system that holds some 156,000 inmates.
That potentially amounts to a month of peanut butter sandwiches three times a day, possibly with periodic variety of dry pancakes with two slices of bread. And this is the diet of 156,000 human beings who presumably are locked up 23 hours of each day. ( Mark claims that during “lock up” there is no recreation hour so he is actually locked for 24 hours a day) What is the health risk of eating this kind of a diet for a month? I went online to find out. A nurse from an Internet medical site answered me:
Hi Ilan Ziv:
My name is Sarah and I have worked in the Texas and New Mexico prison system for about seven years. That being said, I can confidently tell you they also receive a fruit like an orange or apple with their lunch and dinner sacks. It’s not the best tasting but it will pass regulations. That being said, as long as there are no medical conditions that require a special diet there really should not be any health implications. Aside from maybe weight loss.”
Now I get it! An orange or apple with the peanut butter sandwich (albeit only with lunch and dinner) “will pass regulations” and might add those necessary vitamins that will avoid more serious health issues, i.e. more serious than weight loss. She also said the inmates still received their one-hour of recreation in an enclosed space within the pod of cells. I fired a letter to Mark to see whether he could confirm the nurse’s claims. Here’s his response:
“Hell no we don’t get any juice or drinks. No fruit or recreation. The nurse is wrong!”
The reason I have become so obsessed with apples, oranges and peanut butter sandwiches is because this whole absurd discussion is only a metaphor to how low we, as a society, have sunk. In an editorial entitled, “The California Prison Disaster,” published on Saturday Oct 27th in The New York Times, the writer points to the root of the problem – money:
“The mass imprisonment philosophy that has packed prisons and sent corrections costs through the roof around the country has hit especially hard in California, which has the largest prison population, the highest recidivism rate and a prison budget raging out of control.”
Sky-rocketing costs probably contribute to providing peanut butter sandwiches, without leaving much room in the budget for more humane meal alternatives when a prison is locked down.
I guess once we accept the logic that we can execute prisoners, a daily diet that is imposed from time to time and consists of peanut butter sandwiches three times a day (and occasionally some other cold sandwich) is indeed no big deal. Who cares? On death row, at least, they are all going to be killed anyway.